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Lord Dixon-Smith: I make a plea for rural areas to be taken properly into consideration in these matters. Whether a person is the victim of a charge or the victim of a burglary, access to justice is very significant. I come from EssexWelsh noble Lords may not even recognise it as rural. However, decisions taken in the past, in the name of rationalisation, on access to magistrates' courts mean that even in Essex it is quite likely that a person may have to travel on public transport for over an hour and a half in order to get to a court. Most people in Essex have inevitably solved the problem in the environmentally unfriendly wayby owing a car. Even a car is not without its expense and troubles. If a person owns an old banger, it may not always guarantee to get a person to court in time. Therefore, the question of access is fundamentally important. Although it may fly in the face of efficiency and effectiveness, it should be considered.
In the light of what has just been said, the question of the powers of the Lord Chancellor should be addressed. The powers are spelt out in considerable detail in this BillI read them with considerable interest. I admit that I had somewhat peculiar feelings about them because if the Lord Chancellor were properly to spend his time on the responsibilities which this Bill gives him, when there is no process or
Eighteen separate executive functions are listed in the Bill, some of which the Lord Chancellor executes at present under known processes, but no process is described on the face of the Bill as to how he should fulfil those functions. Those are functions which are totally and personally his responsibility. The Lord Chancellor has the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, as a very able assistant. He has a whole department full of civil servants who may well undertake much of this work. But the way in which it is to be described in the Bill is not set out. We have no knowledge of what is to happen. As drafted, responsibility is personally with the Lord Chancellor, in a way that is different and distinct from the ways in which I have usually seen ministerial responsibilities described in a Bill. That concerns me.
I have every faith in the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, but when a tool is fashioned, it should be remembered that reasonable people may not always be the people who will use it. We should be concerned about that particular aspect.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I agree with what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said about the importance of close scrutiny of any powers which are conferred or added to at the hands of the executive. On reading the Second Reading debate again, one notes that time and again noble Lords perceive this measure as centralising. Time and again, the importance of local justice is emphasised and the two are really incompatible.
Therefore, it is right that in a Bill which greatly enhances the power of the Lord Chancellor, it should begin with a statement of general duty. I speak with great diffidence on any matter connected with parliamentary drafting in the presence of my noble friend Lord Renton who is a great authority on the subject. Purists cavil at statements of general duty; still more, at statements of general purpose. They actually come to very much the same thing.
We are now into a cultand I do not believe that it is one that will be reversedwhere Bills begin with very general statements of this character. I, for one, do not object to that in this Bill. However, I want to see a broader formulation of the general duty than the clause gives at present. I thought that I might venture, presumptuously, to offer the Minister a tiny bit of assistance in formulating her reply. I fear that at the foot of her brief there appears the word in capital letters "Resist".
Can the Minister really find it in her heart to object to the word "fair" being added to the general duty? It would be difficult to do that, it seems to me, but she is a person of great ingenuity. I know that she would not wish to find a way of objecting to that, so perhaps her mind will be concentrated on the last part, which is,
All Members of the Committee have spoken of the need for public confidence in the system of justice, and the reasons for that do not need reciting. I therefore hope that she will accept that analysis of the task which will confront her if she resists the amendment and concentrates on those two short points.
As regards Amendments Nos. 2 and 4, without repeating what has been said, I greatly support the importance of rural justice. One of the grounds for changing the administration of the magistrates' courts in the Bill is the wide variation in the performance of magistrates' courts throughout the country as against a particular target. Rural magistrates' courts are often singled out for adverse comment. One of the reasons for cases having to be adjourned must be that witnesses, let alone parties, find it impossible to reach court in time. They have to travel long distances on erratic bus services and sometimes find themselves unable to attend. What then happens? The court either has to dispose of the case in the absence of a witness, in which case justice is not done, or the case is adjourned, which plays havoc with target records. That is where the proposal comes in. I cannot for the life of me see how there can be a reasonable objection to adding the words,
Lord Renton: This is the first time I have intervened in any way on the Bill. In doing so, perhaps I should mention that I have had a lot of experience of the matters contained in it. I was a Home Office Minister for four and a half years, admittedly many years ago. In those days, I was puzzled by the idea that the
We have not yet been told, and we may not learn in detail, the precise administrative proposals that the Lord Chancellor has, or will have, for the administration of justice in the magistrates' courts. But I believe that the present system of enabling local influence and power to be exerted in the choice of magistrates is most useful. I do not see any need for that to change merely because the Lord Chancellor, rather than the Home Secretary, will be responsible when the Bill comes into force.
Furthermore, I assume that the magistrates' courts will be brought under the control of the Lord Chancellor. I do not believe that any Members on our side will go so far as to try to change that, but we should try to ensure that the change is made in a way that enables justice to be done locally, even if the Lord Chancellor has to answer to Parliament for the way in which it is done.
I hate talking about myself, but it happens that I became a Queen's Counsel a long time agonearly 50 years ago. I had a varied experience undertaking minor judicial work as a recorder, chairman of quarter sessions and so forth. Indeed, for a couple of years I was a relief judge at the Old Bailey. Therefore, I naturally want to draw upon my memories of legal experienceand I share much more important and recent memories with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and others who have already spoken. I believe that when making such a fundamental change in our law we must be most careful. We must ensure that the statute in which it is done puts the matter in a way which is lucid, in the public interest and places the necessary responsibility on the Lord Chancellor but does not go into too much detail.
I am sorry to have spoken so generally, but I now turn to the amendments. I agree with my noble and learned friend that we should favour the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillipsor at least something on those lines. He has it pretty well right. Strictly speaking, from the drafting point of view, in using the general expression "magistrates' courts" it should not be necessary to refer to the "rural and urban areas". However, in the circumstances, in order to draw attention to the rural court, I see no harm in making those words part of the drafting. Therefore, I favour that amendment.
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