§ 4.21 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)
I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the Report of the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions (Command Paper No. 4153).
The House will, I am sure, welcome this opportunity to debate the Report of the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions.
When Lord Brougham made his famous speech on law reform in 1828 he took six hours. He kept up his energy with drafts of mulled port. Indeed, after his speech an the Reform Bill the combination, no doubt, of eloquence, mulled port and enthusiasm caused the noble Lord to fall on his knees, and his friends had to pick him up and set him up again on the Woolsack. I trust that I shall neither be as long as Lord Brougham nor in need of physical support at the conclusion of what I have to say, but with the leave of the House I shall be a little longer than is my wont in indicating the Government's views on this very important report.
I know that I shall be expressing the wish of the House in thanking Lord Beeching and his distinguished colleagues on the Royal Commission for the immense contribution they have made in the report to the solution of the grave and continuing problem of the overload of work on the courts and the consequent build-up of arrears.
The Royal Commission was a happy blend of lawyers and laymen. All those of us who have studied the report will have been struck by its clarity and readability, as well as by its grasp of the essentials of the problems and the realism and good sense of its recommendations. The Royal Commission was really addressing itself to a unique problem in our history, since the court system, with developments and modifications that have taken place through the centuries, has never stood in need of such fundamental change since its earliest days. Indeed, we should not begin a debate in which we shall be mainly concerned with the need for change without first recalling how remarkably the system has stood up to the demands made upon it through 603 the centuries. It is only the unremitting pressure of a constantly-increasing volume of work, both civil and criminal, coming to the courts that makes a complete reappraisal essential.
The Government have not felt it necessary to publish a White Paper relating to these proposals. This is because, with one or two exceptions to which I shall refer, and with the possibility of modification of secondary points of detail, the Government accept the major recommendations in the report, and fully accept the pattern of court organisation which the Royal Commission proposes. There is, therefore, no need to repeat in a White Paper the contents of the report. I believe that the House may well be disposed to accept that approach.
Few reports of this scope and importance have received such a general welcome from the judiciary and both branches of the legal profession. Inevitably, there is not complete unanimity and some aspect of the report will be unwelcome to some people or some authorities, as is always the case when changes have to be faced. Nevertheless, the Government feel confident that there will be very general support for implementing the main proposals, and preparations are in hand so that the necessary legislation can, I hope, be introduced in the next Session of Parliament.
Essentially, the proposals in the report all depend on the acceptance of the fundamental principle that there should be a single authority for the administration of the higher courts to replace the present multiplicity of authorities. Paragraph 427 of the report recommended that the Lord Chancellor should undertake this responsibility and should in future be responsible to Parliament for delays or other defects in the system.
The Government accept this, and my noble Friend is ready to undertake this task, although all the changes cannot, of course, take place until the necessary legislation has been passed, and the circuit administrators, who have a key place in the report's recommendations, have been appointed and supported by the necessary staff.
Magistrates' courts were, of course, outside the terms of reference of the Royal Commission. The future administration 604 of these courts is clearly a subject which requires careful study in the light of the Government's acceptance in principle of the Royal Commission's report, which perhaps for convenience we may refer to as the Beeching Report. The most urgent problem however, is to deal with the serious situation which exists in the higher courts and at present the Government are concentrating on achieving that object.
The defects of the present court system are fully and clearly described in the second chapter of the report, although the Royal Commission took care to pay full tribute to its merits, too. The main trouble, as the Commission saw it, is that resources, both of judge power and of court accommodation, are being used ineffectively and wastefully under the present system, not through anyone's fault or negligence, but because the present diffusion of responsibilities leaves no one in a position to make a fully effective use of the available talent and the available room.
Problems at assizes are caused not only by the time taken in travelling by the judges themselves, but, as the report says, by the peripatetic existence of the whole court. It will have been a revelation to many people that, for instanceOffice equipment and stationery, court forms and case papers, have to be transported, sometimes in heavy wicker hampers, from town to town.It is a kind of travelling judicial circus, if that is not too impertinent a description.
In addition to this, the system of organising court business is subject very much to the wishes of particular judges, the judges who happen to be on duty, and the evidence of the clerk of assize for the North Eastern Circuit, quoted in paragraph 81 of the report, is striking. He said:… there is no continuity of responsibility. The judges and their clerks come for a short period, they are replaced by others who may both individually and collectively have quite different ideas as to how the lists should be run … A Leeds Assize may commence with Mr. Justice A of the Q.B.D. in commission trying crime and Mr. Justice B of the Q.B.D. and Mr. Justice C of the P.D. & A. taking the civil and divorce list. As between B and C, B is the senior so he is in charge of the list. But after a fortnight C goes and is replaced by Mr. Justice D for the next fortnight. He is senior to B so he emporarily assumes control of the civil and divorce list.None of these arguments are directed at individuals. They are levelled at the system (if it 605 can be called a system) which by its nature prevents an orderly pattern from ever emerging. The consequences are that solicitors, witnesses and others never know when they may be required …I am sure that those Members who have experience of circuit practices will endorse those words.
