Courts Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I understand my hon. Friend the Minister resisting amendment No. 129 because it is too restrictive, but I ask him to consider some aspects of the issue.

Clearly, it is not unusual for cases that involve much local feeling, security issues, specialist information technology and communications facilities or specialist facilities for children to be moved around, and that is fine. Facilities for

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dealing with children and similar cases being dealt with in a locality are explicitly encompassed under subsection (5)(d).

Batch processing—I use that phrase again—goes against good local justice. For example, a gentleman from my locality came to see me a few years ago complaining about how he was being treated after a breach of television licensing regulations. I told him that he was guilty and that, if I were him, I would pay up. However, he had a good point about the process of justice. The case was being heard in Northwich, which is not, in the absence of a motor car, the most accessible part of Cheshire, especially from Ellesmere Port. Prior to the Opposition's closing the court, that case would normally have been heard in Ellesmere Port.

Nowadays most cases are heard in Chester, where there is a combined bench. There is a good bus service from Ellesmere Port and Neston into Chester, but it is one hell of a journey to Northwich. Some kind of guidance is needed on listing, so that magistrates courts clerks can ensure that careful consideration is given to the circumstances of the accused, even if it might be more efficient, from the point of the view of the management of the court, to deal with centralised cases.

Even though my advice to the gentleman was, ''Do not see a lawyer, you are guilty, full stop. I suggest you plead guilty and pay up,'' he had the right as a citizen to put his case—his mitigating argument. That was removed from him by virtue of how the case was listed. He would have needed to stay overnight because of the timing of the case. Certain adjustments are necessary to overcome some of the rural difficulties, notwithstanding the good reasons why subsection 5(d) should remain as it is.

Mr. Heath: I thank the Minister for his response, especially on matters relating to local authorities. His brief, however, protested too much. He and I have both served on local authorities and we know that there are all kinds of statutory consultations on all sorts of things. It does not take much work to ensure that the people on the list are aware of proposals and have the opportunity to make representations, if they wish to do so. He has said that he will consider that matter again, for which I am grateful.

I am also grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on amendment No. 129. The more I listen to him, the more I think he agrees with the amendment on extending the principle of accessibility beyond the narrow view of the clause, with which we started the entire proceedings.

Mr. Leslie: In case I do not have an opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for what he said, I draw the Committee's attention again to subsection (2), which says:

    ''In exercising his powers . . . the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the need to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area.''

That gives the measure of protection that my hon. Friend was looking for.

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Mr. Heath: The Minister is right; it does. Let us not repeat the arguments. I draw his attention to the fact that subsection (2) contains the words:

    ''In exercising his powers under subsection (1)''.

We are talking about matters of listing, which do not appear in subsection (1). That is precisely the point I was trying to get through to the Minister the other day. It is all very well saying that the Lord Chancellor will have regard to the places where courts will sit, but not the cases that are presented before them; accessibility is still an issue in interpreting the rest of the clause, let alone in the rest of the Bill. However, that is a matter for another day.

I hear what the Minister says about his intentions in terms of subsection (5)(d), and they are laudable. I do not disagree for one moment that where there is a need for enhanced security provision, interpretation or video linking—which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and I had reason to discuss in the Standing Committee considering the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill only a couple of weeks ago—there are good reasons for sitting elsewhere.

However, that is not what the paragraph currently states. My reading is that

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

refers to the legal issues arising from the case—in other words, the type of case it is, rather than ancillary issues such as the provision of security or interpretation facilities. That is a reasonable reading of that paragraph.

3.15 pm

Mr. Hawkins: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I entirely agree with his point, and I venture to say that the way that he views paragraph (d) is the only way that it can be interpreted. It provides for what we call batch processing. The hon. Gentleman may know that, in respect of, for example, fixed penalty cases, a particular court is already used to send things out for the whole of the rest of the country. Northampton, one of the areas in which my former chambers were located, is one of the courts that is used for sending things out over the whole of England. Admittedly, they are intended to be dealt with by post, but there is a great temptation to move in the direction of administrative convenience, and both the hon. Gentleman and I are concerned that we should not allow administrative convenience to take over from the need to ensure that people can have a hearing at a place that is convenient for them.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. What he says is right. I was being generous to the Minister by suggesting that the provision could be construed in the way that he wishes. That is not its primary construction.

We know that there are efficiency savings to be gained by centralising these things. That is the call centre mentality. A call centre, or trial centre for all the same sort of cases will be much cheaper to administer. There will be a temptation to put everything up in Strathclyde, for example—eventually, it might all be moved to Bombay, and everybody will be listed for a huge court in the Indian subcontinent, which will be

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very cheap to run. That is the natural extension of what is being proposed.

I am not suggesting that that is in the Minister's mind at present. However, the fact is that that is what he is providing for in subsection (5). I ask him to look at that again. If it is genuinely his intention not to facilitate batch processing, as we call it, but to deal with the exceptional cases that need facilities beyond those that are provided in the local justice area, there is a better way of phrasing the clause, perhaps by referring to an exception, so that it states that the above will not apply where specific facilities are required in the interests of justice. Something along those lines would ensure that the Minister could do what he wants to do, without encouraging the use of remote courthouses to deal with a large number of cases of a similar type, which is most people's interpretation of the provision as it currently stands.

I ask the Minister to think about whether the clause can be worded better so as to achieve what he wants to achieve—let me not accuse him of bad faith. If he does not give attention to the matter, I will want to come back to it on Report, and perhaps at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I rise to speak on clause stand part, because I am not sure whether I shall have a further opportunity to make these points. They are directly connected with the question of places, dates and times of sittings. I speak in favour of a particular group that I believe should have access to courts—''persons resident'' in the local area, to whom reference is made in subsection (2). I am talking about members of the press, a group with which I have some familiarity in my capacity as a columnist on the Henley Standard, a post for which I receive no payment whatsoever.

It is a shame that amendment No. 46 was not selected for debate, because it perfectly expresses how the clause should be drawn up. It would be worrying if members of the press did not have ready access to the courts. The Minister may be unfamiliar with the Henley Standard's open justice campaign, but I can fill him in.

There are two problems. First, as we discussed earlier, the Henley court was closed, followed by the Thame court. Secondly, once everything is moved to Oxford, no lists will be sent to groups of residents in the ''local justice area'', including newspaper journalists, of what cases are to be heard. It will therefore be impossible for newspapers to provide the vital service of telling the local community who is being tried and for what. They will not be able to play their part in the administering of justice by providing the vital utensil of public shame. It is an important part of local justice that cases should be reported in local newspapers.

Without wishing to try your patience, Mr. O'Brien, I ask for an assurance that the Government will

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include newspapers in their thinking about who should have access to the courts in the local justice area. Not only should they have access to the courts but they should know what cases are coming up and should be able to report them freely. I think that the Minister will agree that that is an important part of administering justice locally.

 
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