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Session 2003 - 04
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Standing Committee Debates
Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

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Standing Committee D

Thursday 25 March 2004


[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords]

9.10 am



    (1) during proceedings on the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill the Standing Committee shall meet on Thursdays at 9.10 am and 2.30 pm;

    (2) 4 sittings shall be allotted to the consideration of the Bill in Committee;

    (3) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 4, New Clauses relating to removal or suspension from judicial offices, Clauses 5 to 10, Schedule 2, Clauses 11 to 15, Schedule 3, Clauses 16 and 17, Schedule 4, Clauses 18 to 22, Other New Clauses, New Schedules, remaining proceedings on the Bill;

    (4) Proceedings on the Bill shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Thursday 1st April 2004.—[Mr. Spellar.]

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that there is a money resolution in connection with the Bill, copies of which are available in the Room. Adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.

Clause 1

Transfer to Lord Chancellor of functions relating to Judicial Appointments Commission

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP): I beg to move amendment No. 47, in

    clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out from 'Schedule 1' to end of line 7.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 52, in

    schedule 1, page 12, line 4, at end insert

    'In section (1) of the 2002 Act, leave out ''of justice''.'.

No. 53, in

    schedule 1, page 12, line 8, at end insert—

    '(a) 2A section 4 is amended as follows,

    (b) In subsection (2) of section 12 after the words ''Lord Justice of Appeal'' at end insert ''or a judge of the High Court''.

    (c) leave out section 12A.'.

No. 54, in

    schedule 1, page 12, line 24, at end insert—

    '(1) In section 9 leave out the words ''Lay Magistrate'' wherever they occur and substitute ''Justice of the Peace''.

    (2) leave out section 10.'.

Mr. Trimble: May I say how much I look forward to the proceedings of the Committee, Mr. Benton? I am sure that we all want to remain as well focused as we can.

Amendment No. 47 is a technical amendment that would pave the way for more substantial amendments to the schedule. I shall not refer much to the text of that amendment, but it is appropriate to say

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something about the other amendments. The substantive amendments in the group are amendments Nos. 55 and 28. The latter expresses our disdain for this legislation and this clause. When I say ''our disdain''—

The Chairman: Order. We are not discussing amendments Nos. 55 and 28. We are discussing amendments Nos. 52 to 54 with amendment No. 47.

Mr. Trimble: My apologies, Mr. Benton. I assumed that we were dealing with all the amendments listed under clause 1, but I see now that amendment No. 55 is on a separate line, so we shall leave the discussion on that until later. That enables me to deal in more detail with the amendments that I have tabled to schedule 1. Amendment No. 47 enabled me to table the other amendments to schedule 1. Amendment No. 51, which has not been selected, is also technical. The substantive amendments are amendments are Nos. 52 to 54. Amendment No. 52 would amend section 1 of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002.

The reason why I tabled the amendment is quite simple. I approach this legislation with a fairly fresh eye, not having served on the Committee that considered the 2002 Act. Looking at section 1 of that Act, which is entitled

    ''Guarantee of continued judicial independence'',

I was struck by the fact that it refers to the responsibility to

    ''uphold the . . . independence of the judiciary.''

That is an admirable sentiment, but why is the responsibility limited to those with responsibility for the administration of justice? It seemed to me that that duty should rest with all in government. All Ministers experience occasions on which they deal with the law and the courts, so it would be right for the duty to uphold the administration of justice to be general in its application, rather than limited as it is under section 1.

My next point also concerns a substantive matter. Section 4 of the 2002 Act relates to appointments of the Lord Chief Justice, Lords Justices of Appeal and High Court judges. It draws a distinction between the provisions for appointing the Lord Chief Justice and lord justices of appeal and for appointing High Court judges. The latter appointments come under the purview of the Judicial Appointments Commission and the procedures set out in section 12A of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978, which was added by the 2002 Act. The amendments that I have tabled would treat High Court judges in the same way as the Lord Chief Justice and Lords Justices of Appeal. Will the Minister tell us why appointments of High Court judges have not been treated in the same way?

I want to draw the Minister's attention to the background context. Historically—I am referring to the situation in Northern Ireland under the previous devolved arrangements—a significant distinction was drawn between appointments. Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, appointments of High Court judges, Lords Justices of Appeal and the Lord Chief Justice were made by the Lord Chancellor in Westminster, whereas appointments of county court

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judges and lesser judicial appointments were made by the Government of Northern Ireland established under the 1920 Act. Under those arrangements, the devolved Administration had a role in making appointments up to the level of county court judges, but appointments of High Court judges and above were matters reserved for Westminster.

That was an important measure designed to ensure the independence of the judiciary at that level, and to ensure that there was no possibility of the local Administration exercising partial influence over senior judicial appointments. I should not have to spell out to Members of the Committee the significance of that. Under the 2002 Act, that safeguard is broached, and High Court appointments come under the influence of the devolved Administration. The more senior appointments of Lord Justice and Lord Chief Justice are reserved for a different procedure and can be made only by High Court judges.

