HC Deb 17 October 1950 vol 478 cc2011-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Sparks.]

10.4 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

We have just had an interesting discussion attempting to annul something that has been enacted. Now I want to take a contrary line and ask why something that was enacted in the last Parliament has not yet been put into operation.

The Justices of the Peace Act, 1949, received the Royal Assent on 16th December last, and on 1st March this year an Order was issued bringing into operation from 1st June, 25 Sections of that Act. By the same Order Section 13 is brought into operation as from 1st January next. That leaves 20 Sections of the Act without any date for their operation, and I want to ask whether my hon. Friend can give the House any information when they will be operated.

This was a non-contentious Bill and it raised great hopes amongst the thousands of justices of the peace throughout the country—the great unpaid, as they have been called; hopes which have been somewhat dashed by the long delay in putting the Act completely into operation. It is also becoming somewhat urgent by reason of the fact that the Magistrates Association will be holding their annual conference this week and they will be anxious to know whether there is any news from the Government on this subject.

The most important Section is Section 16, which deals with the establishment of magistrates' courts committees. Such committees have been envisaged ever since the Roach Committee Report of 1944, and unless and until those committees are established much of the purpose of the Act will remain unfulfilled—for example, Section 17 which deals with the provision of courses of instruction—because it is the magistrates' courts committees that have the duty imposed upon them, amongst other things, of arranging for courses of instruction for new justices.

Section 17 becomes more important than ever because of the new insistence oh a reduction in the number of justices sitting on a bench at the same time. No longer shall we have one or two experts leading a crowd of justices who are really acting as jurymen. In future every justice who sits will have to be an expert, fully acquainted with and instructed in his or her duties. This Section depends to a large extent on Section 8 which provides for the payment of travelling and lodging allowances. It will be the first time that such allowances will have been paid, but unless and until they are paid it will obviously be difficult, if not impossible, for many justices to pay their travelling expenses, meals, and in some cases lodging expenses in order to attend courses of instruction. Therefore, many of those Clauses are linked together. Section 36 is allied with Section 8 because it deals with the payment of travelling and lodging allowances for members of probation committees and case committees. None of those Sections I have mentioned has yet been given any date for its operation.

Reverting for a moment to the important question of courses of instruction, although the Magistrates Association is a voluntary body with limited means, it has organised during the past year 17 conferences in various parts of the country which have been attended by 1,700 justices of the peace. In addition, they have organised correspondence courses which have been most successful, all at the expense of the individual justices.

Now I come to Section 18 which deals with powers and duties of magistrates courts committees as to petty sessional divisions. This important Section will open the way for these committees to carry out much needed reforms, particularly in connection with juvenile courts. There are several other Sections which are interlinked in the sense that the operation of one must await the operation of the other. The first example I give is Section 10 (Area of commission), which was referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General during the Report stage of the Bill on 13th December last. My right hon. and learned Friend pointed out that: Before the magistrates' courts committees can be set up … the provisions of Clause 10"— of the Bill, as it then was— … must have been brought into operation. It obviously seems desirable that every borough should be aware of this status at the earliest possible date. The Attorney-General also said that before the financial provisions, now embodied in Sections 25–28, can be brought into operation, the magistrates' courts committees must be set up at least six months before then …."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 2562.] The target date which my right hon. and learned Friend had in mind was 1st April, 1951. It will, obviously, now be impossible for that date to be maintained, because, as he said, the committees must have been set up at least six months before that date. I should like to know, therefore, what is the new target date.

Section 12, which deals with the licensing authorities for non-county boroughs, is in a rather special position. It is linked with Part II of the Licensing Act, 1949, and it seems that if these provisions of that Act, coupled with Section 12 of the Justices of the Peace Act, are not brought into operation shortly, they will be too late for the Brewster Sessions of next year.

Coming to Section 15 (Rule committee and rules of procedure) I should like to ask my hon. Friend how the Rule Committee is proceeding. That Committee are understood to be in being, but there is no definite information as to their constitution. When they produce their draft rules, will they be submitted to the Magistrates' Association or any other similar body for comment before they are finally cast into their final form? I suggest it is desirable that that should be done. It may be anticipated that the rules will shortly be available, because Section 13 comes into operation on 1st January next, and this Section depends to some extent on the rules that will be produced by this body which I understand is now sitting.

The final Section to which I want to refer is Section 19. Here is a matter of great importance to both justices' clerks and to the magistrates, who in future will be the direct employers of their clerks. Similar remarks apply to the whole of Part III of the Act. Many matters including conditions of service, which apply to justices' clerks are at present outstanding. Although they should be dealt with by the existing standing joint committees, it is fairly obvious—it is quite natural—that those committees will not embark upon any important decisions now, when they are on their deathbed, before the new committees are set up. We have the position, therefore, that in many districts there is a feeling of frustration and even of embarrassment at this hiatus between the dying of the standing joint committees and the setting up of the magistrates' courts committees.

