HC Deb 27 February 1959 vol 600 cc1492-500

Order for Second Reading read.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I shall seek to emulate, in so far as brevity is concerned, the opening speech in moving the last Bill before the House of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Sir G. Wills). I am grateful for the attendance of hon. Members of the legal profession, since this Bill concerns their activities.

The main purpose of the Bill is to correct certain anomalies in the existing law which have the effect of preventing the formation of more than two courts of quarter sessions at Birmingham, and to place that city in the same position as other county boroughs in such matters. The Municipal Corporations Act, 1882, provided that if at any time it appeared to the recorder that quarter sessions were likely to last for more than three days, he might, at his discretion, order a second court to be formed, appoint a barrister of five years' standing to act as assistant recorder and to preside in the second court. Section 168 provided that the recorder should not exercise the powers unless, before each quarter sessions, it had been certified that the city council had resolved that it would be expedient that the powers should be so exercised. Section 7 of this Act provided that the resolution should continue in force during 12 months from the date of the resolution of the council, and that, during that period, no fresh resolution or certificate was necessary.

I turn now to the Birmingham Corporation Act, 1954. The volume of business at the Birmingham Quarter Sessions has for many years made it necessary to invoke the powers conferred by Section 168 of the 1882 Act, and in order to avoid the regular formality of a resolution by the city council, the Birmingham Corporation Act, 1954, amended Section 168 of the Act of 1882 and its application to the city, so as to make a resolution of the council unnecessary, thus enabling the recorder of his own motion to set up a second court of quarter sessions. That has been going on since the Birmingham Corporation Act of 1954.

Next, I turn to the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1956. As a result of the general increase in the business at quarter sessions in the country, the general law contained in the Act of 1882 was amended by Section 15 of the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1956, so as to enable the local authorities to authorise the formation of further courts of quarter sessions beyond the two which were provided for in the 1882 Act.

When Section 15 of the 1956 Act was before the House, the special provisions contained in Section 61 of the Birmingham Corporation Act, 1954, were overlooked, and the result is that the provisions of Section 15 of the 1956 Act are no longer of avail to the city of Birmingham, which has put itself beyond its own powers to pass the necessary resolution to operate a third court. The result is that no more courts of quarter sessions other than the two referred to can sit simultaneously at Birmingham, and although the work there is just as heavy as in other courts of quarter sessions outside London, such as at Liverpool and Manchester, the city council has no power to operate more than two courts.

The number of cases before the court in Birmingham has grown from 460 in 1949 to 627 in 1957. I have not the 1958 figure, but I can assure the House that it is equally large. The size of the problem may be judged from the fact that over 200 cases awaited trial by the two courts in January of this year. In consequence, the recorder and assistant recorder have been sitting for very long hours, far longer, I would think, and the recorder himself thinks, than are desirable, and I know that he has quite frequently been sitting until 7 or 8 o'clock at night.

Clause 1 (1) of the Bill accordingly proposes the addition of a new subsection (6) to Section 15 of the 1956 Act, the effect of which is to preserve the right of the Recorder of Birmingham, and of any other borough which may obtain legislation corresponding to the Birmingham Corporation Act, to form a second court of quarter sessions without the authority of a resolution of the borough council and to enable third or fourth courts to be formed if the council passes a resolution to that effect.

It may be suggested that the provisions of the Bill do not go far enough to cure the state of affairs which exists in Birmingham. It may be suggested that there is justification for setting up a Crown court on similar lines to that which was set up for Liverpool and Manchester in 1956. Before any such decision as that is taken, I think the House would wish to have an inquiry, such as the Maxwell Committee carried out for Lancashire, into such a proposition. Indeed, Lord Justice Streatfeild has a committee sitting at this moment inquiring into the general activity of the courts, and I know he has taken evidence from Birmingham. It is, of course, not yet clear what recommendations are likely to be made. Indeed, the delay which might be caused by waiting for the Streatfeild Committee to report would be rather serious for Birmingham, for the position there is extremely urgent. I suggest that there is no reason to delay any action at this stage to remove the anomalies which exist simply because the Streatfeild Committee is going into these matters.

