Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Jones: With some diffidence, I support the call for training and the views put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, with regard to the fundamental question she asked at the beginning of her remarks. The current family court can be a harrowing place. It is often a grim drama. The Bill proposes important measures. Our scrutiny must be wise. The interests of the child are paramount, and perhaps training is everything.

Both the current family court and the county court can take the same cases. Do Ministers have a breakdown of the percentage of cases taken to these courts? Surely the proposals are based on research and information sufficient to give the answer. Why do advocates favour the county court route? That seems

11 Feb 2003 : Column 583

to be the case. Are Ministers content with that situation? Would some contact cases be dealt with as easily in the current family courts as in county courts?

Here, it is relevant to refer to the report by Dame Margaret Booth who referred to delays in the cases before the county courts. Dame Margaret proposed that proceedings of the current family courts should be transferred down to magistrates' courts. Is it the case that this has not happened despite the several years that have elapsed since Dame Margaret Booth published the report? Have Ministers ascertained why judges do not transfer the cases down, even when there is a long waiting list? Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor have a survey of these matters under way? Has the department reached a provisional judgment? Will the family proceedings courts get a fair crack of the whip?

The basic question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is fair and probing. An answer could help the proceedings today.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for tabling these amendments. I understand that they are probing. I hope to reassure her on many of the details. Again, I apologise for not responding in the letter; I was advised that the noble Baroness intended to table these amendments. Therefore, I hope to give a proper and full answer. In response to my noble friend Lord Jones, in answering many of the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, I shall also deal with the specific questions that he raised.

I want to reassure the noble Baroness immediately that she is right in her assessment of our approach in dealing with summary and other cases. The example that she gave was very apposite in relation to a case which is heard in the Crown Court—one summary issue dealing with the same defendant—and it would be appropriate and convenient for the Crown Court to deal with it. Because I know that this issue will be looked at by others, perhaps it may be helpful if I go through each amendment and give a full response. I hope that will be of assistance to all those who look at the issue because I understand that there is concern. I have stressed before and stress again that the Government fully recognise the valuable role that magistrates play in family and youth jurisdiction. They are committed to retaining it and to encouraging lay magistrates to sit in these jurisdictions. They have a valuable role and we would welcome more magistrates being involved in this area.

We are aware of the importance of having sufficient authorised justices to sit in these jurisdictions. As regards the family jurisdiction, it is the Government's intention to allocate more family work to the family proceedings courts and not to move away from the lay magistracy. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is right that in order to encourage and enable people to do that, there are issues in relation to training. We want to achieve the most effective and efficient distribution

11 Feb 2003 : Column 584

of caseload by ensuring that cases are heard at the lowest tier of court commensurate to their nature and complexity.

Clauses 44 and 45 set out the provisions for the constitution of family proceedings and youth courts, which are broadly similar to the present law in that individual lay justices must be authorised to hear cases in these courts. Clause 61 as drafted provides that other categories of judge have the authority of district judges (magistrates' courts) to deal with family and youth cases. The clause would allow judges of all tiers, including the High Court, to sit as youth or family justices. Provision is made for their authorisation. The reasoning is as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, anticipated. As part of the policy of greater flexibility in judicial deployment, it is proposed that High Court judges, circuit judges and recorders should be able to sit as magistrates. It would be possible therefore—as in the example given by the noble Baroness—at the end of a Crown Court case, for a judge to deal with a left-over summary offence, to which the defendant pleaded not guilty, then and there, without the case having to be sent back to the magistrates' court, which must, as the noble Baroness knows, be done at the moment.

It is thought that that type of situation will be the main use of Clause 61. Implementation of this clause will save time and speed the dispensation of justice in those cases. As stated in the Explanatory Notes, it is not expected that extensive use would be made of this provision.

We believe that, wherever possible, there should be consistency across jurisdictions. Accordingly, the clause applies to family proceedings as well. Neither is it expected that extensive use will be made of these powers in family cases, but again, we can give a practical example of when we envisage that these powers might be useful.

The Government are looking at introducing specialist combined family centres, comprising co-located county courts and family proceedings courts. If a district judge (magistrates' courts) with a full list of family cases were to fall ill, Clause 61 would enable a recorder or circuit judge to take on the caseload if no other district judge (magistrates' courts) was available. That would help reduce delay in such circumstances as the majority of listed cases would still be heard. For example, should a list collapse and there was spare time, it would be helpful to deal with the cases rather than sending people away .

Finally, the President of the Family Division has been consulted on these clauses and is content.

I turn to the detail of the amendments tabled to Clauses 44 and 45; Amendments Nos. 74 and 76. They deal with consultation on rules to be made under these clauses and have the effect of adding to the face of the Bill that the Lord Chancellor shall "publish" draft rules and shall take into consideration the views of the rule committee.

If I tell the Committee what happens currently, the noble Baroness may be satisfied that it complies with what she proposes in the amendment. I am not sure what the word "publish" means within the amendment, but it

11 Feb 2003 : Column 585

may be covered. It does not have a single meaning in statute. It is common practice for the department to consult on draft rules via its website in any event, as well as to send them to interested parties. I hope the noble Baroness will therefore see that the draft is in the domain so that comments can be made upon it.

