HC Deb 19 June 1959 vol 607 cc802-17

Order for Second Reading read.

11.55 a. m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

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

The primary purpose of this Bill is to reduce some of "the law's delay", at any rate so far as the Metropolis is concerned. It does that in Clauses 1 and 2 by increasing from 27 to 35 the maximum number of Metropolitan stipendiary magistrates who may be appointed. It empowers the Lord Chancellor to appoint acting Metropolitan magistrates if he thinks it expedient to avoid delays in the administration of justice.

While we are dealing with this subject of the Metropolitan magistrates' courts, we have also found it convenient to ask Parliament to deal with the powers of the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District to hold land and buildings for the purpose of the probation system and his borrowing powers generally.

The necessity for Clauses 1 and 2 arises from the heavy pressure under which the Metropolitan stipendiary magistrates' courts have been working for many years, and increasingly in recent years. It is well known, and regrettable, that criminal offences of many kinds have increased and that these courts have borne their full share of the extra work involved.

If I may give some figures, in the twelve months ended 31st March, 1956, the total number of charges and summonses tried in these courts was 178,000. The figure for the twelve months ended 31st March this year was 223,000, an increase of 25 per cent. I should mention that roughly half of the offences tried in these courts are motoring offences and the increase in the amount of motoring is partly responsible for the increase in the work of the courts.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor have been studying this situation closely in consultation with the Chief Magistrate. They are satisfied that everything is being done within the framework of the existing law to enable the courts to deal expeditiously with the increase in work, but the existing law fetters their opportunities a good deal.

As to accommodation, which is also relevant to this matter, I should mention that in the autumn a useful beginning will be made in providing additional court room when the premises at Marylebone, which have been occupied for some years by the County of London Sessions, will come into use as a magistrates' court, that is, when the old Newington Sessions Court, which was bomb damaged very badly in the war, has been rebuilt. We have proposals for further court room accommodation mainly by the extension of existing court buildings.

The lay justices of the County of London are giving valuable help at this time of pressure. The House will recollect that the lay justices come into the matter in two quite separate ways. First, they have their own jurisdiction, which is separate from that of the stipendiary magistrates. This is a jurisdiction for which they depend upon direction from the Home Secretary as to the particular matters with which they may deal.

At present, the matters which my right hon. Friend has authorised them to deal with are licensing and local authority prosecutions, for example, weights and measures prosecutions, prosecutions under the Public Health Act, rate enforcement, and certain prosecutions under the Housing Acts. Besides exercising that jurisdiction which is particularly their own, they are helping the stipendiary magistrates in several courts by taking some of the more routine cases which would, in the normal way, be dealt with by the stipendiaries.

Despite all that is being done to avoid delays, nevertheless, delays occur. In some types of case there is, all too frequently, a delay of many weeks between the date of the alleged offence and the hearing of the case. In other cases repeated adjournments have been found necessary. The objections to such delays are obvious even in minor cases, but where a defendant may be in custody, or where the issue in a case may be one which the parties very much wish to have decided without delay, the objections are much stronger. It is against this background that we put forward these proposals.

The present statutory maximum number of magistrates is 27. This number was fixed in 1839. It is true that the maximum number of 27 was never reached until 1928 and, after that, it fell again—it fell during the war, actually—reaching 27 again in 1954. But, of course, since 1954, as I have said, the work has greatly increased. Taking into account the other measures which are in hand, the intention is to appoint only two more full time stipendiaries at this time, but, while we are asking for these increased powers from Parliament, we think it wise to look ahead. Therefore, we suggest that the maximum number should be 35 instead of 27. I do not think that that number is necessarily excessive, bearing in mind that, while we hope for the best, we have to prepare for the worst.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether it is still intended to continue to use the services of the lay magistrates? If I may say so, they are a very valuable asset in this kind of work.