For what it is worth, my own comment is that it is admitted by all those who seek to set up a Crown court for Birmingham—there are not many, but some have advocated it—that it would involve the taking in of additional cases from nearby towns such as Coventry, West Bromwich and Walsall, not all of which are in the same circuit. I am not at all sure that those towns would like to lose their ordinary quarter sessions. Apart from that, it would involve travelling on the part of witnesses, police and counsel. Also, I do not know whether juries would have to be drawn from those places into Birmingham. It seems to me that this is outside the matters which I seek to remedy today.

There is also the matter of the extremely heavy traffic congestion in Birmingham, particularly around the law courts. It would not be a very good state of affairs to add to that.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

With two courts one adds to the traffic congestion. If one had one court sitting for eight days one would do no harm to the traffic situation, but if one has two courts sitting for four days one would do so.

Mr. Gurden

I want to make clear that what I meant was the bringing in of cases from Coventry and other adjoining towns to justify the provision of a Crown court. Cases from Coventry, West Bromwich and Walsall do not at the moment come into Birmingham. The hon. Member is right in what he says, that there would be additional traffic on such days, but it would be only in respect of the Birmingham cases.

Mr. Hale

Coventry has a recorder.

Mr. Gurden


It would be necessary to provide sufficient cases to justify a Crown court, and for this purpose it would be necessary to take the cases from such towns as I have mentioned into Birmingham. On the basis of experience, there are not sufficient cases arising in Birmingham to justify a Crown court sitting permanently there.

Mr. Hale

Would the hon. Member make the situation clear? I am out of practice now—I have practised in the area—and am not quite sure of my ground. But surely it is a fact that cases from all the towns that he has mentioned are committed to the Birmingham Quarter Sessions. I ask the hon. Member to think this matter over. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who is an expert in these matters, is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. Cases of felony, of a certain gravity, can be committed to the assizes, but if they do not reach a certain gravity they can be committed to the local quarter sessions. I know of no quarter sessions in the area except Coventry to which they can be—

Mr. John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

The Warwick County Quarter Sessions.

Mr. Hale

That is true; they would mostly be committed to the Warwick County Quarter Sessions. Even so, on the grounds of date they can be committed to any convenient quarter sessions, and Birmingham is the geographical centre.

Mr. Gurden

The hon. Gentleman knows more about such details than I do. I simply take what the legal profession has told me and what it sets out as its case for a Crown court. It is the legal profession which has mentioned the need to have cases at Birmingham from such places as Walsall, West Bromwich and Coventry in order to provide sufficient work for a Crown court.

All that is outside what I am proposing in the Bill. I seek simply to do away with an anomaly which was never intended and which arose accidentally in 1956. I seek to put Birmingham on all fours with all other county boroughs, at least for the moment. If a Crown court is necessary, so be it, but for the moment the Bill will help considerably and we can carry on until Lord Justice Streatfeild has made his recommendations.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

Does the hon. Gentleman intend to say anything about Clause 1 (2)?

Mr. Gurden

I will do so immediately. I was about to do so when I gave way.

Clause 1 (2) deals with the remuneration of the assistant recorder. The Municipal Corporations Act, 1882, provided that an assistant recorder, assistant clerk of the peace and additional crier—

Mr. Hale

Additional criers? I should have thought that there was enough weeping and gnashing of teeth already.

Mr. Gurden

— should have the remuneration set out in the Fourth and Fifth Schedules. The Birmingham Corporation Act, 1954, substituted for Section 8 of the 1882 Act a new Section (8) which provided that the assistant recorder, assistant clerk of the peace, and additional crier were to have such remuneration as the Council resolved. The provision in the 1882 Act was repealed by Section 15 of the 1956 Act, which provided that the remuneration of the assistant recorder, assistant clerk of the peace, and additional crier was to be such as might be laid down by resolution of the borough council concerned, with the approval in respect of the assistant recorder of the Lord Chancellor.

