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The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that there is continuity in the event that the office of Lord Chief Justice is vacant or if the office holder is unable to exercise his or her functions. We hope, of course, that the provisions will never be necessary, dealing as they do with such circumstances as unexpected resignation or death. They also deal with situations relating to ill health or other possible scenarios where the Lord Chief Justice is incapacitated. In such circumstances it is essential that procedures are in place to ensure that the functions that fall to the Lord Chief Justice can be exercised on his behalf so as to allow the smooth running of the judicial system. The new clause provides that the function would fall to the next most senior head of division. In such a case, the full powers of Lord Chief Justice would transfer temporarily to the next most senior member of the judiciary. That is an important safeguard.
The Minister has not quite explained why, at a late stage of the Bill, it was felt necessary to introduce the new clause. It would be useful to understand the reasoning behind the Government's decision. The current position, as I understand it, is that if the Lord Chief Justice is incapacitated, there are all sorts of conventions in operation about other people discharging his responsibilities. I appreciate that as we move to a more statutorily based system, it is desirable to spell the procedure out in the Bill. Nevertheless, the Government did not originally choose to do that.
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The Bill was scrutinised at length in the other place, where the new clause was not inserted. I hope the Minister does not feel that I am pressing him needlessly. I am trying to understand why, instead of the informal system that existed, the system is to be set out in statute. Perhaps he could also clarify why that was not done earlier in the passage of the Bill.
Mr. Leslie: The reason is quite simple. The Bill had a long gestation and long scrutiny. The new clause deals with a situation that came to our attention when we considered what would happen when the Lord Chief Justice, as opposed to the Lord Chancellor, is the head of the judiciary in England and Wales. Various issues arise, one of which is what happens in the event of a vacancy and how we could quickly fill it. That would not necessarily be a difficulty, should a Cabinet Ministerin other words, the Lord Chancellorhave a vacancy at that level. It was the realisation that we needed to make provision for those circumstances, which we all hope will never arise. They are well provided for, and new clause 10 deals with the matter adequately.
Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I do not disagree with the reasoning. He may have to forgive me, but I was entertained to see that the Bill, which has received the closest possible scrutiny in the other place, should come to the Committee with what he has explained is a glaring lacuna. That is the benefit of having a system of scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament. What we had yesterday, for example, which was wholly inadequate scrutiny of legislation, is a classic example, leaving aside the principles behind legislation, of why we should be allowed to do our jobs properly.
Mr. Cash: This is an important issue relating to the functions of the Lord Chancellor. The issue of disqualification with respect to his having any future role raises questions that apply to the existing incumbent of that role and to those who may find themselves in a similar position on any future occasion.
Given the significance of the Lord Chancellor's role as described in the Bill, the early clauses, plus the other provisions that we have discussed today, make it clear that the Lord Chancellor has functions that, irrespective of the divorce of his role from the specifically judicial function, continue to have regard to the judicial question
The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is probably referring to a new clause that we have not yet come to. Perhaps he would like to keep his powder dry for the time being.
The new clause provides for a new section to be inserted in the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978, corresponding to section 1 of the Courts Act 2003, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will remember we referred to in earlier discussions about the oath. The new clause will place a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the court of judicature, county courts, magistrates courts and coroners courts in Northern Ireland, and that appropriate services are provided for those courts. It also requires that the Lord Chancellor lay before Parliament a report as to the way in which he has discharged his duty.
Mr. Grieve: May we take this opportunity to understand more fully what it is intended should happen if devolution of powers arrives in Northern Ireland? In those circumstances, would this responsibility transfer to a Northern Ireland justice Minister, or would it remain with the Lord Chancellor? I assume that the new clause has been introduced because such devolution has not occurred, but I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify the Government's intentions on this particular responsibility.
Mr. Leslie: I understand that these responsibilities would be transferred, but if I am wrong I will write to the hon. Gentleman. We debated the matter during one of the earlier days of the Committee stage. We referred to different aspects and whether they were excepted, transferred or devolved within the Northern Ireland framework. I refer him to some of my comments at that stage. I hope that that at least helps him in this respect.
I am grateful to the Minister. I welcome this provision. Perhaps we rather lost sight of the issue, but the original intention of devolution was to transfer powers to a justice Minister, although that does not mean that the Westminster Parliament abdicates all responsibility. What I am slightly less clear about, and the Minister may be able to clear up the matter in the letter, is whether, when that process is complete, as and when it happensat the moment, it looks a very remote possibility unfortunatelythe Lord Chancellor retains any residual responsibilities in respect of the good operation of the Northern Ireland judiciary such that he
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could intervene if for some reason or other there were a problem. That was the point on which I sought clarification from the Minister. I think that it is of some importance.
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