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The Lord Chancellor's duty is important and it must be safeguarded. If that means that the post of Lord Chancellor, divested of some of its constitutionally hybrid duties, has to remain in Cabinet for some time to come, what harm would there be? The holding of the post of Lord Chancellor alongside that of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs has become part of the system. The post of Lord Chancellor and the duties that have accrued to it, as well as any others that we may specify in the measure, would be one way of continuing to safeguard those things until the Government come up with another or better way. So far, they have not done so. I welcome the inclusion of such a provision in the Bill.

My second point is about the general duty on accessibility, which relates to amendment No. 1. The Committee referred to the desirability of that general duty. Paragraph 19 of our report stated that


The Committee felt that those factors should be part of the general duty.

Some attempt has been made to meet the requirement in other ways, but Ministers must be aware from the representations that they receive that Members on both sides of the House are deeply concerned about closures, either those that have happened or those that they fear may happen in future, and about other aspects of accessibility. Sometimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out, those aspects may conflict; for example, ensuring that courts are accessible to the disabled can give rise to questions about some courthouses. However, the difficulty and delay in ensuring that a courthouse is fit for the disabled should be attended to; it should not lead to closure, thus making the courthouse inaccessible for many other

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people. It is highly desirable that the general duty of accessibility should be placed on the Lord Chancellor, which is why we want it to be included in the Bill.

My final point relates to amendment No. 55 and was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome: full cost recovery. In its evidence to the Select Committee, the Law Society summed up the case rather well. It stated that the concept of full cost recovery


We said:


The decisions that a particular court makes and the process whereby it makes them are important to people who will never see the inside of that courtroom and who are not paying the costs of that case. The case may settle issues that will enable them to know what the law is and to reach sensible decisions on matters affected by the law. That wider public benefit makes nonsense of any attempt to move towards a system of full cost recovery. In representing the concerns of the Select Committee, I should be happier if the legislation could be worded so that that point was much clearer.

The Department has serious budgetary problems and is under constant Treasury pressure to achieve full cost recovery—a notion that is present in so many other parts of the public service but when applied to the courts is plain wrong. A balance must be struck. The contribution from fines and fees is the means neither to fund our courts system nor to decide what the total budget of the system should be. When considering the case sometimes put by the Treasury—that the litigants in a case should always meet the entire cost—Ministers must have regard to the much wider public service that courts provide. Of course, there are circumstances in which it is entirely appropriate that substantial costs should be met by litigants, but there are others in which it is not and the wider public benefit must be recognised.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Clearly, in Committee, we touched on a number of those matters, and it is not surprising therefore that both Opposition parties have posed questions about accessibility, independence and so on in this group of amendments. I will try my best to respond to each amendment and new clause in turn.

New clause 2, which was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, and new clause 4, which is very similar and was tabled by the official Opposition, are both about trying to ensure that the Lord Chancellor has a duty to preserve and maintain judicial independence. It is clear that the Lord Chancellor's existing role and duty is to uphold and maintain the independence of the judiciary and magistracy. That has been a cornerstone of the Lord Chancellor's role for a very long time indeed, so a general duty and responsibility already exists. Of course, the Lord Chancellor's duty is not statutory, but it is no less real for that fact. It is a duty of very real constitutional significance, as the consultation paper on judicial appointments already makes clear.

Successive Lord Chancellors have regarded the maintenance of judicial independence as one of their most serious and important responsibilities. I can assure

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the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the current Lord Chancellor also continues to observe that responsibility with the highest regard. I am not quite sure about the right hon. Gentleman's analogy with a stripper trying to catch a train, but I will ensure that I pass on his observations in great detail.

Of course the judges have always recognised that the Lord Chancellor has such a duty, which is a well-established and widely acknowledged characteristic of the Lord Chancellor's role. So there is an accepted duty that does not rely in itself on legislation to strengthen it. Nevertheless, new changes are clearly afoot: the move to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and developing a new focus as the new office of Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs has been created.

Those serious issues merit consideration, and the consultation paper on judicial appointments asks in paragraph 21 whether the Lord Chancellor's responsibilities to defend judicial independence should be embodied in statute, but it would be wrong to reach a conclusion now, as that would pre-empt the ongoing consultation exercise, which runs until 7 November. We need to consider the responses to that consultation very carefully before reaching a conclusion on whether it would be appropriate to legislate in such a way.