Mr. Renton

Yes, it is intended to continue to use them even though we wish to appoint two more stipendiaries fairly soon. So much for the increase in the number of whole-time stipendiaries.

Clause 2 of the Bill makes it possible for the Lord Chancellor to appoint temporary or acting stipendiary magistrates during periods of special pressure of work or other difficulty. At present, there is power to make such temporary appointments in the event of sickness or a vacancy, but there is no general power. We feel it right that the Lord Chancellor's discretion should not be fettered and his power to make temporary appointments should be general and unqualified in order to cover any possible contingency.

By subsection (3) of Clause 2, we seek to overcome a technical difficulty in the taking of the oath. The effect is that, when a temporary Metropolitan magistrate is appointed, it will be possible for him to take the oath before another stipendiary instead of having to go before a High Court judge to do so.

I come now to the powers of the Receiver dealt with in Clauses 3, 4 and 5. Clause 3 gives the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District power to hold land and buildings for the purpose of the probation system in the Metropolitan stipendiary court area. That area, although it has been varied from time to time in the past, is now coterminous with the London County Council area except that it excludes the northern part of the Borough of Hampstead.

The Receiver is appointed by the Crown, and he is responsible for providing and administering the land, buildings and equipment required not only for the Metropolitan Police Force, but also for all the Metropolitan magistrates' courts. It is his responsibility to arrange for the building or acquisition of police stations, police houses or other police buildings, and of magistrates' courts. He has many important functions. In particular, he has power, with the approval of my right hon. Friend, to issue precepts upon the appropriate local authorities to raise money for the police, for the courts and for the probation service within both the Metropolitan Police District and the Metropolitan stipendiary court area.

I apologise for having to go into certain technicalities, but I think that it is necessary in order to explain the real purpose of the Clause. Under the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, my right hon. Friend is the probation authority for the Metropolitan stipendiary court area, and the probation expenses in that area are met on the direction of the Secretary of State. They are met out of the Metropolitan Police Fund. Clearly, the Receiver, who is the responsible officer for this fund, is the proper person to provide offices to enable the probation officers to carry on their work. Existing legislation, however, gives him no specific power to hold land or buildings for this purpose. In practice, this has been found to be a great impediment, Clause 3 will give the Receiver the same power to provide land and buildings for probation purposes as he has for police purposes and for the Metropolitan magistrates' courts.

Clause 4 deals with the Receiver's power to borrow for performing his various functions. This a power which he has had and has exercised for many years, and there is nothing new in principle in his having power to borrow money. The practice in the past has been to authorise him by special Act of Parliament to borrow up to a specific sum mentioned in the particular Act in question.

For example, in 1952, the Metropolitan Police (Borrowing Powers) Act authorised him to borrow £5 million for police purposes. Incidentally, he has, so far, borrowed about £3 million out of the £5 million authorised. He has, therefore, no immediate need for legislative sanction to borrow for police purposes, but the opportunity presented by the introduction of this Bill is being taken to deal with all his borrowing powers at the same time. He has no current authority to borrow money for the courts, though Parliament has, in the past, granted him such authority from time to time. He may need such power in the immediate future, because, as I was saying, certain extensions of court accommodation are to be made. Hence the necessity for this Clause.

The Metropolitan magistrates' courts buildings are mostly old and out of date. A considerable amount of rebuilding is necessary if the best interests of the administration of justice are to be served. It has not, in the past, been necessary for the Receiver to borrow for the probation system and he may not need it in the future, but one cannot tell. It seems prudent to make his power a general one while we are dealing with this matter. I hope that the House will take that view.

Naturally, the House will want to know the amount of borrowing which the Receiver will have to do in the foreseeable future under the powers we are giving him. This must depend to a considerable extent on the possible scale of capital investment in future years and it is. therefore, difficult to make anything like a precise forecast. A considerable amount of work on police stations, other police buildings, and, as I say, on Metropolitan magistrates' courts will require to be done. The Receiver will require the approval of the Secretary of State and the consent of the Treasury for each borrowing operation.

