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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the measures in the Bill and in the Licensing Bill should make courts more accessible by removing restrictions as to where magistrates' courts may sit and by allowing the use of non-court buildings where appropriate. Giving the new unified administration control of the entire court estate will also afford greater opportunities for co-location of county courts within magistrates' courts in rural areas. I take on board what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said about the difficulties that have been caused by the movement of courts and what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said about the difficulties with traffic and matters of that kind.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, proposes an amendment to Clause 25. It will require the Lord Chancellor, when directing places at which magistrates' courts may sit, to have regard to the need to ensure that courthouses are locally accessible by persons resident in each local justice area. The amendment is similar in nature to Amendment No. 56 which the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, moved in Committee.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising again such an important issue. I say straightaway that I understand her concerns. However, as my noble friend Lord Bassam said in Committee on 10th February, improved access to local courts can be achieved by unifying the administration of the courts. That will allow better use of the court estate. For example, we have identified around 70 county courts where there is potential for co-location of hearings with magistrates' courts. Joint use will make those courts more viable than maintaining under-used facilities that might otherwise be threatened with closure.
As my noble friend Lord Bassam also made clear, the rural White Paper of 2000 ensures that rural needs are taken into account as part of the formal policy-making process from April 2001 onwards. The Lord Chancellor would have to have regard to this rural-proofing process when making directions under this clause.
Furthermore, provisions in Clause 25 and elsewhere in the Bill and the Licensing Bill, currently in another place, will remove statutory restrictions on where magistrates' courts can sit. That will introduce greater flexibility and allow the use of non-court buildings in local areas where appropriate. Certainly, one can see how that might be useful if there were specific difficulties which needed to be overcome and which could be best met by having a local point at which to resolve matters.
In order to help, I conclude by saying that we hope that the agency will be a platform for other improvements. For example, we are considering whether we can increase the number of places where civil and family hearings take place, possibly by as many as 30 to 40 outlets to make access more convenient. We shall consult court users and other stakeholders on that issue later this year.
In Committee, a number of noble Lords said that there have been cases where, if co-location had occurred, certain courts would not have closed and a valuable resource would have been retained for the people in that area and the local community. We concur with that view. Therefore, this gives us the opportunity to look at the needs of each locality and try as best we can to use the court estate to its best effect. In view of what I have said, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for their support, and to the Minister for her careful response. I agree entirely with her, as I hope I expressed in my opening remarks, that if there is flexibility and proper use of the estate, then the provisions in the Bill could open upshe used the term "co-location"more opportunities. My concern is to have clarity on the face of the Bill and to bring together the guarantees and the different parts, whether it is rural-proofingI am not too sure what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, would make of "rural-proofing", but that is for another dayor whatever.
Of course Front-Benchers are not allowed to have a personal view. However, if I were allowed such a personal view, I would have to say that I am very passionate about the matter of access. It is because I have that passion for access that I believe that I should test the opinion of the House on the amendment today.
Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendments Nos. 59, 102 and 103 clarify that a magistrates' court transferring a criminal or civil matter to another magistrates' court must have regard to directions made by the Lord Chancellor, with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice, under Clause 25(2). That will ensure, in particular, that when deciding whether to transfer a criminal matter, the magistrates' court takes account of the needs of victims, witnesses and other interested parties.
The principal effect of the amendments would be to put beyond doubt that the directions to be made by the Lord Chancellor will cover the transfer as well as the distribution of general business of the magistrates' courts.
I am sure that all noble Lords present today will recall that in Committee, on Amendment No. 73, which was tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Hunt, I confirmed, as the Minister speaking for the Government, that I would table an amendment to Clause 25. Amendment No. 73 would have amended Clause 41 to require a magistrates' court to hear representations from all parties before transferring a criminal matter. At that stage, I said that the amendment was unnecessary, given the provisions of Clause 25(4), which states that the directions to be made under Clause 25(2) may, in particular, require the court to take account of where the offence was committed, where the witnesses or the majority of witnesses reside, or where the person charged with the offence resides. However, on reflection, I said that we would consider Clause 25(2) again. I also acknowledged that the wording could perhaps be improved or clarified to refer to "the transfer" as well as "the distribution" of the business of magistrates' courts. Happily, I can tell the House that Amendment No. 59 makes that change.
Amendments Nos. 102 and 103 introduce new subsections to Clauses 41 and 43 which make clear that the power to transfer criminal or civil proceedings under these clauses must be exercised in accordance with any directions made under Clause 25(2).
With that careful explanation of why we have tabled the amendment at this stage, I hope that noble Lords will be happy with what the Government have done. I beg to move.
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