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Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I too support the amendment. I do not believe that anyone need be worried about the failure to define the concept of what is reasonable. The notion of what is reasonable is perhaps the only great contribution made by British jurisprudence to the study of the law. One knows it when one sees it.
While agreeing with the points already raised, I view this amendment partly from the point of view of witnesses and partly from the point of view of magistrates. Time and again one hears of cases that have been held up and interfered with in one way or another because witnesses have not been able to travel long distances to attend a court in time. That is particularly true in rural areas. It is absolutely true that magistrates should have local knowledge, although, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said, not necessarily knowledge of the characters of those appearing in the list. It is important that the noble Baroness should heed the letter written to her by the chairman, Dr Laurence Howard, of the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees, on 5th April. In that letter, which has perfectly properly been copied to some noble Lords, he said:
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: It has its relevance, but I do not believe that the thrust of the amendment is negatived by that. There is an overriding desirability to have reasonable access to a local magistrates' court. That drives at the whole purpose of the lay magistracy and of sustaining local confidence in locally administered justice. Although the accessibility for witnesses is one matter that the Lord Chancellor should take into account, there are also many others. I hope that my noble friend's amendment receives from the noble Baroness the careful consideration that it deserves, particularly in light of the letter from which I have just read.
Lord Renton: I support the motive of my noble friend's amendment and I agree with what my noble friends have said, but we should aim to ensure that those who attend the courts, or who are likely to attend the courts, will behave themselves once there. There are drunkards, lunatics and notorious criminals whose behaviour, according to ushers who allow people entry to a court, may be dubious.
My noble friends hope and believe that the expression "reasonable access" will cover the kind of situation that I have mentioned. If the Minister feels that the words "reasonable access" are an adequate protection, well and good, but it is arguable that we need to make it clear that good behaviour must be maintained. I suppose a slight excess of zeal may be allowed so long as people behave properly.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: As we are in Committee, perhaps I may ask my noble friend a question. My noble friend spoke about the need for proper behaviour within court buildings. The Committee will be aware that such behaviour is not always adhered to. Does my noble friend agree with me that once someone is in a court building there is recourse to common law in regard to any misbehaviour that takes place and that once in a courtroom there could be recourse to contempt of court? Perhaps that reassures my noble friend about existing ways of dealing with people's behaviour.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have listened carefully to all that has been said in an important debate which goes to the heart of our criminal justice system. Access for all is an important matter. We have a certain sympathy for the amendment in those terms because the Government want to see access for all. However, we have another important responsibility which is to ensure that the courts' estate is run well and efficiently and that it works. That is why Clause 25 is so drafted. It empowers the Lord Chancellor to direct where and when magistrates' courts are to sit. That would allow magistrates' courts' business to be conducted at any place in England and Wales. It brings magistrates' courts into line with the Crown Court, the High Court,
Amendment No. 56 would require the Lord Chancellor, when directing the places in which magistrates' courts may sit, to have regard to the need to ensure that all members of the community have reasonable access to a local magistrates' court. I am grateful for the way in which the issue has been raised. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said in the debate on Amendment No. 2, in our view improved access to local courts can be achieved only when the unification of the administration of the courts' system is properly in place. It is our belief that the unification of court administration will allow better use of the court estate, including increased opportunity for co-location of county courts within magistrates' courts in rural areas. That will permit a wider range of rural areas to have the services of both county courts and magistrates' courts.
There are already a number of examples of such developments, including co-location of county courts within magistrates' courts buildings in Rotherham, Kendal and Ashford. Additionally, I understand that the county court in Altringham has recently moved into improved accommodation in Trafford magistrates' court; a reverse approach, perhaps.
The rural White Paper 2000 ensures that rural needs are taken into account as part of the formal policy-making process from April 2001. This is often described as "rural-proofing" policy making, as I said in our earlier debate. It requires that government departments assess whether policies will have a different impact in rural areas; and, where necessary, decide what sort of policy adjustments or compensations need to be built into the general policy to reflect rural needs and circumstances. The Lord Chancellor will have to have regard to rural-proofing when making directions under Clause 25.
Provisions in this clause and elsewhere in the Bill will remove current statutory restrictions on where magistrates' courts can sit. Magistrates' courts are, for example, currently unable to sit on licensed premises. Some may say that that is beneficial. On a recent visit to one of my favourite rural pubs I noticed a courtroom. I was told that many decades ago it was indeed a courtroom; a court leet, I believe. But that is a digression.
If we were minded to accept the need for the amendment, we would hesitate to insert the phrase "the community" into legislation without any notion of what it might cover. The amendment would also need a couple of other small corrections. Clause 25(1) confers a power on the Lord Chancellor, so the amendment should not refer to a duty on him, and it should make reference to "court houses" rather than courts, since a magistrates' court is defined in the
I return to the rural dimension, which has been referred to by a number of noble Lordsparticularly the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresfordconcerned that rural services are being lost. We have made plain our commitment to work closely in this regard with the Countryside Agency and other rural bodies to develop effective policies for the delivery of rural justice. We have worked closely with them on our proposals for the civil and family estate. They are comfortable with our arrangements and with the premise that services should be defined by the service itself rather than by the bricks and mortar through which it is delivered. That is an important consideration.
The new arrangement will enable extensive co-location of services across all jurisdictions from joint facilities. The Countryside Agency is clearly happy about that. It will reduce the prospect of closures. There have been many closures in the past year for the understandable reason of rationalising and making good and effective use of the estate.
Under a unified administration it should be easier to share buildings and to timetable particular cases in courts with the right facilities. There will be increased accesswhich is the point of the amendmentto specialist facilities that will enable and benefit all court users. I hope with those assurances and our desire to do our best to ensure future access, the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: I was interested to hear the Minister echo words from a previous Administration: "There is no such thing as community".
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