There is, therefore, that amount of control. In view of that, we have not thought it necessary to fix an overall limit to his borrowing by the terms of the Bill. I must disclose that what we propose in this respect is a departure from past practice, but we think that it is clearly justified. The Receiver will have borrowing powers very similar to those of local authorities and his exercise of those powers will be subject to Ministerial and Treasury control. Clause 5 is purely technical.

In conclusion, this is not a complicated Measure, but we think that it is a very important and useful one. The need for it is urgent, and I trust that the House will agree that it will promote greater efficiency in the administration of justice and, above all, will help to some extent to reduce "the law's delay".

12.11 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

We on this side of the House support the Bill. We are grateful to the Joint Under-Secretary of State for his account of its provisions.

It is true, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, that the maximum number of Metropolitan magistrates now allowed is twenty-seven and that that maximum was imposed by legislation passed as long ago as 1839. We understand that the maximum number was reached in 1954. We learn from the hon. and learned Gentleman that the maximum had been previously reached, although there was an interim period when there were fewer than twenty-seven stipendiary magistrates. We all know that the amount of crime and the number of criminal charges has tended to increase in recent years. When that fact is considered and taken into account with the fact that the maximum was reached in 1954, we think that the hon. and learned Gentleman's case on the Bill is made out.

No doubt it was hoped that recent legislation would do something to relieve the pressure in magistrates' courts. I have in mind the important legislation which provided for pleas of guilty to be made through the post. When that is done in the case of minor offences there is no need, as we know, for oral evidence at the hearing, either from the prosecution or from the defence. Importance was attached to the recent changes in the law which made that possible, and, as I say, it was thought that they would considerably ease the pressure. I have no doubt that they have done so to some extent, but it is evident from what we are told that they have not done so sufficiently. We are satisfied, therefore, that this further increase in the number of Metropolitan magistrates is desirable.

As I understand it, the existing law gives to the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District no specific power to hold land and buildings for probation purposes. We regard these purposes as of the first importance and we welcome the conferment of that power upon the Receiver.

Finally, I come to the matter of the Receiver's general power to borrow. I listened with close attention to what the hon. and learned Gentleman had to say. As I understand it, any action which the Receiver takes under that head in specific cases requires the approval of the Secretary of State for Home Affairs and of the Treasury—today so formidably represented. I am sure that these vigilant watch-dogs of our economy and administration can be relied upon to ensure that nothing goes wrong arising out of this extension of power to borrow conferred upon the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District. On those grounds also, therefore, we welcome the Bill.

12.16 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

I must express my regret that I was not able to be here when the Joint Under-Secretary of State began his speech. I want to raise only two points.

First, am I correct in supposing that the phrase the probation system within the metropolitan stipendiary court area in Clause 3 refers not only to probation of adults but of juveniles, although juveniles do not normally appear before stipendiary courts but before juvenile courts? Secondly, at Question Time I have raised with the Joint Under-Secretary the need for additional remand home provision in London, particularly for the more difficult boy juvenile offenders. I wonder whether the borrowing provisions in the Bill in connection with the probation system are likely to bring any nearer the day when that need will be met.

12.17 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

The Joint Under-Secretary of State was correct when he said that this is an important Measure. It is remarkable, when one looks at a short Bill like this one in printed form, how little it conveys the importance of the subject matter with which it deals from the point of view not only of an introduction of a new piece of legislation, but of the human interest with which the Bill is concerned. This is not merely a small piece of legislation which gives additional power for the appointment of a couple of magistrates or officials. It goes very much deeper. I should like to pay tribute to the Minister for having introduced a Measure of this nature.

