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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I never dreamt that we would have such an exciting start to the Courts Bill. "Tyranny" and "the end of justice as we know it" have been referred to. If only it were so exciting. The Bill is about justiceand justice is the most important issue.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for bringing forward, as he promised at Second Reading, the proposed amendment to Clause 1 because it gives me an opportunity to set out clearly what we aim to achieve. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for exposing so fully and exhorting the powers that the Lord Chancellor's Department now has. It is a little known fact and I am grateful to him for enumerating the burden that now rests so weightily on the shoulders of the Lord Chancellor and his junior Ministers. I thank the noble Lord wholeheartedly for that.
However, some of the burdens were transferred a while ago. Transfers of ministerial functions are made regularly to effect improvements in the delivery of government business and, in this case, improvements in the justice system. None of the burdens transferred to the Lord Chancellor has been ill-placed. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that no one in this Chamber should under-estimate the Lord Chancellor's capacity for work. If the 20-hour day was invented, it was probably invented for him if for no one else.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, was concerned about the formulation of effective and efficient administration and the reason for the reform. The reform is intended to improve the management of the system. The unification of the management of the courts will enable better use of resources at national and local levels, including better use of the court estate. The agency will be flexible, matching resources to need, unhindered by organisational boundaries. It will be more efficient and provide better value through the sharing and pooling of resources and greater purchasing power, freeing resource for front-line operations.
The Committee will remember that in his report Lord Justice Auld identified the difficulties currently experienced as a result of the way in which the courts are managed. At page 290 of the report he stated:
We have already identified about 70 county courts where there is potential for co-locating hearings with magistrates' courts, where joint use will make the courts more viable than maintaining separate, under-used facilities which might otherwise be under threat of closure. I heard what a number of noble Lords said about the need to keep justice local and to utilise the courts estate in a proper way. This measure is a way of doing so more efficiently and effectively.
There are examples of co-operation happening now. Co-location of county courts within magistrates' courts buildings already exists in a number of locations around the countryfor example, Rotherham, Kendal and Ashfordand Altrincham county court has recently moved into improved accommodation in Trafford magistrates' court. But projects such as these are voluntary and the procedures are cumbersome. Where accommodation is shared, the agreement of three different organisations is required to get a project off the groundthe Court Service, the magistrates' courts committee and the local authority which is an area's "paying authority".
The improved access to local courts sought by my noble friend Lord Jones, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and other Members of the Committee can be achieved by unifying the courts administrationwhich will enable better management of the resources at our disposaland not by a change in the wording of the clause. The import of what we are doing is very important. This is not a centralising measure but an opportunity to achieve real local accountability and local involvement.
Amendment No. 2, which stands in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is unnecessary. The general duty already requires that the Lord Chancellor provides support to the business of the Supreme Court and all county courts and magistrates' courts, regardless of whether they are located in rural, urban, or indeed semi-rural or suburban areas.
Amendment No. 4, which stands in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Hunt, and to which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, spoke with her usual eloquence, requires that the annual report on the business of the courts under Clause 1(4) will include a report on the manner in which the Lord Chancellor has fulfilled his Clause 1 duty to ensure that there is an efficient and effective system to support the courts, and that appropriate services are provided for the courts.
Such a provision is unnecessary. Consistent with our intention to establish an executive agency to carry out the day-to-day running of the courts, the annual report of that agency will be laid before Parliament to satisfy the requirement in the clause. The annual report will give information about the business of all the courts and will, for the first time, present performance information about the magistrates' courts and the Crown Court in a single annual report, available for
The clause is in line with Section 1(12) of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which currently requires the Lord Chancellor to report on the business of the courts and under which the Court Service annual report is laid before Parliament. I have noted the concerns of noble Lords about this subsection in general and I shall give further consideration as to how these concerns may be satisfied.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, pointed out, there is a variation in performance across the country and a real need for improvement. The Bill will make no changes to the system for appointing magistrates. It will retain the magistrates' local links and magistrates will be assigned to local justice areas.
At the moment it is not the Lord Chancellor who makes decisions in relation to closures but the magistrates' court committee. The Lord Chancellor becomes involved only if there is an appeal by the paying authority, the local authority. Guidance on courthouse closures issued to the MCCs by the CCMCC is being updated to include a rural proofing check list to ensure that any impact on rural users is taken into account. This move is in accordance with the report of Lord Justice Auld and will bring about the improvements that Members of the Committee very much want to see.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: I have been listening to the verbiage in which everything surrounding the Bill is steeped. What on earth is a "rural proofing checklist"? What on earth is an "internal and external stakeholder"the phrase used in the letter distributed by the noble Baroness? What specifically in this context is meant by "local accountability"a phrase used a short time ago by the noble Baroness? What does it mean? It certainly does not mean the power of hiring and firing staff; it does not mean the power of directing staff and telling them what to do; or conducting any managerial form. What does "local accountability" mean in plain English, so that we can all understand it?
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: It may be helpful to the Committee if I comment on the amendments standing in my name before the Minister responds. She may find it convenient to respond to both at the same time.
Perhaps I may begin with my Amendment No. 4. I listened carefully to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Renton. I always defer to him on drafting. I accept entirely what he said in regard to my use of the word "manner". I shall take the amendment away and examine it carefully.
I was disappointed to hear the Minister say that the amendment is unnecessary. I shall not press it at this stage, because I accept the view of my noble friend Lord Renton that it is not as well drafted as it might be. However, for the convenience of the Committee, I
The Minister says that the amendment is unnecessary. It is my view that it is necessary. It would act as a simple aide-memoire to future generations of Lord Chancellors. Earlier, the Minister referred to the personalitythe person who currently occupies the office of Lord Chancellor. But we are talking about the office itself, as it will persist, we hope, for generations to come.
Therefore, Amendment No. 2 perhaps deserves more regard from the Government. It offers a practical and perhaps a right way forward to achieve greater clarity in Clause 1. On that basis, I give notice that if the Minister is unable to accept the amendment I may well be minded to press it when it is called.
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