Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Garnier: I agree with the conclusion reached by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). I am only sorry that the English equivalent, the stipendiary magistrates, did not take a similar view. When we were debating the equivalent clauses of the Bill that became the Access to Justice Act 1999, we all knew what a stipendiary magistrate was. They knew what they were, and they and the legal profession knew what their job was, and there seemed to be no need to change a familiar and understandable job description—or, to use the nomenclature of the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, there was no need to change it at all.

I was about to go into battle on behalf of the stipendiary magistrates when I was told that they wanted to change their name, so for once, the wind was taken out of my sails. They wanted to be called

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district judges because they wanted to be able to say that were members of the judiciary; they did not want to be confused—no one I know would ever have confused them—with what they thought of as ordinary lay magistrates. They now have what they want, and I am sure that they will greatly enjoy the change of name.

One of my colleagues at the Bar rather waggishly thought that Queen's bench masters who work in a long corridor in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand had put it about that they wanted now to be called ''corridor judges'' because they, too, could enjoy the excitement of being members of the judiciary. However, it turned out to be a little joke. It seems that Queen's bench masters are happy to remain Queen's bench masters.

I tell you these rather unexciting stories, Mr. Pike, simply to say how pleased I am about the information given to us by my hon. Friend that the resident magistrates want to remain resident magistrates. If stipendiaries want to become district judges, and have their names changed by statute, let us do the same for Northern Ireland. If RMs want to remain RMs, let them remain so.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Bill proposes a change in name. It is worth remembering that a strong justification for that exists. Paragraph 6.142 of the review of the criminal justice system recommended the name change. I apologise if the matter has already been covered. Such was the shock of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) that she virtually choked as she listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech. She has made a full recovery, I am glad to say.

Mr. Blunt: For the record, I would like to point out that I was not actually speaking when the hon. Lady left the Room incommoded.

5 pm

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend was anticipating the hon. Gentleman's speech, and felt it safer to wait outside. I say these things in jest, but I know from painful experience that irony translates badly in the record.

As I said, paragraph 6.142 of the report recommended the name change. It states:

    We have a further recommendation to make which is intended to demonstrate publicly that the magistracy is an integral part of the judiciary. In looking at the titles of the various tiers of the judiciary we gave some thought to the nomenclature of resident magistrates. As we note in the next chapter, the term ''resident'' has its origins in the nineteenth century when there were particular reasons for wanting office holders to live in the district where they held office. It has no meaning or relevance in the modern context. Moreover we think that there is an opportunity, through a name change, to demonstrate publicly that the magistracy is an integral part of the judiciary. We recommend that legislation be passed to redesignate resident magistrates as district judges (magistrates' courts). We favour retention of the term magistrates' court as it is commonly understood and reflected in a very large number of legislative provisions.

Therefore, the proposals reflect faithfully the recommendations of the review of the criminal justice system.

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This would not be the first occasion on which an organisation has renamed itself to stay with the times. Who can ignore the fact, for example, that the hon. Gentleman's party used to be called the Tory party and changed its name to the Conservatives, just as Windscale renamed itself Sellafield?

Mr. Blunt: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to point out that ''the Tory party'' has always been a nickname, inherited not least from the bandits who inhabited Tory island off the north coast of Ireland. It was a term of abuse. However, the name ''Conservative'' has been used consistently since the forming of the modern Conservative party, which is not something that can be said for the Labour party.

Lembit Öpik: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because it was a cheap one-liner and I deserved the rebuke. However, let us remember that no great benefit results from sticking to names that could be regarded as being slightly problematic.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Like the Liberal Democrats?

Lembit Öpik: Indeed, as hon. Members know, we changed our name when parties merged to reflect more accurately who we were—until we got it right, which we have.

Let us move swiftly on. Government Members sagely point to the unstoppable evolution of the Liberal Democrats as the party of the 21st century, and the review of the criminal justice system suggests that a similar change should be made to a name. The practical justification for changing the name, in simple terms, is to make the body more accessible, as the new words are more user friendly for the public, who actually use and interface with the system. That is a matter of judgment, but we feel that the change would be small but useful, and should not cause the slightest concern about the abandonment of tradition.

