HC Deb 21 March 1962 vol 656 cc437-40
The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 3, line 41, to leave out "any case "and to insert: the case of a person committed to the court for trial".

Clause 4 (5) enables a legally qualified chairman of quarter sessions to sit alone in certain circumstances without the assistance of lay justices. This gave rise to some discussion in Committee. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General gave an undertaking with regard to it, which is reported in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the First Sitting in Committee.

The Amendment goes further than the undertaking, so I hope that it will be acceptable to the House. If the Amendment is accepted, chairmen of quarter sessions in the absence of lay justices will not be able to deal with appeals against sentence alone, nor with bastardy appeals, nor with applications for bail or for costs, nor with such matters as highways or corn rents. The effect of the Amendment will be to restrict the provision narrowly to the class of case in which the greatest difficulty in securing the attendance of a lay magistrate from time to time may arise; that is to say, cases of persons committed to the court for what may be a long trial.

I should like to make it clear that there is no desire in taking this power, restricted as it will be by the Amendment, to minimise the importance of the work and of the part played in the administration of justice by lay magistrates. However, in long trials there is sometimes great difficulty in securing the attendance of magistrates. It is, therefore, right to take this power, which I hope will not have to be used on many occasions. As the Amendment goes further than the undertaking given by my hon. and learned Friend and as the undertaking was itself acceptable to the Committee, I hope that the Amendment will be accepted by the House.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Fletcher

We on this side of the House welcome the Amendment, which arises from a suggestion made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacCol). It is fair to point out that we were critical of the whole of subsection (5). This is the one respect in the Bill in which the Government have departed from the recommendations of the Streatfeild Committee. We were criticad of it for that reason and because we doubted whether it was wise to give chairmen of quarter sessions the power in any circumstances to sit alone. We thought that it was derogatory of the status of magistrates and undesirable.

I am, therefore, very glad that the Attorney-General has gone slightly further than was promised in Committee to remove some of the undesirable features of the Clause as it originally stood. We support the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 7, at the end to insert: and of the justices sitting and so qualified one is a man and one a woman". The Amendment is in response to an undertaking I gave the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) in Committee that we would consider again whether it is practical to add to the qualifications of persons constituting a court of county quarter sessions hearing an appeal from a juvenile court. Clause 4 (7) already provides that, so far as practicable, not less than half the justices sitting to hear an appeal from a juvenile court shall have juvenile court experience.

The Amendment will further provide, again so far as practicable, that members of the court with juvenile experience shall include a man and a woman. This may give rise to some difficulty, because, for reasons with which I will not weary the House, this means that there will have to be in most cases three magistrates rather than two sitting, because the chairman is very rarely qualified to sit on the juvenile court panel.

Nevertheless, we have made the inquiries we said we would make and have come to the conclusion that the case of the hon. Member for Widnes is a good one and that even the smaller counties, which was the fear we had in our mind, will be able to man the appeals in this way. This being so, it is obviously right that there should be a woman in these cases, since there must be a woman when the case is heard originally.

The hon. Member for Widnes has expressed to me his regret at not being here, which I quite understand, because he is engaged on public duties upstairs. He has also expressed himself pleased with the Amendment, and we are happy to be of service to the House.

Amendment agreed to.