Courts Bill [Lords]

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): May I say how much I agree with the hon. Gentleman that part of the local administration of justice is the reporting of cases to the public in the local area?

The Chairman: Order. Amendment No. 46 was not selected. I allowed the hon. Member for Henley to make his point, but I am not prepared to allow a discussion on it.

Mr. Leslie: After that admonishment, Mr. O'Brien, I am not sure how to respond. However, I understand the legitimate point raised by the hon. Member for Henley. He spoke of the role of the press as a utensil of justice, and he wants to ensure that the press know what cases are listed for the various courts. I have not seen the vehicle by which the lists are transmitted to the local press, although I am becoming increasingly familiar as inspiration comes to me.

I understand that lists are available from the justices' clerks, wherever they are located, and I am told that they can be obtained over the telephone. Other methods of publicising the lists may be used in different justice areas. One of the benefits of the new courts agency, with its unified administration, is that we could consider taking a national approach. Some magistrates courts areas may follow a traditional approach but we could look at best practice in order to ensure that lists are made available to the press and the media. I would be happy to consider that.

Mr. Hawkins: I suggest that this may be a way for the Minister to make his mark in the first few days and weeks in his new role. If he were to adopt a crusade to ensure that every magistrates court gave lists, with details of all cases, to all local newspapers in their areas, it would please not only my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. I have had approaches from a number of organisations representing the media; the problem affects not only the Henley area. The degree of helpfulness of justices' clerks to parts of the local media differs widely. I realise that the Minister will take time to look into the matter and I hope that when he goes back to his Department he will think about issuing a ministerial fiat that says that all justices' clerks should smarten up their act in order to please my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. If they do not, he has his column in his local newspaper—

The Chairman: Order. We are straying from the fact that amendment No. 46 was not selected, so we should not discuss it any further.

Mr. Leslie: Except that I entirely agree. The clause deals with places, dates and times of sittings. As technology develops, we might well have an e-enabled shadow Solicitor-General and the hon. Member for Henley might well be wired up to the internet. Crown court listings are available electronically on the

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internet. Under unified administration, there is no reason why we should not consider making magistrates courts listings available electronically. I am not able to promise to do it immediately, but it might be desirable and it is important for us to investigate it further. I hope that the virtues of clause 30 are apparent and that it will stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 31 to 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Designated officers and magistrates' courts

Mr. Heath: I beg to move amendment No. 130, in

    clause 37, page 18, line 3, leave out 'justice of the peace'.

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

Amendment No. 131, in

    clause 37, page 18, line 7, leave out 'justice of the peace'.

Mr. Heath: This is a probing amendment. The clause deals with the designated officer, a title that refers to the fines officers mentioned in clause 36. I am not clear how the designated officer can relate to an individual, such as a justice of the peace, rather than to the court in which that JP sits, the magistrates court, or the local justice area if the jurisdiction extends beyond a single court. At the moment, the words ''justice of the peace'' signify an individual in relation to whom the designated officer acts. The object of the amendments is to enable us to understand in which circumstances an officer can be designated to act in relation to an individual rather than to a court.

Mr. Leslie: The clause allows the Lord Chancellor to designate members of the courts agency staff to perform certain statutory functions in relation to the business of a magistrates court. Many of those functions are currently performed by a justice's chief executive within the magistrates courts committee. The statutory post of JCE will cease to exist in the new courts agency, and as a direct result the former functions of the JCE will rest with the Lord Chancellor. Where appropriate, he will nominate a designated officer of a magistrates court to perform them. It is envisaged that that will mean little change in practice, as the functions will continue to be carried out by the members of staff to whom the work is presently delegated.

Amendments Nos. 130 and 131 would both remove the term ''justice of the peace'' from subsection (1). The clause reflects the fact that the references to justices' chief executives in current legislation are many and varied. Some such references are being amended by the Bill to read, ''designated officer''. However, as the references are varied, the clause is drafted to cover all eventualities in which the term ''designated officer'' will apply.

3.30 pm

As drafted, the clause highlights that it is not practicable, nor in all instances desirable, to change all legislative references from JCE to ''designated officer'', for example in legislation pertaining to pension or

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compensation arrangement for JCEs. Removing the reference to justice of the peace in the clause would mean that any reference to a designated officer and a justice of the peace in an Act would not be covered by clause 37. That would in turn lead to confusion about what is meant by the term ''designated officer'' in those circumstances.

Furthermore, the clause follows the same pattern as existing legislation where JCEs are mentioned in the same provision as justices of the peace. One example of such a reference is in section 16 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Removing the words ''justice of the peace'' from this clause is therefore undesirable, given the need for consistency and watertight drafting arrangements. On those grounds, the amendment should be withdrawn.

Mr. Heath: I do not think that that was the clearest explanation I have ever heard. I am still puzzled by the fact that the Bill already contains a definition of the functions of a single justice of the peace as being those of a court, or, in the case of a justices clerk or assistant clerk, as being those of a magistrates court. It therefore seems that the term ''magistrates court'' includes any potential reference to a justice of the peace acting alone. I still find it difficult to understand how an officer of the court could act for a justice of the peace, but not for the court through which the justice of the peace exercises his functions. That is an important distinction about the way in which a designated officer would work.

I am sure that the Minister's advice is proper, and that it is too difficult to ensure that there is no reference to a justice of the peace somewhere in statute, but I would have thought that a watertight change in definition of what comprises a court for this purpose could include the actions of a justice of the peace. That would be a rather better way of dealing with the problem in statute so that we do not have to keep on inserting phrases that will be repeated in Bill after Bill, year after year and century after century for no reason other than to confuse those who want to interpret legislation. Will the Minister confer with his officials to consider whether there is a better solution other than an anomalous reference in a clause? I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill

Clauses 38 to 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 41

Disqualification of lay justices who

are members of local authorities

Mr. Leslie: I beg to move amendment No. 21, in

    clause 41, page 20, line 27, at end insert—

    '( ) No act is invalidated merely because of the disqualification under this section of the person by whom it is done.'.

I should like at the outset to put this amendment in context. Clause 41 deals with the disqualification of lay justices who are members of local authorities—in other words, councillors. It provides that a magistrate who is a member of a local authority may not sit in cases where that authority has an interest. It replicates

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section 66 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997, which included a provision which meant that no Act was to be invalidated merely because a justice was disqualified. That provision was removed in the other place because of concerns about ''fair tribunals'', arising from article 6 of the European convention on human rights.

The Government remain satisfied that the inclusion of that provision does not infringe article 6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights published its agreement with that view in its fourth report for the 2002–03 session. Its members are satisfied that the clause, as originally drafted, did not infringe article 6 of the ECHR. The Government pay considerable attention to the views of that Committee, and we do not believe that we should disagree with it on this occasion. We consider that it would be inappropriate for the amendment that was tabled in the other place to stand, and that is why we are seeking to move the amendment to correct it at this stage.

Article 6 of the ECHR refers to the determination of a party's civil rights and obligations, or of any criminal charge against him. Where the justices act in circumstances that do not engage the article, or where the participation of the individual does not violate it—as may be the case at an interlocutory hearing on uncontentious matters—the subsection would provide that the action would not be invalidated merely because of the disqualification. If it is felt that article 6 applies in a particular case, it is always possible for a party to appeal. Where no prejudice is caused by the magistrate's disqualification, it would be unreasonable and burdensome to invalidate those decisions.

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