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Standing Committee Debates
Courts Bill [Lords]

Courts Bill [Lords]

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Standing Committee D

Tuesday 1 July 2003

(Morning)

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Courts Bill [Lords]

Clause 7

The commission of the peace for
England and Wales

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

9.30 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): In a spirit of inquiry, I should like to ask this reforming Government and the reforming Department for Constitutional Affairs why the commission of the peace continues to be issued under the Great Seal. Of course I understand the need for justices of the peace; they have a time-honoured role and title, and I have no wish to remove it. However, what precisely is the purpose of something that no one in the outside world understands—a commission of the peace being issued under the Great Seal? I would have thought that the Department might have addressed that issue, as we are doing away with all sorts of things here, there and everywhere.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I shall be interested to hear how the Minister responds to that. Conservative Members are absolutely delighted that for once the Government have left something alone and are not making a change. As the hon. Gentleman points out, there is the title ''justice of the peace'', and such historic titles have, in many cases, lasted for hundreds of years, because they mean something. Justices of the peace, who have an important title, will be delighted to know that there is a commission of the peace.

Looking back at the history of this country, I understand that the origin of that title is that justices of the peace the length and breadth of the country were intended to ensure that there was peace, not lawlessness, in their local communities. That is why the commission of the peace has that name—and it is issued under the Great Seal because the Great Seal represents the Crown. We want to ensure that we have a peaceful kingdom.

Mr. Heath: Lest there be any misunderstanding, I should say that I certainly understand the history of the matter, and the need to retain justices of the peace. I just wonder what precisely the hon. Gentleman believes that the commission of the peace issued under the Great Seal is.

Mr. Hawkins: We shall hear whether the Minister has anything to add to the explanation that I have given, but I thought that I had just explained my understanding of why the commission of the peace has that name: it was intended to ensure peaceful communities. We Conservative Members are very much in favour of keeping historic titles, and we are

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delighted that on this occasion the Government have chosen to do so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Good morning, Mr. Illsley.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is right to point out that we are retaining the commission of the peace. However, I hate to disabuse hon. Members of the idea that we are avoiding our modernising obligations, but in fact there is a change to the commission of the peace. Currently, there are separate commissions for different areas across England and Wales, and the clause creates a single unified commission, which will extend to cover the whole of England and Wales.

Mr. Heath: Steady on.

Mr. Leslie: I am told that the commission of the peace is the authority traditionally issued by Her Majesty that empowers magistrates to act as such. It has existed since 1326—[Interruption]—roughly when the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) entered political life. The provision is consequential on the abolition of separate local commission areas and on the introduction of the national jurisdiction that the Bill will give to magistrates.

I have looked into why we need to continue with the concept of the commission of the peace. It is the traditional source of magistrates' judicial authority; also, there may be a legal issue with whether the power to bind over is dependent to some extend on the notion of the commission of the peace. Much research has been done on the subject in our Department, and we felt that at this stage, it would be best to preserve the concept of the commission of the peace—hence the provisions in clause 7, which I hope will now stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Local justice areas

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 11, in

    clause 8, page 5, line 10, at end insert

    'which are to be coterminous with the boundaries of the relevant local government area.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 118, in

    clause 8, page 5, line 13, at end insert—

    '( ) No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one area specified under section 4.'.

Amendment No. 119, in

    clause 8, page 5, line 13, at end insert—

    '( ) No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one area established under Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996 (c.16).'.

Amendment No. 12, in

    clause 8, page 5, line 14, at end insert

    'but may not change the coterminosity of a local justice with a local government area.'.

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Mr. Hawkins: Thank you, Mr. Illsley. I can now welcome you, and all members of the Committee, properly. I welcome in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and warmly congratulate them on their appointment yesterday to the shadow ministerial team. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney is now shadow Deputy Leader of the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe is a shadow Minister for the Department for Work and Pensions.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 would ensure that local justice areas were the same as local government areas. As with the argument that we had a few days ago that courts boards areas should be coterminous with police authority areas, here we need to minimise confusion and overlap. While preparing for this debate, it occurred to me that in drafting amendment No. 12 I might have inadvertently made an error. When I reread the amendment, I thought that it probably should have read ''local justice area'' rather than just ''local justice''. Before the Minister picks that up, I plead guilty that I might have left something out. The amendment would certainly be clearer with the word ''area'' added.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will speak to the couple of Liberal Democrat amendments, Nos. 118 and 119, in this group. My reading of those is that they aim for the same thing—avoiding confusion—but we shall hear from the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Even if the Minister cannot accept the amendments as they stand, I hope that he understands what we are getting at. There is no need to change local justice areas so that they cross over local government boundaries, and I hope that he will acknowledge that ours is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill by trying to avoid confusion.