Looking at the proposed duty to,

    "have regard to the recommendations",

of the rules committee, the courts have made it clear that in order to comply with the statutory duty to consult, the person under the duty must conscientiously take into account the product of the consultation. That being the case, we are not sure that the proposed duty adds anything—and we are concerned that it would have, if adopted, the unlooked-for effect of suggesting that statutory references to consultation which are not set out in such detail are somehow deficient. I am sure that the noble Baroness would not like that. I see her nodding in assent.

Amendments Nos. 75 and 77 seek to impose a duty on the Lord Chancellor to,

    "make provision for the training of a sufficient number of lay justices",

to sit in the youth courts and family proceedings courts. I put forward the argument similar to those that I put forward in relation to magistrates. I am sure that in this case, too, the noble Baroness is not seeking to suggest that we should appoint any magistrates just to make up the numbers. They must be of the right quality and nature to fit the bill and we would not seek to appoint unsuitable people.

I have made clear previously in Committee, and I do so again today, that the commitment to increase the use made of magistrates remains. When we previously met in Committee, I gave the figures that we intend to aim for and there is nothing I would want to say today which would detract from any of those comments.

I turn to the authorisation system more generally. I am grateful for the opportunity to set out our thinking on the new rules for magistrates. The legislation expresses only rule-making powers rather than the substance of those rules. The substance of the rules will be dealt with thoroughly and with appropriate consultation in due course. So views are not finalised on exactly what such new rules will say, but I can indicate the direction of our thinking if the noble Baroness would find that helpful.

Magistrates are currently selected for youth and family work by being voted by their fellow magistrates on to local panels. This system applies outside inner London. Within inner London, special arrangements apply. This selection system can sometimes be a little inconsistent across the jurisdiction as it need not be based on any particular selection criteria and may not reflect the particular qualities of the magistrates concerned. It will in any case cease to be workable or appropriate when magistrates have a national rather than purely local jurisdiction, including in family matters.

We will therefore establish a system by which suitable magistrates will be selected and trained under a more transparent procedure. There will be appropriate

11 Feb 2003 : Column 586

consultation on the detail of the new rules, as has already been discussed. Much work on this has already been done by my department and stakeholders working together, and there is a general agreement that the inner London selection model has proven successful and can provide a useful starting point for a national model. There is a consensus among stakeholders that Bench training and development committees should retain a key role in selecting magistrates for these jurisdictions, so it is not proposed to lose the local link which currently exists, but merely to make the selection process more transparent and criteria-based.

On other occasions in relation to children matters, the noble Baroness has fully understood the importance of ensuring that we have the right quality of person, be it a lay or professional judge undertaking the work. We are aware that it would be problematic to require all current panel magistrates to re-qualify under a new system. We envisage that a transitional provision will provide that magistrates on panels under the current system will be deemed to be authorised under the new system.

I hope that I have managed to reassure Members of the Committee about the provisions and that there is in no way a lack of confidence in the lay magistracy—quite the reverse. All parts of the judiciary are made better able to support each other, which I am sure the noble Baroness will welcome.

I was asked by my noble friend Lord Jones about the percentage of work taken in the family proceedings courts and the county courts. Under the Children Act, there are 14,130 public law applications in the family proceedings courts. In the county courts there are 9,834. As regards private law applications and family proceedings courts, there are 25,411 and as regards the county courts there are 86,269. We do not have percentages, but the figures above reflect the applications made to the court. They are from the judicial statistics for 2001, which are published by the Lord Chancellor's Department. We can write later with more details if my noble friend requires them, but I hope that those figures will be sufficient to satisfy him today.

On that basis, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: It is a formula always to thank Ministers for their answers. Today, I do so not as a formula but wholeheartedly. She has done not only this Committee but also everyone outside a service in the clarity of her explanation. As the noble Lord, Lord Jones, rightly said in regard to family proceedings courts, they are a grim drama. They are difficult courts for people to appear in—unless the case is for adoption, in which case it is a joyous time, but such occasions are few and far between.

I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that the Government intend to encourage lay magistrates to stay in the family proceedings courts and for setting out clearly the practical way in which the Government will try to achieve that; by making a more transparent

11 Feb 2003 : Column 587

system for the selection and training of lay justices. As one who was earlier allocated to sit on what was then a youth court but became a family proceedings court, I can see the advantages of the system that the Government propose to introduce.

I congratulate the Government on examining the practical method of having co-location of county courts and family proceedings courts in order to ensure that cases may go ahead where otherwise they might collapse. When people work themselves up to appear in such a court case, and when so much is at stake for them, it is appalling that the case should collapse. It is often a traumatic experience. Any such steps that the Government can take will only be welcome to me and I hope to other Members of the Committee. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 75 not moved.]

Clause 44 agreed to.

Clause 45 [Youth courts]:

[Amendments Nos. 76 and 77 not moved.]

Clause 45 agreed to.

Clause 46 [Court security officers]:

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page