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22 Oct 2002 : Column 112—continued


The Advocate-General was asked—

Human Rights

24. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What human rights issues she has dealt with since 9 July. [73597]

The Advocate-General (Dr. Lynda Clark): Last week, I appeared in the Privy Council in the case of R v. Her Majesty's Advocate. The case raises important issues, such as the interpretation and effect of article 6 in so far as it deals with the right to have a trial determined within a reasonable time, and its relationship with the Scotland Act 1998. In addition, I have dealt with more than 60 new cases, which have been intimated to me as devolution issues alleging various breaches of convention rights.

Mr. Dalyell : In view of the fact that the distinguished Glasgow solicitor, Eddie McKechnie, has taken the case of his client in Barlinnie to the European Court of Human Rights, what is the role of the Westminster Parliament in the Lockerbie case now?

The Advocate-General: There is a special procedure whereby the registry of the European Court of Human Rights would, if it thought fit, in due course make communication to the UK Government in relation to the Lockerbie case, but unless and until such communication is made there is no role for the UK Government.

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Trident Fishing Boat Inquiry

25. Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): What her role has been in the re-opened inquiry into the loss of the fishing boat, Trident; and if she will make a statement. [73598]

The Advocate-General: I requested and arranged a preliminary meeting of potential parties to the rehearing and their representatives, which took place before the Sheriff Principal at Aberdeen sheriff court on 27 September. I appeared personally to deal with the wide range of preliminary issues. As the hon. Gentleman may recall, I had previously met him in his role as constituency MP and one of the relatives on 25 April, at which time I explained my role and the general procedure that regulates such inquiries.

Mr. Salmond : I thank the Advocate-General for her consideration in meeting the relatives with me. As she is well aware, they have waited a quarter of a century to find out what happened to their loved ones in the loss of the fishing boat, Trident. Can she therefore give an assurance, first, that, in so far as it falls within her responsibilities, there will be no unnecessary delays in the inquiry process, and secondly, that the families will have proper legal representation throughout the process through public funds?

The Advocate-General: A vast amount of the delay was caused by the fact that the fishing boat in question was not discovered until relatively recently. So far as it is within my power, I shall certainly do as much as I can to expedite the process. The hon. Gentleman is aware that it involves highly technical work, which is dependent on the seas and the weather, so there will inevitably be further delays.

Legal expenses and representation is a matter for the Department for Transport, but the matter was raised formally at the preliminary inquiry and it is always open to parties to make representations directly to the Department.


26. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What devolution issues have been raised with her since 10 July. [73599]

27. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What devolution issues have been raised with her since 9 July under the Scotland Act 1998. [73602]

The Advocate-General: Since 9 July 2002, 67 devolution issue cases have been intimated to me; all but three related to criminal matters, such as the right to a fair trial, the right to silence and undue delay in trial. Of the three civil matters intimated, two concerned professional disciplinary bodies and the right to a fair hearing before them. The third related to planning law.

Annabelle Ewing : As the Advocate-General has explained on a number of occasions in the House that a key reason for her limited number of interventions in devolution cases is the desire to save the taxpayer money,

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can she confirm the total cost of her interventions to date, and the percentage that it represents of the total cost of her office since its inception?

The Advocate-General: I do not think that I said that cost was a key issue, although it is certainly important. When I handle cases personally—I do so whenever I can—a substantial saving is made, but I regret that the figures for which the hon. Lady asks are not available.

Miss McIntosh: May I say what a pleasure it is to see the hon. and learned Lady in her place? Has she yet had occasion to give advice on the following scenario? The making of an application to extend a Scottish airport would be a reserved matter, whereas planning remains a devolved matter. Which jurisdiction would have the final decision?

The Advocate-General: I am always delighted to see the hon. Lady and I am glad to see that she, too, is still in her place. As I hope she knows, I always try to give her as much assistance as I can, but I regret that I must invoke the parliamentary convention that Law Officers have followed in the House for many years under different Administrations. I am afraid that it is not possible for me to give advice to the House about the various issues that I may or may not have considered.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Court Proceedings

28. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): How many (a) lawyers and (b) others were held to be in contempt of court for delaying court proceedings in the last year for which records are available; and if he will make a statement. [73604]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): The Lord Chancellor's Department does not collate the requested information, but I am informed by the Bar Council and the Law Society that it is rare for lawyers to be held in contempt of court, but that where they are informed of cases, they can pursue disciplinary action. We are looking at new measures to reduce unnecessary delays in the courts.

Mr. Allen : I congratulate my hon. Friend and her Department on their input into the criminal justice White Paper, which will be a great step forward for many people, especially in my constituency, who need the nuts and bolts of the criminal justice system to be attended to. Before the proposals are considered in Committee, will she meet Inspectors Emmott, Wilson, Windmill-Jones and Whitmore from my constituency and hear their frustration about some of the difficulties that they encounter when witnesses are intimidated by yobs, youths and others in the constituency and fail to attend court? Will she talk to those people and listen to their concern that certain defence lawyers—not many, but significant numbers—abuse the system? Will she

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also consider using contempt of court and waiting cost orders to a greater degree in the Criminal Justice Bill when it finally comes before the House?

Yvette Cooper: I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend and any delegation that he chooses to bring from his constituency to discuss the issues. He is right that there can be immense frustration among victims and witnesses when court cases do not go ahead on the day for which they are scheduled for trial. About 24 per cent. of trials do not proceed on the scheduled day, compared with 28 per cent. in 1997, so progress has been made but we need to go further. That is why we are considering a series of measures, including different incentives and sanctions for those involved in the process.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Delays and adjournments are not entirely the responsibility of defence lawyers. In magistrates courts, they are often due to the distances between courts following closures or the lack of availability of solicitors in criminal practice. May I make a positive suggestion to the hon. Lady? Will she consider applying a new rule to the Crown Prosecution Service requiring that all cases be prepared at least 36 hours before the listing of a case? Such a rule would ensure that all parties can be advised in due time if difficulties arise and that a costly adjournment that is pointless to everybody concerned can be avoided.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right that there are a series of reasons why cases do not proceed on the scheduled day, including the failure of witnesses and defendants to show up. About 6 per cent. of trials in 2001 did not go ahead on the scheduled day because either the prosecution or the defence said that they were not ready on the day. We are considering a series of ways of improving case preparation, involving judges, lawyers and other court users. Part of the issue is that nobody takes responsibility when the case does not go ahead on the day. We need to specify who is responsible in what circumstances and what the different sanctions or incentives might be when something goes wrong. That is what the case preparation project is dealing with and I shall certainly take on board the points that he made.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): We have not mentioned one matter: the cover-up in the courts, to which we cannot refer in the House of Commons. Under the contempt rule, we cannot draw attention to cases that have been delayed by wealthy, greedy barristers who cannot agree their diaries. Cases have been drawn to my attention that I cannot mention on the Floor of the House because of our arcane contempt rules. Will the Minister go to the relevant file and discuss with the House authorities whether, without trespassing into the substance of criminal cases, we can, as custodians of the public purse, at least draw attention to the fact that the legal brethren are manipulating their diaries and maximising their profits and earnings at the expense of justice delayed?

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Yvette Cooper: I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend's points. Anxieties have been raised. For example, last year's Audit Commission report stated that

We are keen to consider such matters as part of the case preparation project. There is a series of different issues involving the courts, the police and other players. However, I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's points.

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