Let me deal, first, with the practical side of the administration of justice. So many people do not realise the terrific amount of work which passes through the hands of magistrates and the manner in which it often has to be rushed through. So many people do not appreciate the fact that a tremendous amount of unnecessary expenditure is incurred by litigants or by people brought before magistrates' courts, whether on the side of the prosecution or the defence, merely because there are not sufficient magistrates in the Metropolitan area. The Bill deals with the Metropolitan area only, but it is a start on which we might base any further action in other districts.

You, Mr. Speaker, will know, as anyone who has practised in the courts will know, that a tremendous amount of the time and energy of those who practise in the courts is wasted because one can never be sure when a case will be called. I have had the experience of having to attend eight adjournments in a Metropolitan magistrates' court with hearings of only a quarter of an hour or even less. My witnesses had to be there. The witnesses on the other side had to be present, as did counsel or solicitors. In consequence of the pressure of other cases which could be got through speedily, the case in question, which, altogether, should have taken a couple of hours, had to be adjourned as many as eight times.

That is a shocking state of affairs. It not only means that the people concerned with the case itself do not get justice sufficiently rapidly. It also means that there is an enormous waste of time. Often, people who can ill afford to come to the courts are compelled to leave their work and attend. A hundred and one consequences flow from delay in the hearing of cases. This is something which the Bill will go some way towards remedying. In view of the rise in crime, and particularly in motoring offences, however, it is impossible to prophesy how effective it will be.

Experiments are being tried in the Metropolitan area to give lay magistrates the possibility of dealing with cases. Perhaps I should declare an interest. It so happens—whether by accident or for some other reason, I do not know; perhaps it is because of merit—that my wife is one of the people who serve in these courts. I gather that the magistrates are getting through a considerable amount of the business because they are able to deal speedily with cases that are sent to them and because, in particular, they do not face the necessity of adjournment after adjournment because other charges or offences which can be dealt with rapidly are put in between the various hearings.

Splendid work is done by the lay magistrates. I was glad to hear that it was not intended to spend money on stipendiaries. I do not say that in any other than the best sense, because I have the highest regard for our stipendiaries. Sometimes, of course, there may be one who is difficult and people may not be too happy about them. They may not always be 100 per cent. but, by and large, they are a splendid set of men who are devoted to their work and who do their best to see that justice is performed. The lay magistrates perform an excellent job, too, in the assistance that they give in that regard.

So much for the obvious necessity for a Measure of this kind. If we did not spend this money, we would be doing a disservice to the country, not only from the standpoint of the expeditious and proper dealing with cases, but a disservice in that the Treasury would suffer more because of the various costs that are bound to be incurred by adjournments and delays, quite apart from people and their lawyers being put to a lot of unnecessary and vexatious expense and difficulty.

But there is something even more than that in the Bill. The Joint Under-Secretary did not dwell very long on the provision concerning accommodation for the probation service. This is just as important as, if not more important than, the other provisions of the Bill. I do not know whether we in this House have been able to appreciate the probation service to the full. I do not claim that even we on this side, with all our good intentions, did everything that was necessary when we were in office. I have been dissatisfied for a considerable time and I know that many other people who understand the probation service have been dissatisfied, that it has not been given the fullest consideration that it should have had in the way of its servants, the probation officers. They are an excellent set of men and devoted servants of the people, but they find themselves frustrated because they have such an overload of cases that they are unable to move.

Two considerations arise concerning accommodation for the probation service. I am convinced that if it is given the fullest power to carry out the possibilities that it possesses the probation service would be most effective in clearing a large number of cases and preventing people from becoming inmates of prison. I go much further than that, however, and say that the probation service must be attended to in all its respects, because it is one of our most important social services. When one sees the manner and the places in which some of the probation officers have to work, one realises that the position is entirely different from what we should want it to be.

Not only is it necessary for the probation officer to have proper accommodation for himself and his staff. If we want an effective probation service the people who come within its purview must be made to understand that it is an important service. There must be the right kind of accommodation to impress the person who has to be guided to a better understanding of life and prevented from drifting into crime. I go so far as to say that hundreds of thousands of people, on their first appearance in court, are certainly not criminals in the sense in which people were regarded as criminals years ago.