Mr. Garnier: I apologise, Mr. Pike, for what is probably an unnecessary intervention. However, I worry when the Liberal Democrats use words such as ''user friendly'' and ''accessible'' in relation to the matters that we are discussing. Next, they will be asking for members of the judiciary to sit in workshops and deal with people in tents. The hon. Gentleman's arguments are interesting and amusing, and all the other adjectives that one can apply to the party that he represents, but we all know what an RM is. The RMs know what an RM is and the public of Northern Ireland are wholly familiar with the expression. Surely, it is essential that we do not change that which there is no need to change.

Lembit Öpik: That is a matter for the Committee to decide. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's optimism that the existing terminology is regarded as more attractive than the proposed terminology, but let us not make heavy weather—[Interruption.] or heavier weather, of the issue. The recommendation has been made and argued for rationally. The Government have taken account of the recommendation in their work and, for that reason, the Liberal Democrats believe that it is common sense.

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Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. We have had a most interesting discussion on a serious decision. I share the literary nostalgia of Somerville and Ross. I do not quite see the resemblance between the Minister and Flurry Knox, but perhaps I will discover the resemblance before the next three weeks are up.

There is a fundamental point here. I have nothing against the term ''resident magistrate'', but why was the term ever invented in the 19th century? I do not purport to know but I will hazard a guess. It was because, like everything else at that time, there were not only absentee landlords but, absentee judges, who did not live in Northern Ireland and seldom, if ever, went there. As a device to ensure that there was some semblance of identity with the populace, the requirement for residency was introduced. I may be wrong and that may be fanciful, but I venture to suggest that it is right. Why was that required? That question goes to the heart of our deliberations in Committee.

When the term was invented and, indeed, when Somerville and Ross wrote about the Irish RM, there was no judiciary in the current sense. There was big house justice, not justice of the people, for the people, by the people, or anything verging on that. The judiciary was exclusive, not in capability but in status. I have nothing against the term ''resident magistrate'' but I have a lot against the concept of a judiciary reserved for one section of the community. I am not talking about Catholics and Protestants or Unionists and Nationalists but about big house inhabitants having the preserve on the process of justice. We must get away from that because it goes to the heart of many of the problems associated with the justice system.

Mr. Blunt: I have been trying to find the reference in the review to the background to RMs, but I have failed, so I shall have to paraphrase. One of the key roles of resident magistrates was to counteract the perceived bias of the lay magistracy. The resident magistrate, who had to be a qualified barrister or solicitor, was introduced in order to address precisely the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. The history of resident magistrates, in terms of addressing the issues about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, is on the side of the angels. It is, perhaps, another argument in favour of retaining the term.

Mr. Mallon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. However nostalgic we are, if we are to look at this anew, for the sake of the ordinary person—and we must use him as our touchstone, because the law belongs to the ordinary person, not to the resident magistrate or the corridor judge or whatever they want to call themselves—we must use new terms for a new approach and a new attitude to the whole process of the administration of justice. I can understand why resident magistrates want to continue with their title. I can understand why other terminologies would be attractive. However, as a lay person, I know what a judge is and I know that he is there to perform a specific role. I also know that there is a hierarchy among judges and I can understand that people looking at a justice system can understand that. It is

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important that we recognise the newness of what we are trying to do. If we start bringing old terminology or nostalgia into it, for whatever reason, we are not helping.

I support the Government. They are right to go for a new start and to give the position the right name. A judge is a judge is a judge, whatever fancy name is given to him or her—a point that we shall cover soon. I hope that the new name will hold. It is right that it should, because it does something more fundamental than any of the arguments that I or other hon. Members have made. It goes to the heart of identification with a system of justice that has probably never been fully in place—certainly not in the community where I live and which I represent—since the state was founded. If we are going to get there, let us have a new start and let us have it on the basis of terminology that has no hang ups; I repeat that I have no hang ups. I, too, am very attracted to the Somerville and Ross novels. I think that I saw every television episode of ''The Irish R.M.'' I can live, sometimes, with the patronisation in it and I can tolerate the stage Irishness that was sometimes expressed by Flurry Knox and others. However, I do not want to live with any residue of big house justice at a time when we should be creating a completely new system.

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Prepared 29 January 2002