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Baroness Scotland of Asthal moved Amendment No. 56:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 23 [Functions]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 57:

    Page 11, line 19, leave out subsection (7).

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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment relates to Clause 23, which covers the functions of justices' clerks. When we debated this matter in Committee, my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew suggested to the Minister that subsection (7) was superfluous. He said:

    "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'".—[Official Report, 10/2/03; col. 499.]

As my noble and learned friend said, in any Bill it is worth saving some space. I tabled the amendment to seek clarification from the Minister and to establish whether she has subsequently sought advice on the matter. If so, with what result? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, Clause 23 remodels Section 45 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. It makes no changes to the powers or functions of justices' clerks or their assistants.

The noble Baroness proposes an amendment to Clause 23. The purpose of the amendment would be to delete subsection (7). As she said, that point was first raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew. He queried the need for subsection (7) and my noble friend Lady Scotland responded in a letter to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, following up points raised in Committee on 10th and 11th February. That correspondence was copied to noble Lords who took part in the debate.

As was explained at the time, Clause 23(7) is based on what is currently Section 45(7) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 and, before that, Section 28(4) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1979. Subsections (4) and (5) of Clause 23 and Section 45 of the 1997 Act set out the functions and powers of justices' clerks. Those are not exhaustive lists; that is reflected by the appearance of the word "include" in both subsections.

It could be argued that subsection (7) appears to be superfluous. However, it puts beyond doubt the fact that subsections (4) and (5) do not contain exhaustive lists. Given that that formulation has stood us well for 24 years, we are reluctant to change it now. Indeed, it could be argued that by removing the section it may be taken to have more meaning than is currently intended; for example, someone may argue that notwithstanding the use of "include" in subsections (4) and (5) the purpose must have been that those subsections limit the functions and powers of clerks. I hope that that explanation helps and that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, I did not find that answer very convincing. The Minister repeated what the proposer of the amendment said: that both subsections (4) and (5) use the word "include"; therefore on the face of the clause it is clear that those are not exhaustive as to the functions or

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the powers of the justices' clerk. No doubt the historical references of my noble friend are correct, but they are not convincing as to why we should continue with superfluous words in 2003.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful for the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie. I have to agree with him. I am not convinced and, to be honest, I am also more confused than I was in the first place. As it is a matter that was primarily raised by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew, I am duty bound to withdraw the amendment today and to ask my noble and learned friend whether he wants to seek further clarification of the obfuscation by the time we get to Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

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

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 58:

    Page 11, line 42, at end insert—

"( ) In exercising his powers under subsection (1), the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the need to ensure that court-houses are locally accessible by persons resident in each local justice area."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the objective of the amendment is to require the Lord Chancellor to have regard to the needs of local residents to be able to have reasonably straightforward access to a magistrates' court. Clause 25 gives the Lord Chancellor the power to direct when and where magistrates' courts shall sit. The Explanatory Notes tell us that,

    "This would allow magistrates' courts' business to be conducted at any place in England and Wales".

That brings the magistrates' courts in line with other courts.

That makes it possible for the Lord Chancellor to control sittings of magistrates' courts within the unified courts administration set up by the Bill. It gives him considerable flexibility in deciding where magistrates' courts shall sit or whether they should sit at all. I am not against such flexibility, certainly when it is used constructively and not merely as a cost-cutting measure. I can see that in some circumstances it could lead to a magistrates' court being given the chance to sit in an area where one had previously been closed down, perhaps by being directed to sit in another court building that has survived court closures—a Crown or county court. So there could be advantages to that procedure.

The problem is that such flexibility in the hands of a centralised bureaucracy, as set up under the Bill, could tempt a future cost-cutter—forbid that we should consider the current incumbent of that office as such—to close down even more magistrates' courts on the basis that one could hold the court in a Crown Court building further away and people could travel that little further without too much difficulty or cost to the individual.

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We must ensure that flexibility is used to make courthouses at least as accessible as they are now, and if possible more accessible. In the past the Lord Chancellor has sought to avoid the blame for court closures by pointing out that technically the magistrates' courts committees give sanction for the closure of a court. In future, under the Bill, it will clearly be his responsibility.

This clause could open up the way for further reductions in magistrates' courts venues unless we make it clear on the face of the Bill that the Lord Chancellor should consider access for residents in local justice areas. I am not proposing anything that is mandatory or prescriptive; he has only to consider the matters. I hope to impose that clarity on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I support the amendment. I have three points to make of a purely practical kind. First, these days one-way traffic causes people to travel quite long distances in a city or a town. Therefore we must ensure that courts are not placed in positions where people can get to them only by a roundabout route if they are in a vehicle or a taxi.

Secondly, many people will have to arrive in vehicles as they may be disabled or they may have to carry a number of books and other things for their court attendance—that applies particularly to barristers and solicitors. Therefore there must be a suitable stopping place in front of the court building where people can park for a few moments while they get in or out of a vehicle.

Thirdly—this point follows my second point—it would be highly desirable, if feasible, for a good many vehicles to be parked quite close to the court. I know that that will not always be easy. I have some experience of the courts in London and I know that many of them have no parking facilities whatever—indeed no easy stopping place close to the court. A standard example is Bow Street which is fairly close to here. There is no pavement outside and taxis cannot wait there for long.

I hope that the Government will do their best to overcome that problem. I grant that it will not always be easy, but I hope that strenuous efforts will be made to deal with it.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I am happy to support the amendment. Few matters have caused more concern in respect of court administration over recent years than the closure of magistrates' courts, particularly in rural areas where the alternative is often to travel some 20 or 30 miles to the nearest town. We believe it is of the highest importance that justice, particularly in magistrates' courts, should be local. That is in the interests of all concerned. It is in the interests of the defendants and more importantly in the interests of the victims and other witnesses. It is in everyone's interest that they should have access to a court reasonably close to where they live and should not be compelled to travel what are in some cases substantial distances to the nearest magistrates' court. Given the large number of cases

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that are dealt with by magistrates' courts, we believe that the Lord Chancellor should be required to bear that in mind.

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