Courts Bill [Lords]

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the amendment No. 129, in

    clause 30, page 14, line 33, after 'place', insert

    'in the local justice area'.

Mr. Heath: Amendment No. 2 deals with the now familiar subject of locality, proximity, accessibility—call it what you will. It makes the point that directions may be given under clause 30(2)

    ''to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area.''

Clause 30(1) states that

    ''The Lord Chancellor may give directions as to the places in England and Wales at which magistrates' courts may sit.''

The amendment will ensure that, before making the direction, the Lord Chancellor will consult with the relevant courts boards, which have a duty to scrutinise and review such arrangements, and local authorities in the area, which may be said to speak for the local community at large. The amendment takes a belt-and-braces approach so that, as far as possible, the community can make sure that access to justice is maintained locally between the people who are running the courts, working in them and using them, and the general public who have a legitimate interest in the court remaining in their area.

The point at issue is to ensure that courthouses are available and accessible to the local community, which, as expressed through the local authority, has a locus in such matters. At present, the local authority is often involved in proposals to close courts—often, the primary objection comes from the local authority. For example, Mendip district council led the campaign to save Frome court in my constituency from closure. Local justice was needed. Apart from all the issues that we have raised about the workings of the court system, we must bear it in mind that, more and more, particularly in rural areas and small communities, there is a feeling that the justice apparatus is becoming more remote, that local people no longer have the police presence that they once had and the direct accountability of the forces of law and order.

The courthouse is a physical manifestation of the fact that there still is an engagement for the community in respect of law and order, and local justice. It is an important aspect. The Minister would do well to consider how local authorities are brought into the loop effectively in respect of consultation to ensure maximum local consensus about such matters.

Amendment No. 129 deals with a slightly different issue, although it might seem similar. It would introduce the words

    ''in the local justice area''

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to subsection (5), which states:

    ''The places are—

    (a) a place in the local justice area in which the offence is alleged to have been committed;

    (b) a place in the local justice area in which the person charged with the offence resides;

    (c) a place in the local justice area in which the witnesses, or the majority of the witnesses, reside''.

That is fine until paragraph (d), which states

    ''a place where other cases raising similar issues are being dealt with''.

That does not refer to the local justice area.

At our first sitting, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) raised the concept of batch processing. That is a worry to magistrates, who consider that either they will be doing the same business in a repetitive way, or that business will be taken away from them, leaving them only with lesser fodder for their courts. It may be deemed extremely efficient and effective to have that done at a remote location in a centralised court for an area, but that would be inconvenient for everyone else involved. It would be extremely inconvenient for the court officials to deal in Bristol with all the parking offences in the Avon and Somerset police authority area. That would be extraordinarily inconvenient for someone who committed a driving offence and who happens to live on Exmoor or at the other end of the authority area. Such a situation is not ruled out under the present arrangements. Inserting the words

    ''in the local justice area''

would mean that, if we are to have batch processing of similar cases, we at least retained the sense of locality and the convenience for the local court user, as well as the convenience of the system. Reducing things to more manageable proportions will prevent some of the proposals from having the sausage-factory effect, which many people find rather repugnant. The Minister might not be able to accept my amendment, but can he explain why

    ''in the local justice area''

is not included in paragraph (d)? I suspect that he wants to have a single processing court for dealing with large numbers of similar offences in a place remote from where the offender, witnesses, legal representatives, police officers and everybody else are living. If so, he is advancing an argument for a rather remote and inefficient form of justice, which I personally deplore.

Mr. Hawkins: We agree with the Liberal Democrat amendments.

3 pm

Mr. Leslie: I was hoping that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath would elaborate a little, but that was not to be the case. Now that he has concurred completely with the Liberal Democrats, I shall try to answer the points raised.

The measures in clause 30 should make courts more accessible by removing restrictions on where magistrates courts can sit, and by allowing the use of non-court buildings, if that is appropriate. Moreover, giving the new unified administration control of the

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entire court estate will afford greater opportunities for co-location of county courts within magistrates courts in rural areas.

