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Lord Meston: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord for his Statement which properly begins by recognising the importance of the lay and stipendiary magistracy. Between them they deal with the vast bulk of criminal cases and are likely to have yet more responsibilities and powers regarding young offenders in the future. Inescapably, the Government's proposals for young offenders will require greater efficiency and more resources. The lay magistracy also has a family jurisdiction under statute which already requires timetabling to avoid delay, a responsibility it takes seriously and tries to meet.

I fully understand the proposal that there should be greater alignment between the police, the CPS, local government and magistrates' courts committee areas. I wonder if a simple mechanism can be introduced to keep those areas aligned because local government areas are prone to change from time to time. In the same context I wonder whether there can be some mechanism for greater liaison between magistrates' courts and county courts in the family jurisdiction and between magistrates' courts and Crown Courts in the criminal jurisdiction. Sitting at a humble level in the Crown Court it is sometimes very frustrating to realise that the same defendant is due to appear in front of different courts on different days charged with similar offences and often with different lawyers representing him or her in different places.

I welcome the clear statement that these proposals are not about losing local courts. In some areas where courts have already closed, accessibility has diminished. A system cannot run efficiently if staff, litigants and witnesses have difficulty reaching court or have to worry about getting there and back home again. Ultimately, justice suffers. At a more mundane level the collection of fines, fees and compensation orders can also suffer if the courts are not accessible.

I welcome the proposal for greater separation of the legal and administrative functions of court staff. Justices' clerks have a pivotal role serving both the bench and the public. It is surely right that they should concentrate on giving advice and support to the justices and that attention should be given to the increasingly important area of case management. Indeed, it is essential that magistrates have quick access to authoritative legal advice. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has recently spoken elsewhere about the likely impact of the European Convention on Human Rights even on the magistrates' courts' jurisdiction. I ask about the Government's thinking on the future recruitment and retention of justices' clerks. A balance should be struck between open advertisement and keeping the expertise of existing clerks through an attractive career structure.

Finally, there is much force in the proposal for a single stipendiary bench with a national rather than a local jurisdiction. I am tempted to remind your

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Lordships that there is a good fictional precedent in P.G. Wodehouse where his character, Sir Watkyn Basset felt able to exercise his powers with equal ferocity both in London and at home.

I am intrigued by the idea of a possible new title for stipendiary magistrates. Having spent many long hours in Bow Street and Marlborough Street courts representing shoplifters and drunken drivers, I have heard stipendiary magistrates called a variety of names, none of which would seem suitable. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord should consider offering a prize. Can he confirm that the proposed changes for justices' clerks and stipendiary magistrates will involve primary legislation? It seems to me likely that that is so. I welcome the intention to consult, and the long-term commitment to the magistracy.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome from both noble Lords to these proposals. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Meston, that I have an open mind in relation to many of the positive suggestions that he brings forward. I am ready to acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, invites me to do, that some of these ideas were indeed developed under our predecessors. We intend to press ahead with vigour with what really has to be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked me to say that I am committed to the principle of locally delivered justice. I am. The point that I desire to emphasise is that the amalgamation of magistrates' courts committees should not lead to a loss of local accountability or increased remoteness. It is not the court or the benches that amalgamate--that is the distinction that we have to keep in mind--but the administrative and financial structures which support those courts and benches. Membership of an amalgamated committee will still overwhelmingly comprise local magistrates selected by their local colleagues. Decisions about the administrative needs and structures of the MCC will be taken locally. There is no necessary connection between the amalgamation of MCCs and court closures. On the contrary, the increased flexibility in staffing and in caseload terms offered by amalgamation could provide a lifeline for more marginal courts.

The issue of courthouse closures and the reorganisation of the petty sessional divisions is not what we are discussing today. That is a separate issue, but I entirely appreciate that some will think that there are connections. The position in relation to courthouse closures is that the decision on whether or not to close a courthouse is a local issue, subject to statutory rights of appeal. Under Section 56 of the 1997 Act I have responsibility for deciding whether a courthouse should be closed where the paying authority has disputed the MCC's proposal to do so. I have no other responsibilities in relation to magistrates' courthouses because they are not Crown property. I repeat that the closure of a courthouse is not a necessary consequence of amalgamation and that the decision to close a courthouse rests with the MCC although the paying authority can disagree and I then have to decide the appeal.

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3.50 p.m.

Baroness Flather: My Lords, perhaps I may make a plea on behalf of lay justices. It has been said that the administration of justice is greatly dependent on the work of the lay justices. Indeed, wherever I go, I find that lay justices are congratulated on all their work but, speaking as a lay justice for 19 years, I should point out that as a result of the way in which things are now developing, less value is being placed on the time of the lay justices. The Crown Prosecution Service and the clerks often leave the lay justices sitting in the retiring room because their cases are not ready or somebody has not arrived. After all, the lay justices are free whereas every other person in the court is being paid. Unfortunately, instead of valuing the service which is given voluntarily and which is therefore free and without cost, the reverse happens and because lay justices do not represent a cost on the balance sheet, they come last in the court's considerations.

I stress that I am speaking from personal experience. When the changes are made, I hope that some recognition will be given to the amount of work and time now required from our lay justices. When I first started as a lay justice in 1971, the training was perfunctory. It has become more and more stringent and more and more time is now required to be devoted to continuous training. However, no real consideration is paid to what is required of lay justices. After all, 93 per cent. of all cases are dealt with by lay justices.

I take the point that the word "magistrate" could lead to confusion between stipendiary magistrates and lay magistrates. We always used to be called Justices of the Peace or lay justices, so perhaps we could revert to our traditional title rather than being known as "magistrates".

I should like to dwell for a moment on the subject of clerks. When we were trying to introduce training on ethnic minority issues for justices, the clerks' societies were the least keen group. It was only when the Lord Chancellor's Department insisted that justices should have some training in dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds that such training was organised. I hope that that point will be kept in mind because justices' clerks do not tend to be very keen on change. They should not have too much power in the courts. The justices should still have some say in these matters.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, first, I should say that I am much on the public record as regards my support for, and the high value that I attach to, the voluntary services of the lay magistracy. I undertake today to ensure that copies of the speeches that I have made to that effect to public audiences are sent to the noble Baroness.

A month or two ago a story appeared in the press, the source of which I know not, that I was about to abolish the lay magistracy and to replace it with an enormous increase in the stipendiary bench. There was not a shred of truth in it then--nor now. As the noble Baroness rightly says, 97 per cent. of criminal cases begin and end in the magistrates' courts. Not only do we value lay

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magistrates for the quality of their work but the financial cost of replacing lay magistrates with stipendiaries would require the appointment of at least one thousand additional stipendiary magistrates and would add at least £60 million to the national cost of summary justice. I do not think that it is too great a leap of the financial imagination to say that that sum (which is avoided) is the value of the services provided free by the lay magistrates.

I agree also with the noble Baroness when she says that it is wrong to lay fault exclusively upon the lay justices when delays occur, as happens in magistrates' courts. I have been at pains to say time and again that co-operation between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the social welfare services, prosecuting lawyers and defending lawyers, the Probation Service and the courts is required to reduce delays. It is facile simply to lay the responsibility for the delays at the door of any of those agencies.

I have shown my support for the lay magistracy, and the social value that I attach to the civic commitment that is involved in serving on the lay magistracy, to try to encourage many more people to come forward and to offer themselves as magistrates so that the social balance of our magistrates' benches throughout the country is improved. Magistrates' courts should be microcosms of the communities that they serve. In too many parts of the country, the social balance is wrong.

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