Some respondents might prefer to follow the example of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, by which a statutory duty to protect judicial independence was placed on all those concerned in the administration of justice, not just on the Secretary of State alone. Again, we should be open-minded—the consultation has not finished—so the time to decide has not yet been reached, and in any case I do not believe that the Bill is the appropriate vehicle. The Government believe that the question will be addressed again during the process of abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor, and we will return to the issue at that point, when we are fully in possession of the consultation responses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) made a number of comments. He is clearly keen to see radical improvements in the justice system to serve the public. Of course we are talking about judicial independence when we refer to new clauses 2 and 4, but that does not preclude hon. Members on both sides of the House from voicing their views and concerns about the operation of the criminal justice service. He made powerful points, and he is absolutely right to suggest that we must all strive to have a more effective justice system.

Under amendment No. 1—originally a Liberal Democrat amendment, to which Conservative Members have subsequently added their names—the Lord Chancellor would have a duty to ensure that the courts system is accessible. Of course, accessibility is extremely important, but the Bill already covers that matter quite amply. First, the Government have already accepted amendments about accessibility. Clause 30(2), which relates to the places, dates and sittings, now states:


I am glad that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) says that that is a major advance;

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indeed, it is. Furthermore, on the issue of fees, clause 92 says that the Lord Chancellor


Accessibility is therefore already included in the Bill. The duty to run an effective justice system already encompasses the concept of accessibility, and clause 1 places on the Lord Chancellor the duty to run an efficient and effective court system. Surely the word "effective" encompasses notions of accessibility. There are of course many different, laudable descriptives that could be added to the Bill, and we could have a long debate about which objectives should be inserted with the key concepts of "efficient" and "effective". Should we have a "responsive" court system, a "high-quality" court system, an "open and transparent" system, or a "user-friendly" system? All those are, of course, important, and all are encompassed by the sense, as we framed it in the Bill, of an effective court system.

Accessibility will be enhanced by the Bill, but it will also be enhanced by the unification of courts administration, which is a central tenet mentioned and provided for in this Bill. It will enable a more flexible use of the court estate, with the possibility of shared courtroom accommodation, which could prevent courts from closing as new opportunities to use their space productively are opened up. Courts boards, too, will be a new, additional safeguard to accessibility, and will be community-focused, contributing to the development of local plans and local priorities, and much more tailored to local needs. No courthouse will be closed without the involvement of a courts board in the decision.

Accessibility is also about the facilities available to court users, on which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome touched earlier. Location is not the only consideration for accessibility, and facilities such as video links allowing vulnerable witnesses easier and less traumatic opportunities to give evidence all help to facilitate accessibility. Using the internet, such as the money claims online site that has been developed for issuing claims and checking on case progress, also aids accessibility. As several hon. Members have observed, improving disabled access to court buildings and the court estate is also crucial. I therefore believe that the issue of accessibility is amply dealt with in the Bill, and that amendment No. 1 is not required.

Under amendments Nos. 48 and 49, the Opposition suggest that the Lord Chancellor should have a duty to ensure that at least one magistrates court is provided per district council or per local authority borough area. It is a crude attempt to raise the issue, but I accept that Opposition Members are seeking to highlight what they perceive as an insufficiency of supply of magistrates courts at a local level. I have to say to hon. Members that decisions on where courts should be located are based on much more than simply local authority council areas. Local authorities vary greatly in size and geography: some metropolitan councils are enormous and some local councils are very small. It is not fair or equitable to base a strategic decision on court location simply on the basis of where a local authority boundary lies. The clauses on the unification of courts administration will help, and better use of the courts estate and of non-court buildings will allow more

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appropriate and flexible approaches to be taken, potentially allowing magistrates courts to be located in future where none exist at present. There are a number of other reasons why these amendments should not be accepted, not least because they refer to the United Kingdom whereas the clause extends only to England and Wales, but I do not want to fall back on the old issue of deficiencies in drafting. Suffice it to say that at present we have 388 magistrates courts in England and Wales and 352 unitary authorities, district councils and boroughs. Although I am sure that not every council area has a magistrates court within it, it is most likely that the vast majority of them do.


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