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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I rarely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. However, the amendments are proved not to be worthless as they have elicited from the Minister a helpful reply, perhaps

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more helpful than she may have imagined. The amendments were never intended to be anything but probing.

I am grateful to those Members of the Committee who took part in the debate. The Minister put us on notice that there could indeed be a further transfer of functions from magistrates to justices' clerks but only in specified circumstances. The Minister gave an assurance to the Committee that such transfer of functions would result from consultation with the appropriate bodies. I am sure that the Magistrates' Association would be included in the consultation. That is an important matter.

I am delighted to hear that the Lord Chancellor's Department takes a different view on drafting from that adopted by the Home Office. The Home Office does not have such a high regard for the language of existing statutes and seeks to go all "new" on us. It disregards some of the existing legal language and substitutes more common or garden language. I accept entirely the Minister's careful explanation of why the word "to" is needed. During the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill we heard from Home Office Ministers that even though certain words were commonly understood and had been for decades we ought to change them as they were not really "with it". I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 53A to 55 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 23 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I had not thought of my point before, but it is worth briefly raising. I do not expect an answer from the Minister immediately. Subsection (7) seems entirely superfluous. The subsection relates to subsections (4) and (5). Subsection (4) begins:

    "The functions of a justices' clerk include".

Subsection (5) begins:

    "The powers of a justices' clerk include".

Therefore, of course those subsections,

    "do not limit . . . the powers and duties of a justices' clerk, or . . . the matters on which justices of the peace may obtain assistance from their clerk".

In a Bill of 113 pages, it is still worth saving four lines if one can. If the Minister took some advice about subsection (7), I think that she would find it absolutely unnecessary.

Clause 23 agreed to.

Clause 24 agreed to.

Clause 25 [Places, dates and times of sittings]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 56:

    Page 11, line 40, at end insert—

"( ) In discharging his duty under subsection (1), the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the need to ensure that all members of the community have reasonable access to a local magistrates' court."

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The noble Baroness said: I tabled the amendment after listening carefully to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, at Second Reading. He said that he wished to ensure that under Clause 25(1) the magistrates' courts were,

    "locally accessible by all communities in England and Wales. The Bill should provide for that as a statutory objective".—[Official Report, 9/12/02; col. 63.]

I agree with him.

I return to the argument that it is vital for all members of the community to have reasonable access to our courts. In our debates on Clause 1, I pressed an amendment that required the Lord Chancellor to have a duty to ensure that there was an efficient and effective system to support the work of the Supreme Court, county courts and magistrates' courts in both urban and rural areas. The amendment did not find favour with all Members of the Committee at that stage. I will not tire the Committee by repeating the arguments that I put then. In respect of the more narrow field of magistrates' courts under Clause 25, they are as valid as they were then.

Amendment No. 56 is more narrowly focused and yet more broad in its impact. It is focused solely on access to the magistrates' courts, where well over 90 per cent of all criminal cases are heard, yet it is broader and more inclusive than my amendment to Clause 1. It does not refer to rural or urban areas. The Minister seemed to think that suburban or semi-rural areas would be omitted, and I have listened to her in that respect. In the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, I have found a wording that must be wholly unobjectionable to her. The amendment would include the needs of all geographical areas, ethnic groups, religious groups, and those who have any difficulties with physical access, whether they use wheelchairs or not.

If the Lord Chancellor wishes to gain support for his plans for the new courts agency and unified system, he needs to make clear in the Bill a duty to deploy the resources of the unified courts administration in such a way that all members of our community have reasonable access to magistrates' courts. I am reasonable in leaving it to him to define what is reasonable. I beg to move.

Lord Clinton-Davis: I heard what the noble Baroness said, and I am sorry to tell her that I am not convinced. What does the Lord Chancellor have to do? He has to assure himself that all members of the community have reasonable access to a magistrates' court. I do not know how he goes about his duty. If he,

    "shall have regard to the need to ensure that all members of the community have reasonable access",

how does he go about that? Putting a duty on the Lord Chancellor that he will find it very difficult and expensive to fulfil is inappropriate.

If a member of the community feels some inability to conform with the requirement to attend a particular magistrates' court, writes to the court in the first place and, pending any positive answer, writes to the Lord

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Chancellor or to his Member of Parliament, that is appropriate. However, to ensure that a duty was stated in the Bill would be to legislate inappropriately.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is uncharacteristically unfair on this occasion. Like him, I have been involved in other matters in Committee upstairs and have not taken part in the debates on the Bill. However, I assume that the intention behind the amendment—I thought that it was clear—was to remind the Lord Chancellor of the need for all members of the public to have reasonable access to local magistrates' courts when considering matters such as their closure. There is great concern throughout the country when courts are closed and local people see justice taken further away from them. One gets complaints about the difficulty of getting to court and others of that nature.

I would have thought it reasonable to ask or require the Lord Chancellor to take account of the needs of the community when deciding whether a court should be closed. Perhaps the matter is covered by another part of the Bill; if so, I apologise for raising it at this stage. It seemed to me that that must be the purpose of the amendment.

Living within a few miles of Knutsford, where the argument is going on at the moment, I assure the noble Baroness that feelings run very high about the closing of local magistrates' courts and people having to travel substantial distances to other courts instead.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: I support the amendment, which takes me back to my early days as a solicitor when I was a partner in a small practice. The senior partner was the justices' clerk for the area, so I was naturally involved in the local court. The chairman of the Bench was Lord Maelor, Mr T.E. Jones, formerly the Member of Parliament for Merioneth. He knew everyone in the mining community of Rhosllannerchrugog. The clerk to the magistrates, my partner, Mr Maurice Evans, knew everyone in the chemical industry in Acrefair and Cefn-mawr. Between them, they could pinpoint any local miscreant to his family and background. Nothing could have been more local. They knew their people and there was a very considerable link between the Bench, the justices' clerk and the community that they served. I like to think that they occasionally did justice quite well.

Today, that court has of course gone, as have the court at Llangollen where I was brought up and others in the area. The Wrexham court is now the centre of the district, with a radius of some 20 miles in all directions. It is quite impossible for that same link with the community to continue. I understand that the purpose of the amendment is to try to keep the magistrates' courts as local as possible to serve the community—not just the miscreants in the community, but those who are witnesses or victims, those who need the services of the court from time to time. I very much support that position.

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5.30 p.m.

Viscount Tenby: Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford: happy days indeed. Nowadays in most courts in this country one's first task in the retiring room is to look through the list to see whether one knows anyone on it. That drives a coach and horses through the idea of local knowledge. One has to retire and declare an interest if one knows anyone, even the grandmother of anyone on the list.

I try not to be unhelpful to the noble Baroness—I never want to be unhelpful to her—but the amendment is drawn with rather a broad brush. It is like inviting us to support apple pie and mother. This provision is something we all want, but to some extent the Lord Chancellor and his colleagues are in a dilemma. People can take advantage of the new freedom to move cases around because a court has wheelchair access or better video facilities. Such matters are important in trying to improve our system of justice. I do not believe that in this context one should impose a straitjacket. Of course we all want local justice, provided we can have all the other points as well.

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