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Lord Dixon-Smith: The principle enunciated in the amendments is impeccable, but I must admit that I am now slightly confused as to which area we are talking

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about. I had thought that, taking into account the original purpose of the court administration councils and the areas which they were to serve, they would be matched far more appropriately to the police authority areas and that the local justice areas would be rather smaller. In fact, a court administration council would cover a number of local justice areas. I may have gained the wrong impression.

The current organisation of the magistracy includes a local Bench area and a county area, which is a police authority area, and those provide a kind of federal arrangement. It is an arrangement which has worked very well in the past. I envisaged that that was the type of arrangement that the Government had in mind. I may have been wrong.

However, if a local justice area is the same as a court administration area, then, in my view, one or the other is unnecessary. It would imply that the court administration council areas were much bigger. I believe that that would be unfortunate. I am sure that, when the Minister comes to reply, he will at least satisfy me as to the exact distinction between the two types of area, both of which at present are causing a certain amount of confusion in my mind.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I shall try to bring some clarity where there appears to be confusion, but I do not promise that I shall get it absolutely right. A substantive amendment has been proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. The effect of the amendment would be to make it clear that, when specifying local justice area boundaries, the Lord Chancellor will have regard to the desirability of ensuring that those areas are coterminous with the 42 criminal justice areas. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this important issue.

At present, magistrates are appointed to a particular commission area on the basis of where they reside. Most summary offences must be tried in the commission area where the alleged offence took place. That is the basis on which magistrates are appointed. At present, commission areas are divided into one or more petty sessions areas—areas to which magistrates are assigned by the Lord Chancellor. As a consequence of the provisions in the Bill, we are abolishing commission areas from statute and—the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was right—replacing petty sessions areas with local justice areas. We shall introduce a transitional provision confirming that local justice area boundaries will be the same as those of petty sessions areas on commencement. The amendment seems to assume, incorrectly, that local justice areas are replacing commission areas.

If, as the amendment suggests, all local justice areas were to be truly coterminous with the criminal justice areas, there would be only 42 local justice areas in England and Wales. That would mean that, instead of 275, there would be only 42 Benches in England and Wales. We suggest that Benches of that size would be impractical and could erode the important close local links that currently exist between magistrates and their local communities. In earlier debates, many Members

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of the Committee argued vociferously for those links. It is clear that such an amendment would have a detrimental effect on the Government's commitment to local justice.

It may be the intention of the amendment that the boundaries of each local justice area should fall entirely within one of the 42 criminal justice system areas so that no local justice area would straddle more than one criminal justice system area. That is the current position with regard to petty sessions area boundaries and, initially, will also be the case in relation to local justice area boundaries. We expect that, in future, local justice area boundaries will remain within those of the criminal justice system areas. However—this is the important qualification—we would not want to commit to ensuring that on the face of the Bill, although I can understand why many Members of the Committee might want to oblige us to do so.

I caution the Committee that it is important to remember, for example, that magistrates' courts also hear civil and family cases and not simply criminal ones. Therefore, the organisation of local justice areas is not solely reliant on the needs of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

We understand the spirit and thinking behind the amendment but believe that it is unnecessary. We may require some flexibility. I take the noble Baroness's point that some flexibility was built into the amendment, but we consider it to be unnecessary. However, clearly we see coterminosity as desirable for local justice areas.

Baroness Seccombe: I thank the Minister for that rather complicated response. I am sure he will accept that I shall need to read it carefully to ensure that I have understood it completely. I am grateful to Members of the Committee who—like me, I believe—have found it difficult to understand what is meant by "local". As a magistrate, I feel that being local is very important. We ask people to sit on Benches and to operate within a certain local area—by that, one means within a comparatively few miles. If we expect people to travel a long distance, we shall limit the number of people available to sit as magistrates. Therefore, I believe that the debate on the word "local" is important.

