Select Committee on Constitution Third Report


Letter from the Lord Norton of Louth, Chairman of the Committee, to the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Irvine of Lairg

The House of Lords Constitution Committee, which I chair, have been appointed by the House of Lords "to examine the constitutional implications of all public bills coming before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the constitution".

The administration of the courts is, in the Committee's view, a matter of constitutional significance, and the Committee has several concerns relating to aspects of the new scheme that are not specified in the Bill but are left to the discretion of the Government, and in particular to the office of the Lord Chancellor.

In general terms, we find it difficult to assess the potential constitutional significance of the bill without the framework document that will govern the new executive agency responsible for administering the courts being available.

On specific matters, we would therefore be grateful for further information on:

(a)  the number of Court Administration Councils that are envisaged;

(b)  the procedural requirements for "guidance" which would be given by the Lord Chancellor under clause 4 to Court Administration Councils. As the bill stands, it is not clear whether such guidance is to be binding on the Councils, whether it is to be publicly available, and whether it may contain specific as well as general directions;

(c)  what is envisaged by the Lord Chancellor's power to remove lay justices from their offices under clause 11(6)(b) ("declining or neglecting to take a proper part in the exercise of his functions"); and

(d)  the justification for the Lord Chancellor's proposed power to alter (as well as allow and disallow) rules made by the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee (and the equivalent power in respect of the Family Procedure Rule Committee and the Civil Procedure Rule Committee).

In addition, the Committee note the centralising tendency of this bill, illustrated particularly by the complete transfer of responsibility for administering magistrates' courts from Magistrates' Courts Committees to the Lord Chancellor. While the Committee do not consider that the centralising proposals in this bill merit public comment at this stage, members did wish to register their concern that this bill is an example of a more widespread trend. The Committee intend to keep the constitutional implications of incremental, centralising actions throughout the Government's legislative programme under review.

I would be grateful for a reply by Monday, 13th January, so that the Committee have the opportunity to discuss it before the bill is debated in Committee on January 20th.

23 December 2002

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