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Lord Borrie: I was most interested to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury—in particular because he answered the question that I put to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay: she, as it were, passed it over to him. I believe his answer was that the local area court management boards proposed in his amendment would be concerned not merely with the administration of justice in magistrates' courts but also with the administration of justice in the Crown Court and the county courts—which is quite different from the present situation, where they are under a court service. I was interested for several reasons. Like my noble friend Lord Jones, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, argued that we should all cherish and value the work of magistrates as a special feature of this country's administration of justice compared with that of others. Surely we should all share that view.

The excellence of so much of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, was spoiled by three matters. First was his obsession with the notion that the Lord Chancellor wishes to centralise in his own hands all power relating to the administration of justice. The second was the noble Lord's failure to address himself to the argument of Lord Justice Auld in his massive report of a couple of years ago for a unified system of court management. Thirdly, I was concerned that the noble Lord made no mention of the fact that magistrates, whose role in life we all cherish, will gain something in return for the loss he described. He never mentioned that they will gain a role in the administration of all courts through the Bill's proposal for court administration councils and their larger consultative role.

The Auld report's case for a unified court management system was made powerfully a couple of years ago. It proposed the replacement of the present system of two separate court structures whereby Crown Courts are run by the Court Service and magistrates' courts are run by local Magistrates' Courts Committees, which makes for much inefficiency. I am still unsure whether the two opposition parties are for or against unification of the court management system. If they are in favour, it is odd to go about unification by proposing that in the administration of all courts in the country there should be a division of responsibility among—pick your number—42, 30 or however many areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, quoted from the Auld report. At least he paid attention to it. The report, at page 292, states that there should be,

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    "an executive agency providing a national service but with maximum delegation of managerial responsibility and control of resources to an accountable 'local manager' working in close liaison with the professional and lay judiciary".

Clause 4 seems to provide for that. But the opposition parties seem to want 42 different bodies, or whatever number they propose, not a unified national service. The logic of the Auld report was to point to a national executive agency, which I shall not describe because my noble friend Lady Scotland did so adequately on 20th January as reported at column 543 of Hansard. She referred to an executive agency working in partnership with the court administration councils for each area, with each such council comprising members of the lay and professional judiciary and representatives of the local community.

The Auld report also pointed to a local manager being employed by the court agency, not, as the opposition parties propose in their amendments, by a local management board. The amendments seem to constitute a complete turnabout from a unified structure, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, admitted. Their effect would be nowhere near what the Auld report recommended as desirable and sensible for a rational court structure.

10 p.m.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: The noble Lord's quality of offensiveness is such that he almost persuaded me not to make this brief speech. At the risk of attracting death stares from my noble friends on the Front Bench and from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, I have some sympathy with the Government's position. If the issue had been restricted to that of the magistracy, I would have had complete sympathy with the amendments.

There is a real argument to be engaged in about the desirability of a unified court system. I know that I am a tedious advocate of the virtues of the Scottish system, but we have something like that. Nevertheless, in England, the magistracy is one of the jewels in the crown. The Government damage, at their risk, that wonderful contribution of lay justice which is not to be found anywhere else in the world and ought to be held in the highest possible regard.

As I understand the role of the court administration councils, and as the Government wish to advance them, they should give the Lord Chancellor recommendations on how he should discharge his general duty in relation not only to magistrates' courts but to the Crown Court and county courts. I am sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that the Queen's writ should run uniformly over the whole country. The Lord Chancellor has a general duty, and he should discharge it. In that context, regretfully, I do not entirely buy into the arguments that have been advanced, given the context within which the council is to be established.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, may find a measure of comfort in what I have said, but let me tell her that I find the relationship between subsections (1) and (3) of Clause 5 so offensive that even if no one else divides on the relevant amendment, I shall. I have no doubt that the Lord Chancellor should have a general

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duty. I shall at a later stage have longer observations to make about this quite unnecessary restriction that the court administration councils can only make recommendations relating specifically to the area for which they are established. I give the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, fair warning. It seems a key point, and perhaps she would like to reflect on it before we next return to the Committee stage. In short compass, at present, I hope that I have given her at least a small measure of comfort.

Lord Hylton: It is regrettable that we should be discussing these important amendments after dinner, at 10 o' clock, in a thinly attended Committee.

I have a good deal of sympathy for this group of amendments, but feel that they could be considerably improved. Subsection (4)(a) of Amendment No. 23 refers to

    "an officer of the board".

I would like it to refer to officers of the courts, whose first loyalty is to the court and the interests of justice and not the interests of some centralised administration. The proposed subsections (7) and (8) in Amendment No. 28 seem to give back to the Lord Chancellor the widest possible powers to do whatever he likes. I do not think that can be quite right or achieves the purpose.