I am grateful to everyone who has spoken in the debate. I shall read it carefully and see where we go from here. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 36 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton: This may be a convenient moment to take a break in the Committee's proceedings until 8.30 p.m. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

House resumed.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.30 to 8.30 p.m.]

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Courts Bill [HL]

House again in Committee on Clause 8.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale): My Lords I have to inform the House that in Divisions 3, 4, 5 and 6 this afternoon, the numbers voting Not-content should have been recorded as follows: in Division 3, 375; Division 4, 338; Division 5, 358; and Division 6, 317. In all cases that is one less than stated on the annunciator.

Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 37:

    Page 4, line 19, at end insert—

"( ) In making an order under subsection (2) or (4), the Lord Chancellor shall—
(a) make provision for the continuation of the employment of those justices' clerks who are currently employed, without imposing any requirement for a process of re-appointment; and
(b) have regard to the importance of retaining a link between existing benches of justices and their justices' clerk."

The noble Baroness said: This amendment seeks to ensure that if the Lord Chancellor exercises his power under subsection (4) of this clause and alters local petty sessions areas, that will not necessitate the reappointment of existing clerks. Not only would that be a time-consuming and potentially costly exercise; it would also affect the stability of the justices' clerks' employment.

The amendment seeks to meet some of the concerns expressed by the Justices' Clerks' Society in its response to the White Paper and the draft Bill. It is of the view that it is essential that we retain a link between a geographical group of justices, currently called a Bench, and their clerk. Can the Minister give assurances on that matter?

I was concerned to read the letter by the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, of 23rd December, which discussed the area to which justices' clerks will be appointed and which stated:

    "Whilst there will be no statutory link between justices' clerks and local justice areas, we fully expect that clerks will continue to be assigned to local areas".

That expectation would be abandoned at any stage if the Government so wished.

As I pointed out at Second Reading, at col. 21 of Hansard, in my view it is essential for justices to have a good working relationship with their clerk. That belief has been wholeheartedly backed by the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees. It is a relationship of neutral trust and respect that can be cultivated only over a period of time. It would be a great loss to the system to disregard the importance of a sustained relationship and most disruptive to the smooth running of the court. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, has eloquently explained the purpose of her amendment. We believe that this is extremely important. We are grateful to her for raising these issues.

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At present, justices' clerks are appointed by the magistrates' courts committee to a particular petty sessions area or areas. If the boundaries of such an area are to be altered and the justices' clerk for that area is to remain in post, he or she has to be reappointed. Under measures in the Bill, justices' clerks will no longer be appointed to a particular area. That means that when the Lord Chancellor makes an order, either setting up or changing the boundaries of local justice areas, it will not be necessary to reappoint justices' clerks.

However, the Lord Chancellor must have regard to the importance of retaining a link between existing Benches of justices and their clerks. In practice—and I think this will reassure the noble Baroness—we fully expect and desire that justices' clerks will still be assigned to local areas, although that will happen outside statute. That change will provide more flexibility in the deployment of clerks than there is under current arrangements. It will also give justices' clerks the opportunity to work in the headquarters of the new agency or, if appropriate, in the Lord Chancellor's Department more generally.

I should stress to the House that there is no intention that the Lord Chancellor will, by whim or any other motive, simply move justices' clerks from one area to another. I made it plain earlier that it is our intention that the boundaries of local justice areas will initially stay the same as the petty sessional areas and that the strong links between magistrates and their Benches will also remain. That is part of the equation.

I give the noble Baroness the assurance that magistrates will continue to be consulted about decisions that affect them, including the assignment of a justices' clerk for their area, although, as I said earlier, that will happen outside the remit of the statute.

So deployment is not expected as a matter of routine. Behind the amendment is the thought that justices' clerks will be redeployed other than they currently are. There may be occasions when, for personal or perhaps because of court business needs, they will need to be moved around. Therefore, in essence, we want to ensure that the current arrangements work in the future and it is our intention to ensure that we have some flexibility, but the Committee can be assured that we shall carefully consult those who are affected by any future redeployments.

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