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Business of the House: Standing Order 41

3.7 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Leader of the House, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

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Moved, That Standing Order 41 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with on Tuesday 10th June to allow the Motion standing in the name of the Lord Brookman to be taken before the Motions standing in the names of the Lord Norton of Louth and the Lord Scott of Foscote.—(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Local Government Bill

3.8 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Local Government Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clauses 1 to 19,

Schedule 1,

Clauses 20 to 42,

Schedule 2,

Clauses 43 to 101,

Schedule 3,

Clauses 102 to 106,

Schedule 4,

Clause 107,

Schedule 5,

Clauses 108 to 126,

Schedules 6 and 7,

Clauses 127 and 128.—(Lord Rooker.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Courts Bill [HL]

3.8 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 4 [Establishment of courts boards]:

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 3, line 23, at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (6A),"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 1 is a paving amendment for Amendment No. 3 and therefore consequential upon it. The amendments stand not only in my name but in that of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart.

The objective of the amendment is to ensure that the courts boards are local in their extent and effect. That is vital to maintain the local nature of the delivery of justice within the new centralised, unified courts administration created by the Bill.

On Report, we accepted the Government's redrafted Clauses 4 and 5, but only with great regret and for the reasons that I gave then, at cols. 1187 to 1191. I am aware that all magistrates, including those represented by the Magistrates' Association and those represented by the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees,

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would have preferred as their first choice local bodies with full executive powers, if that had been both legally and practically possible. However, that was not to be. So we accepted the Government's new clauses, but only on the basis, as I said at Report, that significant changes needed to be made to improve them.

One of those changes will be achieved by the amendment. When I moved a similar one at Report the Minister's response made me realise that I had not properly addressed the definition of the police areas with regard to London. I therefore withdrew it so that it could be redrafted to overcome that problem. That has now been done with the help of the Public Bill Office and of the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees. The latter supports the amendment, as does the Magistrates' Association. I anticipate, however, that support goes much wider. The evidence is to be found in the Government's own interim report on the feedback from regional discussion groups on the proposed unified courts administration. Paragraph 6.2 of the report states:

    "All the groups have given a clear message that the 42 criminal justice areas form a sound and sensible building block for the new organisation, although consideration needs to be given to the arrangements for London. It has been acknowledged that civil and family work is not driven by the 42 configuration, but delegates generally thought that it could be made to work so long as boundaries are flexible and the ability to transfer work across boundaries was retained."

I agree entirely. That is the position the amendment achieves—a focus on 42 areas, plus London; consideration of the position of London separately; and flexibility overall for the boundaries to be different where appropriate. In addition the Government solved the issue of the transfer of work across boundaries by one their own amendments to Clause 25 on Report.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, at that stage indicated that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, believed,

    "that there is some pressure for a single courts board to cover the whole of Wales",—[Official Report, 8/5/03; col. 1197.]

perhaps including Cheshire as well to maintain an area based on the old Wales and Chester circuit. The noble Lord acknowledged that my amendment was so flexible that it would allow that to happen if a merger were the wish of the people involved in the area. That is the clear advantage of the amendment. It is not prescriptive. It is flexible to meet the needs of different areas. It states that the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the desirability of ensuring that the areas should be coterminous with the police areas. It does not force him to adopt them where it would be inappropriate. I am being reason itself.

The Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has acknowledged that the Government want the police areas to be the building blocks of the new courts boards system. However, so far she has resisted my amendment on the basis that it puts too much emphasis on those same police areas. That is precisely where we disagree and where I agree instead with all those people across the country who were consulted by the Government. I believe that police areas form an effective, efficient and clearly understood basis for the

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first allocation of boundaries for the courts boards provided there is the flexibility I have built into the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, my name appears on the amendment as well as hers. I shall be brief because this is Third Reading and there is another important Bill to come. I agree that it is desirable that the initial order dividing the country into areas should create areas coterminous with those of the existing magistrates' courts areas. That would avoid too much disruption. It would be most unfortunate if we coupled at the same time the introduction of the transfer of the administration from the magistrates' courts committees to the courts agency with a major geographical reorganisation of the bases on which the local areas are defined.

In those circumstances we hope that the Government will be able to accept the amendment. We recognise that it is not and should not be mandatory in form, because, as the noble Baroness said, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has indicated that there is some pressure in Wales. That is based particularly on the Crown Courts rather than the magistrates' courts for unification of Wales and possibly Chester into a single area. Having said that, I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I too support the amendment but for slightly different reasons from those put forward strongly by my noble friend Lady Anelay and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. It must be remembered that the police have always brought most cases to the magistrates' courts and to the courts in London. That is why so often those courts have for years been described as "police courts"—rightly or wrongly. We should bear that in mind and it is important that it should continue; first, to simplify administration; secondly, to maintain continuity, which is worth maintaining; and, thirdly, to preserve the police sense of responsibility for their part in the administration of justice.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for their contributions. We have had an opportunity to discuss the issue on a number of occasions. I note that the noble Baroness tabled her amendment as an amendment to new Clause 4, requiring the Lord Chancellor to "have regard to" to the desirability of coterminosity with the police areas, specifying the courts boards boundaries under Clause 4(2). I understand the breadth of the amendment.

We do not object in principle to the idea that the Lord Chancellor must bear in mind the structure of other criminal justice agencies in specifying the areas for the courts boards. Indeed, as the noble Baroness said, we have already said that the 42 criminal justice areas will be the building blocks of the courts boards areas. But there are many other factors which must be taken into account—an effective fit with other

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agencies in the civil and family jurisdictions, the needs and nature of local communities, the volume of workload in each area, and the distribution of court houses.

The noble Baroness is right to say that participants in discussion groups emphasised the need to take into account the needs of different parts of the country. I think the point made on the last occasion was not that Wales needed to be one unit but that it might be necessary for north Wales and Chester, because of their historic link and the importance of the way in which the courts work in that area, to remain a unit. South Wales perhaps would be a separate unit. Those are factors that have to be borne in mind. Wales and London in particular, where the criminal justice areas were not felt to be the overriding factor, are matters for our consideration. The participants in the group recognised that the 42 areas were of no relevance in civil and family business and that a flexible approach was therefore needed.

The implication of the amendment is that the link to the 42 areas is the single most important factor and an end in itself. It is not. I had hoped that we had clearly established that as we dealt with the Bill. The single most important factor is that the structure chosen must support the effective and efficient administration of the courts. It must enable us to deliver a better service. That must be the overriding criterion. The amendment demonstrates an admirable understanding of the criminal justice system structures. However, I repeat what I have said many times previously. These reforms are not just about criminal justice.

At Report, the noble Baroness said that she intended to reconsider her amendments in discussion with the Magistrates' Association and the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees. I am pleased that she has done so. Indeed, my colleague Yvette Cooper also has had a number of meetings with those groups during the development of these provisions. I am disappointed, however, that the net has not been cast a little wider. These amendments do not affect just the magistracy—the reforms affect the professional judiciary, some of whom work in the magistrates' courts; the unions who represent staff of both services; the Bar and the Law Society, who represent clients in all the jurisdictions; the numerous advice and support agencies who operate in the family arena; and the range of users of the civil courts, from large-scale businesses to individuals bringing forward small claims.

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