It is out of keeping with the system that a person, particularly a child, should have to go into an overcrowded office to meet the probation officer by whom he or she has to be impressed. It is a silly and foolish arrangement to allow the premises or rooms to be of such a nature that the individual will not appreciate that the probation officer is somebody of importance. The probation officer is a person of importance in spite of his inadequate salary, which certainly should be raised.

A Bill like this will help to provide more suitable accommodation for probation officers and for the service generally. It will serve two useful purposes. One is to obtain the necessary accommodation for carrying on the practical side of the work and the other, which is of equal, if not greater, importance, is that it will give the opportunity for the probation officer to be in surroundings that will be sufficiently dignified to impress the individual who comes to him. The individual will feel that he is in the presence of somebody who can help him and who is regarded by those in authority as a person of importance.

Much more could be said, but I do not want to detain the House any longer. I would add only that one of the things which often amuses me is the manner in which, in this House and elsewhere, people speak about the legal profession. They really do not realise that the day to day work of the legal profession enables them to get an insight into what is actually happening, particularly in the administration of justice, an insight which nobody outside the profession, unless he happens to be in a profession which in some respects is perhaps not dissimilar, can possibly get.

I speak with some experience, for I have been in practice in the law about forty years now. I ask the House to forgive me if, from time to time, I intervene in matters of this sort, because I feel urged to do it, in the light of my experience, which is a little outside the ordinary experience of the majority of people. An occasion like this enables the Home Office, or whatever authority is concerned, to see how the situation reacts on those who work in the courts.

I should like to congratulate the Government on having introduced the Bill.

12.31 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

This Bill is, unfortunately, very necessary. The figures published in the Report of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis tell us that the number of indictable offences has gone up from 95,000 in 1938 to 125,000 in 1957. If one looks at another table in the Commissioner's Report one sees that the number of convictions in the magistrates' courts have gone up from 36,000 in 1946 to 88,000 in 1957. All this, of course, means a very heavy additional load upon the machinery of the magistrates' courts in the London area.

It is true that the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1957, has done something to relieve the congestion, because it enables persons charged with certain summary offences to plead guilty without appearing court. That, to some extent, gets over one section of the problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) has referred in his speech, based upon his own personal experience in the magistrates' courts.

It is sometimes alleged that the number of motoring offences also adds very substantially to the pressure of work and the congestion in the magistrates' courts. The interesting fact about that, however, is that when one examines the figures one sees that the average number of motoring offences in the years imme- diately preceding the war, of prosecutions on summonses issued by the police, was about 112,000 and has gone up to 134,000 in 1957. So it is not so much the motoring offences which have caused delay and difficulty and congestion in the magistrates' courts.

Nevertheless, there is this very substantial rise in all forms of crime, and it is still going on. That not only imposes a heavy burden on the police, but also, of course, on the administration of justice. It is very important, in the kind of case with which a Metropolitan magistrate has to deal, that justice should be speedily meted out. I read the other day of a case in which a man was summoned for a motoring offence which took place last December, and he did not have his case dealt with until after a lapse of some six or seven months. That is surely a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. One of the characteristics of an efficient system of justice is that it shall be swift.

The work of the Metropolitan magistrates is added to by the fact that London is the capital city and that we have persons coming to it from all parts of the world, and that, for example, we have open spaces like Hyde Park where it is necessary that 538 prosecutions for indecent behaviour have to be dealt with every three months by the nearest magistrate's court. One does hope that this, which one may call an especially Metropolitan burden, will not continue for too long. It does not do very much good for the reputation of London. It is, of course, necessary to deal with this kind of problem, which affects London more than most other places, also quickly and efficiently.

The Bill gives the Lord Chancellor power to appoint acting Metropolitan stipendiary magistrates. I hope that that is a power which will not be too freely resorted to. I am very firmly of the opinion that if judicial appointments have to be made they ought to be made on a permanent basis.