By transferring the appointment of High Court judges into the purview of the devolved Administration, we are preconditioning the appointments of Lord Chief Justice and the lord justices of appeal. Is that wise? I have grave reservations about it. I am not sure to what extent that point was considered in the debate on the 2002 Act, but it is worth discussing it in this Committee and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We must ensure that, with regard to senior judicial appointments at the level of the High Court and above, we limit any partial influence that might come to bear.

Amendment No. 54 may be regarded as self-indulgence on my part. I cannot understand why the historic term ''justice of the peace'' is to be discarded in favour of the ugly term ''lay magistrate''. Why should we replace a phrase that has considerable antiquity, is familiar to people, and carries an indication of the nature of the role, with a comparatively flat and ugly phrase?

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I think that I can give the right hon. Gentleman the answer. The Government do not like the lay magistracy. Throughout their time in office they have shown a desire to reduce it to insignificance and to limit it to menial tasks in the courts in both Northern Ireland and in England and Wales. The terminology is linked to that.

Mr. Trimble: That may very well be the case, although on that specific point the Minister may reply that we in Northern Ireland took a huge step towards reducing the significance of the role of justices of the peace in 1935. We restricted their role compared to their role in England and Wales and confined petty sessions work to resident magistrates, as they were then called. That name has also been changed and I disapprove of that too.

The purpose of the amendment is simply to ask the Minister why an historic term that is meaningful to people is to be replaced by an ugly flat phrase that no one will consider it an honour to have attached to their name. It is a simple point but it encapsulates a broader

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point too. The Government have a tendency to wish to change things and rarely are the changes for the better. I can think of other name changes that have occurred in Northern Ireland, and also some here. I might even be inclined to say, Mr. Benton, that the name change in amendment No. 55, to which you directed me not to speak at this stage, is another example of this tendency to change things not for the better but for the sake of change. Amendment No. 54 might be slightly self-indulgent on my part but amendment No. 53 is a matter of significance. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on that.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he moved his amendment. As the Bill largely deals with the implementation of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, there is a danger of revisiting many of the basic principles that were decided then by Parliament. Many arise from the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland of 2000 and so were the subject of debate for some period before then.

I have no objection to hon. Members wishing to re-raise issues that they feel are significant, but for the good administration of justice and the progress of legislation we cannot keep revisiting issues that have been dealt with many times, although that might be counter-cultural in terms of many of the debates that take place on this subject in this House and elsewhere. I was on the Opposition team in 1994–95 when Mo Mowlam, as shadow spokesman, asked a group—I forget which—whether, as we were a bit tight for time, we could go back no earlier than 1920. I understand this, but there is a danger. No doubt there will be other times when there are issues of principle that have essentially been decided but which will still be the subject of debate. We need to bear in mind the need to move forward on the basis of matters that have already been agreed.

As hon. Members will be aware, the 2002 Act provides for the commission to be established after the devolution of justice functions to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am sure that we will return to that on later amendments. The commission would be appointed by and make recommendations to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The First Minster and Deputy First Minister would also exercise the functions ancillary to the commission such as the making of grants and staffing. The intention to establish the commission in advance of devolution was clearly stated not only in the of criminal justice review but in the implementation plan, which was updated in June 2003. That is achieved by clause 1 and schedule 1, which transfer the functions of the First and Deputy First Minister to the Lord Chancellor.

As has been said, amendments Nos. 47 and 51 would widen the scope of schedule 1 to allow for amendments Nos. 52 to 54. What would amendment No. 52 do? It would amend section 1 of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which refers to those who have the duty to uphold the continuing independence of the judiciary. Under the amendment, that duty would apply to ''the administration'' rather than specifically those with

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responsibility for the administration of justice. I accept that that raises an interesting point, and I have given it some thought since the amendment was published. I am not sure that I agree with it, but it demands further reflection—if not in the context of this Bill, in the context of the Constitutional Reform Bill in another place. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will reflect further on the suggestion.

The purpose of amendment No. 53 is to treat the appointment of High Court judges in the same way as the appointment of the most senior judicial posts. That is not what the criminal justice review recommended. It is clear that different arrangements should apply to the appointment of the Lord Chief Justice and lord justices of appeal, as they have responsibilities that could go beyond Northern Ireland. We are also dealing with a much smaller pool of potential appointees. The 2002 Act is deliberately framed to make different provision for the most senior judicial appointments, and we see no case for departing from that position or applying those arrangements to High Court judges.

Amendment No. 54 would remove the provision for the new judicial office of lay magistrate and refer instead to the office of justices of the peace. The criminal justice review saw the need for a new office of lay magistrates with a defined role in the criminal justice system, taking on some, but not all, functions of the justices of the peace. According to the review, some of the other functions are rarely exercised anyway. Existing JPs will be able to apply for the new post of lay magistrate, and I fully anticipate that many will do so.

We do not see why we should not proceed with appointments to the new judicial office with its defined functions, especially as that issue was debated fully during the passage of the 2002 Act. Accordingly, we cannot recommend that the amendments be made.


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