Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary information given by the Lord Chancellor relating to his evidence of 16 October

  I refer to your letter of 19 October 2001, addressed to my Parliamentary Clerk. I will deal with the points raised in that letter in the order that they appear there.

  Tom Watson suggested during the hearing that trade unions are at a financial disadvantage when recovering costs from losing opponents. This is a misreading of the changes which took place in April 2000, and which had the effect of granting additional benefits to trade unions and other approved membership organisations.

  There are, in essence, two types of litigation insurance: before the event insurance (BEI) and after the event insurance (AEI). BEI policies cover costs in the event of litigation. AEI policies are taken out to cover a case that has already arisen. The general policy under the Access to Justice Act 1999 is that AEI premiums are recoverable while BEI are not. It is open to trade unions to purchase AEI on behalf of their clients and recover the premiums.

  In addition, and as a special dispensation to trade unions and other membership organisations who self insure under what are essentially BEI arrangements, they may recover a notional premium, although it is limited to insurance against the other side's costs only (whereas recoverable AEI premiums may cover both side's costs). Trade unions thus already enjoy an advantageous position and it should be noted that this exception to the general rule was drafted in close co-operation with trade union legal advisors.

  Bridget Prentice asked me to comment on figures pointing to a 5 per cent decline in the total number of magistrates during the year up to April 2001. The figures for magistrates that Bridget referred to included the Duchy of Lancaster. Therefore the figures I give are a combination of figures from my Department and the Duchy of Lancaster. The total number of magistrates is indeed down on last year. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I now have a computer database which provides accurate figures for the first time. The old manual system simply involved adding on new appointments and taking away the number of resignations, retirements and deaths and, over the years, errors had crept in. Also the validation of the data brought to light a number of people who had resigned or retired but who were still recorded as active on the manual system. No count was kept of these but I would estimate that these amounted to some 200 or 300.

  Secondly, more magistrates were lost than were appointed last year. My Annual Report to Parliament has not yet been published but I can tell you that 2,638 magistrates were lost through resignations, retirements or death last year compared to 1,618 new appointments. The number of retirements and deaths remained much the same as last year but the number of resignations increased by about 600. This may have been due to the amount of criticism aimed at the lay magistracy from various quarters, to concern over the future of the magistracy or, in some cases, to discontent at the amount of training following the introduction of the Magistrates' New Training Initiative. Only 45 magistrates resigned as a result of the training required prior to the introduction of the Human Rights Act.

  The number of appointments is 125 down on last year but as you say, it is in line with the rate of appointment over the last seven years. There is always a time lag between resignations and appointing people to fill the resulting vacancies because they are usually unexpected and cannot be planned for when estimating recruitment needs for the year. However, I would hope that most, if not all, of these vacancies can be filled in the coming year. My Advisory Committees continue to undertake a range of initiatives to recruit people to be magistrates and in most areas there is no particular problem in attracting enough candidates to replace those who resign or retire. Last year some 6,000 people applied to be magistrates.

  The figures for both resignations and appointments fluctuate from year to year and it would be wrong to draw conclusions from a single year's figures but I will check the figures in April 2002 to see if a trend is developing.

  I attach a table showing the figures you asked for on those leaving the magistracy in the last three years.

  I agreed to clarify the position in respect of waiting times in the Crown Court. The Crown Court received 91,110 committals for trial in 1997, compared with 71,022 in 2000. The main reason for this difference was the introduction of "plea before venue" in the magistrates' courts, whereby the magistrates take the plea before deciding whether to accept jurisdiction for each case. This has reduced the number of cases committed for trial to the Crown Court but led to an increase in the number of committals for sentence—from 14,871 in 1997 to 27,951 in 2000.

  Waiting times in the Crown Court have increased over the same period. In 2000, the average waiting time for committals for trial was 14.2 weeks, compared with 12 weeks in 1997. The legislative changes implementing the Narey reforms mean that many of the cases where the defendant would previously have pleaded guilty after committal for trial to the Crown Court are instead committed there for sentence. As trials take on average nine times longer to deal with than guilty pleas, the removal of these short cases from the committals for trial statistics has had a negative effect on waiting times.

  As I explained when we met, another factor that is affecting Crown Court performance is the recent introduction of section 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998; whereby indictable-only cases are sent to the Crown Court immediately after the first hearing in the magistrates' court. This means that cases are received in the Crown Court at a much earlier stage than before and due to the time taken to prepare the cases (which would previously have counted against time spent in the magistrates court) the time prior to find in the Crown Court is inflated. My officials will continue to monitor the situation closely as the legislative changes bed down.

  I should also like to resolve a definitional confusion relating to the figures quoted in paragraphs 103 to 109 of the transcript. Towards the end of paragraph 103 I referred to waiting times in the magistrates' courts having reduced since I became Lord Chancellor in 1997. The figures I quoted referred to the average time from charge or laying of information to completion for defendants in indictable and triable either way cases which fell from 88 days in June 1997 to 63 days in June 2001.

  The figures which you quote for "case duration" in paragraph 105 seem to have been taken from table 1 of the Time Intervals Survey bulletin for September 2000 and refer to the average time from first court listing to completion for defendants in all criminal cases. Assuming that to be the case, the incorrect figure for (September) 2000 has been extracted. For direct comparability with the earlier figures quoted, the September 2000 (old basis) should have been taken rather than that for the "new basis"—in other words, 29 instead of 32 days. This means that there has indeed been a downward trend in the average duration of cases in the magistrates' courts, from 35 days in 1997 to 31 and 29 days in 1999 and 2000 respectively.

  Finally, I turn to David Winnick's question about whether an applicant for judicial office would still be appointed if they declined to state whether or not they were a freemason on the application form.

  The position is that those being appointed for the first time, either to a part-time or full-time office, in the professional judiciary are required as a condition of appointment to disclose whether or not they are a freemason at the stage when they are offered the appointment. The question of an appointment not being made because an individual has refused to make such a declaration has not arisen to date. The position for the lay magistracy is slightly different in that applicants are required to declare their Masonic status when they apply for appointment.

26 October 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 10 December 2001