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Maximum Number of Stipendiary Magistrates Order 1999

5.15 p.m.

Lord Bach rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd November be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is made under Section 11(4) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. That Act set the number of stipendiary

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magistrates outside the Inner London and City of London commission areas at 50. This draft order seeks to increase that number to 56.

Let me take this opportunity to express the Government's appreciation for the lay magistrates, over 30,000 of whom give their voluntary services free for the benefit of their communities. In expressing the Government's gratitude to them, I know that I am expressing a view that the whole House will share. At least 95 per cent of criminal cases begin and end in the magistrates' courts. The role of the lay magistracy is pivotal to the administration of justice. Its continued good health depends essentially on sufficient numbers of suitable people from all walks of life applying for appointment. To raise the profile of the lay magistracy and to increase awareness that "ordinary" people can apply to be magistrates, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor launched a month-long national recruitment campaign during March and April of this year. I am happy to say that the campaign was a great success. Over 15,000 enquiries were received. My noble and learned friend hopes that many of those will lead to applications for appointment.

My Lords, stipendiary appointments are only made where there is a clear need for support for the lay bench. The responsibility for considering whether or not it is right to bid for a full-time stipendiary rests with my noble and learned friend's local advisory committees, after consultation with the local Magistrates' Courts Committee, bench chairmen and justices' clerks. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has also recently decided that the Magistrates' Association must also be asked for its views on each occasion that a stipendiary appointment is being considered.

The criteria to be considered before recommending an appointment are set out in the Lord Chancellor's Directions for Advisory Committees on Justices of the Peace. In essence these are, first: are there excessive and apparently settled delays in disposing of the court's business; secondly, is the business of the court being dealt with within acceptable time limits but only by way of an unacceptable use of magistrates or court staff; thirdly, does the lay bench exceed 250 magistrates (the lowest size of bench at which the workload suggests a stipendiary would be fully used)?

As you can see, the paramount consideration is that delays must be kept to a minimum in the interests of justice. It is also important that excessive demands are not placed on lay volunteers. I remind the House that the minimum requirement for individual magistrates is to achieve 26 half-day sittings per year.

Before seeking the approval of this House to the increase, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor consulted interested parties on a proposal to increase the maximum to 60. The majority supported his proposal. The Magistrates' Association, however, expressed concern, in particular that it was not the right time to increase the limit given the imminent changes contained in the Access to Justice Act 1999 to establish a unified stipendiary bench. The Lord Chancellor is keen to ensure that one of the

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benefits that should flow from unification is that much better use is made in the deployment of district judges (magistrates' courts), as stipendiary magistrates will be called, to emphasise that they are full-time professional judges. That will require greater flexibility in their use. However, there is a great deal of preparatory work that needs to be done before the provisions in the 1999 Act can be brought into effect. The Lord Chancellor believes that he needs to move sooner and to increase the statutory maximum so that those areas that urgently need stipendiary assistance can receive it.

However, having considered carefully the views of the Magistrates' Association, my noble and learned friend has decided to limit the increase to the minimum required to meet the requests for new posts already identified as essential to ensure the smooth running of the criminal justice system in those areas. He therefore seeks approval only for an increase to 56 posts.

The Government are concerned to ensure that there should be no grounds for the lay magistracy to fear any kind of a take-over by the stipendiary magistracy. There are over 30,000 lay magistrates and outside London, 48 stipendiary magistrates. The proposals that the magistrates' courts (subject to a right of appeal to the Crown court) will decide in either way cases where these are to be tried with the expectation of an increase in the trial business of the magistrates' courts are a vote of confidence in the lay magistracy. The number of lay magistrates has increased year by year since 1988.

Those areas that have stipendiary magistrates are generally well pleased that such appointments were made. I am sure that if the House agrees to this order, that situation will continue and, if anything, improve. The appointment of a stipendiary must always be seen as complementary to the lay bench rather than displacing it. The Government are committed to the principle of the lay magistracy continuing to play a significant part in our criminal justice system. That is why the Government believe that this order can be supported. The order will help to maintain the lay magistracy and benefit the administration of justice. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd November be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Bach.)

Lord Kingsland: My Lords, the Minister's unequivocal statement of support for the lay magistracy has left me with little to say from these Benches. I know that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor gave the same expression of support on his appointment some two-and-a-half years ago. I am glad to see that the Government Benches continue with that commitment.

The noble Lord said that the new stipendiary appointments are designed to supplement the work of the lay magistrates. That suggests to me that, in the opinion of the Government, there are some identifiable areas which cannot be satisfactorily covered by the work of the lay magistracy. Can the

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noble Lord give the House some indication as to what those areas might be? For example, are they specialist areas such as environmental work which involves issues of such complexity that they are inappropriate for the lay magistracy? Or is it that in some areas there is such a heavy burden of ordinary work that some assistance from the stipendiary part of the profession is desirable?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for his comments. In response to his question as to why stipendiaries are needed in certain areas, clearly a heavy burden of work is a major factor. However, it is also right to say that stipendiaries, as trained, professional lawyers, are sometimes better suited to hear cases which involve complex points of law. We should never underestimate that such cases arise in the magistrates' courts. At present, as the noble Lord will be aware, research is taking place as to the way in which the lay magistracy and the stipendiary magistracy can work together and to examine the advantages and disadvantages of both types. I am happy to tell the House that in the vast majority of cases the two types of magistracy complement each other extremely well.

In addition, it is sometimes more convenient for there to be stipendiary magistrates where cases are bound to take a longer period of time. The shorter cases are very much the remit of the lay magistracy.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can he allay the journalistic rumour that has been prevalent recently that the Lord Chancellor plans to phase out lay magistrates?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, for asking that question. I hope I answered it in my few remarks this afternoon. If I did not make myself clear, at least to the noble Lord, the answer to his question is "yes".

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, how much does this decision have to do with money? I read in the press that it is more cost-effective to deal with cases by way of a stipendiary magistrate than lay magistrates. Stipendiary magistrates can undertake more cases in a day because they are professional lawyers. If that is the case, I hope the Lord Chancellor does not have it in mind that the extra cost of using lay magistrates is not worth the money. As somebody who was involved for many years in the lay administration of justice, albeit in Scotland, I believe that lay involvement in these matters is crucial. The system in England and Wales involves a wide variety of members of the public. It helps the public's understanding of the law and gives the public confidence in the legal system. I hope therefore that if the Lord Chancellor is thinking of saving money by using more stipendiary magistrates, he will not let that persuade him to reduce the number of lay magistrates.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her comments. Her experience in this field is widely

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recognised. Of course money is not the reason for using stipendiary rather than lay magistrates. As I said in my opening remarks, what matters is the quality of justice and that means justice being delivered early rather than late. Those are major considerations in deciding whether or not to appoint stipendiary magistrates.

The points the noble Baroness makes in relation to money are well taken.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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