I am not very satisfied, for example, with the work of the Commissioners who have been appointed to deal with divorce cases, who spend a lot of time in moralising disquisitions, which are reported very well by the more sensational Sunday newspapers, which thus get over the restriction which is imposed upon the reporting of divorce proceedings. These—what I may call—amateur judges acting on a kind of temporary paid basis are not always very satisfactory.

I therefore hope that the Lord Chancellor, if he has to appoint, as he will have to, additional permanent Metropolitan stipendiary magistrates will not hold up the appointment of permanent magistrates by appointing acting magistrates. If there is a need to make these appointments, then the sooner they are made on a permanent basis the better it will be.

There are one or two other points to which I shall not refer because, perhaps, they can be more appropriately dealt with in Committee; one or two questions relating to Clause 3, which enables the Receiver to hold lands and buildings and provides for the resultant expenditure to be met from the Metropolitan Police Fund; matters on which I may, perhaps, raise questions in Committee. It is clear that as the expenditure has to be met partly out of the Exchequer and partly out of the rates the ratepayers of London also are entitled to have their views represented. This is a problem which has cropped up on more than one occasion. The jurisdiction of the police in London is different; the jurisdiction exercised by the local authorities is non-existent in London, whereas it does exist outside the Metropolitan area. Nevertheless, the Bill should go on the Statute Book as soon as possible. It will certainly help to make justice more swift.

I do not know whether, with the appointment of additional stipendiary magistrates, it will be possible for the authorities to consider an idea which I have had in mind for some time of holding magistrates' courts in the evening. There may be difficulties, with the shortage of stipendiary magistrates, in organising evening sessions, but it would help to reduce very considerably the inconvenience suffered by many people who have to attend magistrates' courts for the purpose of giving evidence and people generally who are not directly chargeable with offences but who have to lose a day or a half-day's wages to attend. Such persons ought to have their interests considered.

It may well be that by organising some system of magistrates' courts in the evenings, the hardship suffered by innocent people could be considerably reduced. It would certainly help to reduce, not the official costs of the case, but the costs that have to be incurred by ordinary people, sometimes in humble circumstances, who for some reason or other—certainly not because they are criminals—have to attend the hearing. I hope that that idea will be seriously considered. I think that it would make some contribution towards the speeding up of justice and the reduction of inconvenience to the general public.

I commend the Bill in the hope that it will help to improve the lives of people in London and help to restore the efficiency of the arrangements for the administration of justice. In that way, perhaps, the reputation of London, which has been criticised in certain quarters in recent weeks and months, may eventually be improved.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Renton

By leave of the House, I should like to answer briefly the points made in the debate.

I am grateful for the support given to the Bill and I am particularly glad that the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) demonstrated his faith in Treasury control, just as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has demonstrated his interest in the Bill.

The hon. and learned Member referred to the effect of pleas of guilty being made by post. That does not reduce the number of cases which have to be heard by the courts and, although it saves time, it reduces only slightly the length of the many cases concerned. The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) asked whether the probationary work of the juvenile courts was covered by the Receiver's powers relating to probation under the Bill. The answer is, "Yes". It is the one probation system for all the courts in London. The hon. Member also asked whether the Bill would enable provision to be made for remand homes. The answer is, "No". The Receiver is not responsible for providing remand homes, but my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has them very much in mind.

The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) reffered to the need for more accommodation for the probation service. I am glad to say that, well before the Bill was drafted, my right hon. Friend had made various provisions for the improvement of conditions for the probation service, and the Bill is necessary partly because of the dispositions which my right hon. Friend has been making.

The hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) asked whether consideration could be given to evening courts in London. Candidly, we have no such plan in mind. My only comment is that they might provide cleaner entertainment than is sometimes to be found in the evenings in London.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

Committee upon Monday next.