I shall address the two amendments to clause 30 separately. Amendment No. 2 relates to the requirement to consult, and its effect would be to require the Lord Chancellor, when giving directions as to the places where magistrates courts may sit under subsection (1), to consult the relevant courts board and any local authorities whose area included the relevant local justice area or part of the local justice area. That is a reasonable point to raise, and I understand some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, but that provision is not desirable.

First, under provisions in the Bill courts boards will, for the first time, give a voice to a wide section of those communities in relation to all the courts. That is a much more inclusive and genuinely consultative approach, and the courts boards will add a great deal. Under clause 5, courts boards will be involved in the development of plans for their area, which will include any proposals to open, close or relocate courthouses in the context of the area's overall business plan. To place a duty on the Lord Chancellor, when exercising his powers under subsection (1), to consult those who have already had an input into decisions regarding the court estate is a tad superfluous.

Secondly, placing a duty on the Lord Chancellor to consult any local authority whose area includes the relevant local justice area would be unduly restrictive. As we have already heard, clause 8(7) provides a definition of a local authority, but that definition includes police authorities as well as borough councils, county councils, district councils, London boroughs and police authorities. To expect the Lord Chancellor to consult all those bodies when exercising his powers under subsection (1), when it is expected that he will exercise his powers only in limited circumstances—for example when determining the days on which courts will close for civil service holidays—is over the top. Having said that, it is fair to suggest that we should think a little more thoroughly about how we might bring local government into the loop a bit more, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said.

I was not involved in the drafting of the provisions but, looking at them, I can certainly see the virtue in some of the hon. Gentleman's points. It would not be appropriate to make the amendment, but I shall certainly talk to officials about the interaction between local government and other bodies, although I am not making any promises.

Amendment No. 129 would mean that, under the directions in subsection (3) concerning

    ''the distribution and transfer of the general business of magistrates' courts'' ,

the places where the person who is charged with an offence is required to appear would include, under subsection (5)(d), a place

    ''in the local justice area''

where

    ''other cases raising similar issues are being dealt with''.

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That is not particularly desirable.

Paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (5) all include a reference to

    ''a place in the local justice area''

because in each of the circumstances described there is a definite link to a specified locality, namely the place in the

    ''area in which the offence is alleged to have been committed'',

the place

    ''in which the person charged with the offence resides'',

and

    ''a place . . . in which the witnesses, or the majority of the witnesses, reside''.

There is no such local link in the ''similar issues'' categorisation.

Furthermore, the provisions in paragraph (d) allow a case to be heard at a venue more suited to a particular kind of case, for example a venue with specialist facilities such as video links or a high level of security. Those facilities might not be available in the local justice area where the offence was alleged to have taken place, and where the majority of witnesses or the person charged reside. The amendment would seriously reduce our ability to make better use of the court estate and the greater flexibility as to where cases can commence that underpins clause 30.

The hon. Gentleman's particular concern was about batch processing and taking all cases of a particular sort to a warehouse, presumably at a distance from and out of contact with those concerned. I hear what he says, but the purpose of subsection (5)(d) is not to achieve batch processing but to allow trials to be held at locations with better facilities, often more appropriate to the nature of the trial concerned. I have mentioned security issues, which can often be a consideration. On the number of ineffective trials, sometimes the nature of facilities can inhibit the swift processing of justice. That was largely the rationale behind subsection (5)(d).

There is no particular reason why we should not proceed with the measures and keep the flexibility in the Bill. As I said, provisions in the clause and elsewhere are aimed at removing current statutory restrictions on where magistrates courts can sit. For example, they are currently unable to sit on licensed premises. Removing such restrictions would introduce greater flexibility and would allow the use of non-court buildings in local areas, where that is appropriate. The amendment is not necessary, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

 
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