Can the present system of justice, as exercised in magistrates' courts on a voluntary basis by volunteers, be combined with the professional courts with professional judges and juries? The two seem very different animals and I wonder whether the benefits claimed in the Auld report are real.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I shall briefly support the amendments. Given the Government's reluctance to show any sign that they wish to move on the substance of these clauses, the amendments will inevitably have to come forward and are bound to be strongly supported. Had the Government shown some sign of movement, there might have been some justification for staving them off. Like my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser, I have considerable support for the idea of a unified courts administration system. However, the fact is that we have a lacuna in the information provided to us and we can get no answers. The inevitable result of a vacuum is that something will try to fill it. The amendments have a great deal of merit and are worthy of support in the absence of any movement or indication by the Government of precisely how the new system will work.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I note that it is now five past 10. Although I would like to be telegraphic in my response, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, would have put it, these amendments deserve a full response, because so many points have been made. I commend to the Committee the comments made by my noble friend Lord Borrie. For a moment I wondered whether there was unity of purpose to unify the courts. I adopt every statement made by my noble friend. I am most grateful for the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, although I understand that it is given with a caveat.

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There has been no U-turn. We have local decision-making. These decisions will be taken locally by chief officers in partnership with the court administration council. I am most grateful to my noble friend for reminding the Committee of what Lord Justice Auld said in the report that has caused us to seek to reform the courts administration structure in the way we suggest.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: Does the noble Baroness accept that Lord Justice Auld said nothing about councils? He said that he leaves that to others, as the quotation that I gave shows.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: That is right. I shall not reiterate everything that my noble friend Lord Borrie said. He rightly referred to the comments of Lord Justice Auld that telegraph the way in which he suggests this may be managed and informed on a local basis, outlined in detail. That is echoed in the structure we have adopted.

I appreciate that, at first blush, the suggestion in the amendments seems attractive—until one examines how it will work. We are told that there is agreement that a unified system has merit. We see much of that merit in the Court Service at the moment—the ability to move the occupation of courts from one area to another, the way in which area-to-area co-operation can help relieve the burden on certain courts and the way in which judges co-operate with each other, crossing boundaries to relieve brother and sister judges in other areas. Hertfordshire may assist Bedfordshire, who may assist Cambridgeshire. That happens with success and to the benefit of the individual citizen who awaits the determination of their case.

It is important that we do not concentrate on magistrates' courts alone, valuable though they are. We must consider the system overall.

I reiterate that we, too, believe that the function performed by magistrates is extremely valuable and precious. It was this Government who firmly said that the suggestion that we should do away with the lay magistracy and replace it with perhaps 1,000 district judges was not acceptable. In legislation we shall bring forward in due course, we propose to expand the jurisdiction of magistrates to enable them to have greater sentencing powers. So it cannot be said that this Government do not properly value the magistrates and the function they perform. I regret to say, however, that we believe that the model put forward in these amendments is internally inconsistent. I shall, if I may, touch on some of those inconsistencies.

Our proposals are the fruit of a long period of discussion and consultation, beginning with Sir Robin Auld's review—which recommended a single, nationally funded administrative structure, but also one that provided significant local autonomy and accountability. In our statement of intent in Justice for All and in further work with the magistrates' court community, we did consider alternatives to the model set out in the Bill. We know that our objectives—local delegation and accountability within a national framework—are not easy bedfellows.

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We considered separate executive management boards with a national co-ordinating structure but concluded that it would not cure the defects that Sir Robin and our stakeholders diagnosed. It would undermine all that we seek to achieve by unifying, for reasons that I shall explain in commenting in detail on this amendment. We looked for a compromise—I suspect that noble Lords have made the same search—but concluded that a hybrid structure would serve only to muddy the waters and make it less clear than it is now who is responsible to Parliament for the effective and efficient administration of the courts.

There are a number of disadvantages to Amendment No. 23. I shall, if I may, explain why we reject it. First, it would not create a unified administration. It would create 42 separate court administrations. Instead of breaking down organisational barriers, the amendment would erect them, undermining what we want to achieve in establishing clear accountability for national performance. The amendment would leave the Lord Chancellor with accountability for national performance but would give local boards the tools to deliver. The Lord Chancellor could intervene only by means of persuasion or by a cumbersome process of statutory direction. That is not a satisfactory situation.

I should like to say something about court closures. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that court closures are an example of the difficulties. He said, "Look what happens when magistrates appeal to the Lord Chancellor". Let us look at it. It is the MCCs that decide to close courts. The Lord Chancellor is involved only in the event of an appeal by the paying authority. There is no specific criteria, as every appeal is decided individually. Common themes are accessibility and the cost of travel. In 2001, 12 appeals were decided and all 12 were dismissed. Of course, that means that the Lord Chancellor upheld the decisions made by the magistrates' courts committees.

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