I am certain that the Minister is not unsympathetic in this matter. What I am really asking him for tonight is some news for the magistrates and the justices' clerks and others who are particularly interested in the operation of the Act, as to when those 20 Clauses which I have mentioned are likely to come into operation. I invite my hon. Friend to tell the House as much as he possibly can.

10.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) for the way in which he has put his case. It would be for the convenience of the House if I dealt first with Section 15 because the reason no date has been fixed for this Section is entirely different from the reason no date has been set for the other provisions of the Act. By Section 15 the Lord Chancellor has power to appoint a Rule Committee to advise him on making rules for regulating and prescribing the procedure and practice in magistrates' courts and by justices' clerks. We intend to consolidate the Summary Jurisdiction Acts and we are therefore very carefully reviewing the powers and procedures of magistrates' courts.

As is well known by those who deal with these matters, the provisions of the Summary Jurisdiction Acts on matters of procedure are interwoven with substantive provisions. Until we have got a good deal further in separating these procedural provisions from the substantive provisions, nothing would be gained by setting up a Rule Committee under this provision. The Lord Chancellor made this clear in another place and explained that to review the Summary Jurisdiction Acts would take some time. He explained why he would not undertake to set up a Rule Committee at once. This review has gone ahead, but it is still too early to say that it would be an advantage to set up such a committee.

I admit it is true with respect to the rules under Section 13—and the Lord Chancellor in that case has consulted a number of interested organisations—that the existence of a Rule Committee would have been an advantage on this point. However, in general the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, and that is why, as he forecast in another place, this committee has not been set up.

Coming to Sections 16, 17, 18 and so on—the bulk of the provisions of this Act—I must refer to the answer given last May to a Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington. The Home Secretary said that the provisions of the Act relating to the setting up of magistrates' courts committees could not be introduced in isolation from the financial provisions of the Act and, because of the economic situation and the need for strict economy, the Home Secretary could not say when it would be possible to bring those provisions into operation. That answer did not mean that the Government have decided to postpone the operation of the Act. It meant that no decision had been made to bring the provisions of the Act into force.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington stated, the scheme of this Act envisages that the remaining provisions, except those in Section 15 with which I have dealt separately, will be brought into operation in two stages. First, there will be the abolition of the separate commission of the peace for small areas, for which provision is made in Section 10, and, secondly, the transfer to magistrates' courts committees of their responsibilities under the Act, together with the putting into effect of the main financial provisions of the Act under Section 27.

This second stage covers all the other Sections mentioned tonight, including two which the hon. Member picked out specially, Sections 8 and 36. It covers Sections 8 and 36 because the magistrates' courts committee will administer the scheme dealt with there and the payments will be included in the cost of administering courts and will therefore be shared between local funds and the Exchequer. It would clearly be a very great advantage indeed if both stages could be introduced at the beginning of a financial year. The interval between the two stages would then be 12 months. That intervening 12 months would be well used. The magistrates' courts committees would be set up to review their areas and make plans to take over their full functions at the beginning of the next financial year.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Act received the Royal Assent on 16th December last year. There was not enough time for the first stage, that is, the abolition of commissions for small areas under Section 10, to be introduced on 1st April. This is because under Section 10 (5) the Lord Chancellor has to examine those non-county boroughs having a separate commission of the peace and a court of quarter sessions which would lose them under the general provisions of the Section, and to save the grant to the borough of its commission of the peace and court of quarter sessions if he is satisfied that it is desirable so to do. There was not enough time for this review to be undertaken with the care demanded by such an important matter, and for the Lord Chancellor to announce his decision in good time before the beginning of the financial year.

I ask the House, and in particular my hon. Friend, to agree with me that the best date for bringing into force Section 10 would be 1st April, 1951; and secondly, that the best date for the magistrates' courts committees to take over—the second phase, that is—would be 1st April, 1952. I have carefully noted what has been said in favour of the early operation of the outstanding provisions of this Act. I very much regret that I cannot at present give an undertaking that the dates of 1st April, 1951, and 1st April, 1952, will be met. But I can give my hon. Friend the undertaking that I shall see to it that his powerful arguments in favour of early operation are carefully considered.

Mr. H. Hynd

Would my hon. Friend make clear one point? He has just suggested 1st April, 1952. as the best date for the magistrates' courts committees to take over. He envisaged the period of 12 months after they had been set up before they could operate. Does he mean that they will begin to operate from 1st April, 1952, or that they will be constituted on that date and that it will be a further 12 months before they will begin to take over?

Mr. de Freitas

I was referring to the intervening period of 12 months between 1st April, 1951, and 1st April, 1952, as the period to be occupied by the first phase.

Question put, and agreed to,

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Ten o'Clock.