The Act of 1956, however, failed to provide expressly for the repeal of the corresponding provisions in the Birmingham Corporation Act, and that is now done by Clause 1 (2), again bringing Birmingham into line with the other county boroughs. Birmingham City Council says that this provision is acceptable. The result is that in this, as in other cases, the Lord Chancellor will be asked to give his approval to the remuneration of the assistant recorder.

The Bill otherwise makes no alteration in the remuneration of recorders. My investigations into these matters and my contacts with recorders and assistant recorders have shown me that recorders in general are very badly paid. It alarms me that we are getting such services on the cheap in matters as important as these. Some recorders are paid as little as £50 a year and even in Birmingham the remuneration is only £1,000 a year, in spite of the colossal amount of work.

Recorders have not complained to me, and nor have other members of the legal profession, but it struck me as being a matter worthy of attention at some other time. However, the Bill does not seek to interfere with that in any way and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading, since this is a matter of great urgency to Birmingham.

Mr. Mitchison

On a point of order. I desire to raise a question in connection with Clause 1 (2). If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I shall have something to say later on the Bill as a whole. This subsection is a provision to amend in a Public Bill one Clause of one Private Act. My question is whether that is permissible in relation to a single Private Act. I have no doubt that it would be permissible in a general form and, indeed, that is frequently done, but offhand, I can recollect no other case in which a single Private Act has been amended in detail by a Public Act. It results in the persons concerned with the Private Act being free to dispense with the formalities of an amending Private Bill, including the possibilities of a town poll and town's meeting.

It therefore seems that the effect of amendment of a Private Act in this form is that the corporation, or other body concerned with the Private Act, secures freedom from many of the safeguards which in general terms have been enacted for Private Bill legislation.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

I have not had warning of this point, but I am advised, and I agree, that a Public Act always supersedes a Private Act. Therefore, this provision is quite in order.

Mr. Hale

Further to that point of order. I hope that it is not discourteous to refer to this, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I think that you came into the Chair when the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) was on his feet. In the course of his speech, the hon. Member said—and it is singularly significant— that Birmingham Corporation found, when it presented its Private Bill, that it had forgotten to make provision in Section 15 for this purpose.

Mr. Gurden

May I correct the hon. Member? I am sorry that it was not clear. It was the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1956, in which it was forgotten that Birmingham had a Private Act in 1954.

Mr. Hale

I am much obliged, but that is the same point. The Birmingham Corporation Act, 1954, made no provision for this. The Corporation failed to do it. The Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1956, made provision for larger towns to have these facilities, and Birmingham failed to ask for them and failed to make any representations to the Minister. If it was forgotten, the corporation must have failed, and so nothing was done.

Now the hon. Member says, "I am coming to the House with a Bill in the guise of a Public Measure dealing with recorders, but abolishing the necessity for a town's meeting in Birmingham to decide on this extremely important matter affecting the administration of justice and the sacred fount of justice and the rights of people to trial and the rights of advocates to appear. We will not have a town's meeting. We will get out of all the expense of a Private Bill. We will do this by incorporating an amending Clause in a Private Member's Bill, presented on a Friday, ostensibly to deal with other matters."

I submit that that is so new a procedure that it calls for scrutiny. No one would dispute your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and, of course, we bow to it with respect, that a Public Act must have priority over a Private Act and that, in theory, in a Public Bill we can alter anything except, I am told, the sex of a person. However, it is still a matter for careful consideration that there should be presented an attempt to alter a single Section in a Private Act affecting one town only in the course of a Private Member's Public Bill.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I see that point quite clearly, but Parliament is all-powerful, and if Parliament passes the Bill that is Parliament's affair. I do not think that it is for me to say whether it is out of order or in order. It is Parliament which will have the responsibility if the Bill becomes an Act.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present:

House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at ten minutes past One o'clock till Monday next.