Mr. Heath: I should have said earlier that I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley; I apologise.

This group of amendments deals with the idea of keeping a degree of co-ordination and coterminosity between the local justice areas that will be established under the Bill and other areas relevant to the workings of those areas. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has already explained the basis of his amendments. My only quarrel with him is that he has not defined whether the relevant local government area should be a shire or a district. That could cause confusion in construing his intention.

Mr. Hawkins: There was, I hope, a bit of logic to that. Under clause 8(7) as drafted, the term ''local authority'' is defined in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). That is why my amendments contain no further definition; the clause already includes a definition of ''local authority''. Adding the word ''area'' would be the simplest way of improving the amendment.

Mr. Heath: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am not trying to pick a quarrel. I do not think that his amendment is precisely right for areas where there are both county and district authorities, but I am not arguing against his intention.

Amendment No. 118 would ensure that local justice areas were not split between the areas of more than

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one courts board. That seems eminently sensible. If we are setting up a system for overseeing the administration of courts for a particular area, it does not make sense for a single local justice area to be answerable—or rather, to be of interest—to more than one courts board area.

It is a matter of good governance that local justice areas should fall entirely within a single courts board area, to allow for sensible administration.

Amendment No. 119 states that the boundary should not cross a police authority area. If we wish to make those areas accountable, and wish to have better co-ordination between the apparatus of justice in its various forms—including the police, the probation service and other bodies that will follow the police authority areas—it does not make sense for a local justice area to cross the boundaries of a police authority area.

Whether or not my amendments are accepted, local justice areas will, in practice, fall within a single police authority area and a courts board area. It would be better if that were explicit, rather than implicit. I would be concerned if there was a local justice area that straddled borders, because that would create confusion and add to the lack of local accountability and transparency in the operation of those bodies. I hope that the Minister will accept my amendment.

Mr. Leslie: I commend the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for his characteristic modesty in commending his colleagues on their promotion in the shadow reshuffle, but failing to mention that he too has been promoted, to shadow Solicitor-General. I congratulate him.

We have four substantive amendments before us. As a consequence of clause 8, we will abolish commission areas from statute, and replace petty sessions areas with local justice areas. We will introduce a transitional provision confirming that local justice area boundaries will, in the first instance, be the same as those of existing petty sessions areas.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath tabled amendment No. 11, which would require the Lord Chancellor to make local justice areas coterminous with the boundaries of the relevant local government areas when he divides up England and Wales. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out one of the issues that had occurred to me concerning the definition of the term ''relevant local government area''.

I acknowledge the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about the definition as set out in subsection (7). His amendment does not distinguish between a county council area and a district council area—although that is a drafting point, so I will not dwell on it. It is important that we make it clear that the local level is the foundation building block of the local justice area. Will the local justice areas be coterminous with the local government unit or with one of the 43 police authority areas? All those boundary issues are important.

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The amendment is undesirable, given that local justice areas will replace petty sessions areas, and at this stage we do not wish to disturb the underlying structure of existing petty sessions areas boundaries. That is why we will bring forward a transitional provision confirming that the boundaries of the new local justice areas will be the same as those of the petty sessions areas on commencement.

Amendment No. 12 would prevent the Lord Chancellor from changing the coterminosity of a local justice area and a local government area when making an order to alter local justice area boundaries under subsection (4). Unless the term ''relevant local government area'' is clearly defined, there are difficulties with the workability of the amendment, and given what I have already said about amendment No. 11, I do not believe that that would be the correct approach.

Amendment No. 118, tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, would ensure that

    ''No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one''

courts board

    ''area specified under section 4.''

There are difficulties with that approach. Although the amendment suggests that courts boards boundaries are fundamental and inalienable units that should not be tampered with, the local justice areas are the first building blocks of the system. The amendment is undesirable, because it seeks to put the cart before the horse. The petty sessions or local justice areas are fundamental to all aspects of the magistrates courts system, whereas those of the courts boards are part of an administrative structure, through which the administration of the courts—not only magistrates courts—is enhanced. In determining a courts board area, consideration should be given to ensuring that petty sessions and local justice area boundaries are not compromised, and vice versa. Many hon. Members would want to ensure that we saw that point through.

9.45 am

 
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