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Lord Clinton-Davis: Perhaps I may put one question to the noble Lord. Does not the amendment place too draconian a burden on the courts? The amendment does not provide that if the court is unable to take account of the situation that has arisen it shall be exempt from the duty. A judge may fall ill or an accident may occur. There may be circumstances of that kind over which the court has no control.

Lord Kingsland: There may indeed be circumstances that will excuse the court service from making such a payment. I have tabled this amendment and it is for the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to react to it and say to what extent he believes it is appropriate, requires modification or is at all relevant. I believe it right to start with the principle that if the court service is at fault in circumstances where a date and time has

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been fixed it is proper that the parties should be compensated in view of the new cost system laid down in the fast track proposals.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble Lord puts the amendment on the basis that if the court is at fault it should pay. That is not the way the amendment is currently drafted. The amendment reads:

    "Where a civil court has allocated a fixed time and date for a hearing or trial, but fails in the event to honour that commitment, without giving reasonable prior notice to the parties, the Court Service shall compensate the parties for any time and costs which have been wasted".
The noble Lord knows all too well that one of the major reasons why dates are lost when the parties turn up at court is because the cases listed before them overrun. Cases frequently overrun because the parties give inaccurate time estimates. That is not the fault of the court. Yet, on the basis of the amendment, compensation must be paid.

That is not simply a technical point. Practitioners know only too well that cases overrun, and it happens with the best will in the world on the part of the judges, the parties and the lawyers. It inevitably dislocates following business. The effect of the amendment would be either over-cautious listing, leading to longer waiting times and poor use of judicial time, or an increase in the amount of compensation paid. Both points will lead to an increase in the cost of running the civil courts, and that, in its turn, will be reflected in the fees.

Ultimately, listing is a judicial matter. Court service staff act under guidelines agreed with the local judiciary and seek judicial advice when listing difficulties arise.

However, where there has been a clear error on the part of staff which is separate from any judicial direction, in practice the Lord Chancellor's Department pays compensation. The parties involved are compensated for any costs that they have incurred unnecessarily. That is what happens now. The total compensation paid in 1997/98 was about £500,000. Dealing with such issues is not a matter appropriate to legislation. They are administration matters.

Under the civil justice reforms, which shall be introduced in April, the courts will rely to a large extent on information given by the parties in determining how to list business. The proposed amendment will make the court service liable for inaccurate time estimates made by the parties. That cannot be right. That said, the court service has already indicated to the Law Society, the Bar Council and consumer groups that it will consider the impact of the civil justice reforms on the compensation arrangements. It met with representatives of those groups on 8th January, but, not surprisingly, the court service's consideration is not yet concluded.

In the light of my remarks, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Kingsland: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. I accept that the terms of my amendment may be said to be a little stark. However, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who remained stoically throughout this evening--sadly, he has just departed--recommended a system similar to the one that I am

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recommending. In those circumstances, I have drawn sufficient inspiration from the noble and learned Lord's reply to reconsider the matter and table it again on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 49 [Commission areas.]:

Lord Gisborough moved Amendment No. 299:

Page 25, leave out lines 29 and 30.

The noble Lord said: In speaking to Amendment No. 299, I also speak to the Question whether Clauses 50 and 51 and Schedule 7 shall stand part of the Bill.

The basic units of the magistrates' courts service are the benches made up of local people who deal with, and are aware of, local issues. Benches vary in size, geographical location and the type of workload which is predominantly dealt with. From large city courts comprised of over 400 magistrates to small rural courts made up of less than 20 justices, all share a sense of belonging to a community organisation dealing with local issues.

If petty sessional areas are not based upon discrete localities of optimum size, magistrates will not be in a position to determine the make-up of their benches' sitting patterns, choice of chairman and standard of justice. Large benches based on commission areas would run a risk of inconsistent sentencing and be placed in a position where they might be unaware of the ability of their colleagues when deciding whom to elect as a bench chairman. Magistrates may not wish to travel and would not be aware of local practices and procedures.

Benches are not tribunals. They, and not the magistrates' courts committees, are responsible for the organisation of court business. That encourages a deep understanding and co-operation with colleagues and legal advisors. Creating large petty sessional areas based upon regions rather than towns or cities would lead to a diminution of lay magistrates belonging to the community that they serve. I cannot see any discernible advantage in the benches being formed in such large units. I beg to move.

11.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Amendment No. 299 would remove subsection (2) of the new Section 1 which Clause 49(1) is inserting in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 in place of Sections 1 and 2. That subsection provides the ability to specify commission areas by way of statutory instrument rather than as at present by primary legislation.

Commission areas provide the basis for the appointment of magistrates and the jurisdiction of cases. Historically, commission areas have aligned with magistrates' courts committee areas, allowing for magistrates and cases to be deployed effectively across an MCC area. However, unlike both MCC and petty sessions areas, where changes to boundaries are possible through secondary legislation, commission areas may only be changed in strictly prescribed circumstances by primary

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legislation. To facilitate greater alignment between criminal justice agency boundaries, in particular police and Crown Prosecution Service boundaries, the number of MCCs has reduced in recent years by a series of amalgamations so that the areas are more closely aligned with these boundaries. The result is a growing discrepancy between MCC and commission area boundaries, with some MCCs covering more than one commission area. The time taken to effect change by primary legislation undoubtedly causes difficulties for MCCs. They are being prevented from redrawing their internal boundaries to reflect the local character of the service. Difficulties will ensue.

The Government believe that constraints on the effective administration of the magistrates' courts service should be removed wherever possible. This clause would regulate the procedures for all proposed changes to magistrates' courts boundaries and remove the increasingly obsolete description of retained county and metropolitan county areas. In future, commission areas will be defined in secondary legislation, and boundaries may also be altered by secondary legislation. I assume we can all agree that unfortunately the reorganisation of local government will not come to an end with the end of this millennium. The important point is that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has seen no difficulty with this change. Changes will, of course, require consultation with the MCCs and magistrates affected. There will be parliamentary scrutiny of the orders made.

If an MCC is to operate effectively, it must be free to make decisions about its geographical structure, including the arrangements for commission areas and petty sessions areas.

These changes respond to difficulties faced by some magistrates' courts committees. Those committees want to make the best use of their magistrates and resources to improve service. Future changes in the service, continuing the modernisation of the courts, will be managed more easily and quickly. On that basis, I shall ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

The noble Lord said that he spoke also to his notice of intention to oppose Clause 50 stand part and, I believe, Clause 51 and Schedule 7, so he is asking for a rather wide-ranging reply. Perhaps I may answer on Clause 50, which has two parts.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: Before the noble Lord turns to those clauses, will he permit me to inquire what consultation arrangements would be available if statutory instruments are used to change these boundaries under the proposed clause?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I have already said that the magistrates' courts committees would be consulted in detail before any order is proposed. Indeed, it will be not just the magistrates' courts committees but the magistrates themselves on the individual benches. So there would be opportunity for full consultation.

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