The report also describes difficulties arising at quarter sessions, especially because, to meet the convenience of chairmen or recorders—and I confess that I am not without guilt myself—they are all likely to sit at the same time in short periods of the year, presenting magistrates at other times with a problem of finding a court to which to commit their cases.
The report also draws attention to the disadvantages of the distinction between county and borough quarter sessions which often causes two quarter sessions to sit in the same town, sometimes in several courts at the same time, to serve two parts of the population for which the town is a natural centre, and intensifies the problem of providing suitable court accommodation and then using it economically. These difficulties both in assizes and quarter sessions, refer to the situation in the provinces. It can hardly be expected that London, with its immense concentration of people, will be any better placed, and, of course, it is not.
The report quotes alarming figures of the number of cases awaiting trial at the Central Criminal Court at the end of June last year, when it was estimated that it would take 1,320 judge days to clear that backlog. That means that even with 14 or 15 courts sitting every day, on average a case will not be tried in the Central Criminal Court in less than about 41 months from committal. As the Royal Commission remarks:This poses a serious enough problem logistically, but when it is remembered that some of the cases will be accused persons already in custody, and all involve witnesses with fading memories, the situation is intolerable.There are problems, too, in the five quarter sessions courts in the Greater London area. The report notes that the present distribution of sessions courts does not pay enough attention to problems of accessibility with the result that the brunt of the work falls on the centrally placed Inner London and Middlesex area 606 quarter sessions, the accommodation for which has already had to be expanded and for which further extensions are planned.
As the House will be aware, this is certainly not a matter in which the Governnment have been content to wait upon events. Quite apart from setting up the Royal Commission itself, they have taken all possible steps, within the limits of the existing system to deal with the tremendous increase in the work of the courts during the last five or six years. Twelve new courts at the Royal Courts of Justice were opened in 1968. Additional courts have also been opened at the Old Bailey, the Inner London Sessions and elsewhere, and new county courts have also been opened.
As far as the Government have been able we have kept abreast with the increasing load by making additional appointments to the Bench. The number of High Court judges has been increased from 56 in 1965 to the present number of 66. During this period there has been a big increase in county court business, also, and to meet this the number of county court judges in post has been raised from 79 to 104, the latter including some judges who sat during part of their term at quarter sessions in Greater London.
During the same period the number of full-time judges at the Central Criminal Court has been increased from nine to 13, and the number of judges sitting on a full-time basis at quarter sessions throughout the country has risen from 18 to 28. The Lord Chancellor will not hesitate to recommend additional appointments if necessary. But it must be recognised by the House that the present system, and particularly the lack of court accommodation, limits the extent to which this can usefully be done. In this situation, the report's major recommendations are based essentially on the need to make a more effective use of the available judge power and of the available accommodation. I believe that this is surely right.
The Government's position is reserved on the only substantive recommendation in the report which was less than unanimous, that solicitors should be eligible for appointment to the circuit bench or as recorders. Paragraphs 245 to 248 of the report set out the arguments for and 607 against such eligibility, and the majority view, expressed rather as an inclination than as a conclusion, was in favour of eligibility. This is a matter on which the Government have not yet reached any conclusion and I am sure that my noble and learned Friend will wish to give due weight to views, on whichever side of the question, that may be expressed in this debate today.
I should also tell the House of one of the few exceptions in which my noble and learned Friend has not felt able to accept a recommendation of the report. After setting the arguments out fully, the report recommended, in paragraph 273, that where lay magistrates sit in support of a circuit judge, they should do so as assessors only.
My noble and learned Friend has reached the conclusion that, despite the quite weighty arguments leading to this proposal, it is misconceived. Lay justices are not only selected most carefully for the work they have to perform, but they now receive compulsory training and instruction in their duties before they may adjudicate, and, subsequently, they undergo further instruction including periodical exercises in sentencing. My noble and learned Friend considers that the lay justices can play a most useful role as full members of the court.
I have already used the comparatively unfamiliar expression at least as far as this country is concerned—" circuit judge ". Hon. and right hon. Members who have studied the report will be aware that one of the most important ways in which it is proposed to make the best use of judge power is that full-time members of the judiciary, below the level of High Court judge, and above stipendiary magistrate, should all come within the single category of circuit judges, comprising full-time recorders, official referees, full-time chairmen and deputy chairmen of quarter sessions, the additional judges of the Central Criminal Court, and county court judges.
The report envisages the employment of these judges in a more flexible way under the new circuit system that is proposed, so that circuit judges will be able to try certain cases duly released to them that at present have to be taken by High Court judges though the cases will, of 608 course, continue to be treated as High Court ones. Similarly, there will be power for High Court judges, when they can spare the time to do so, to help with county court cases. These flexible arrangements for the use of judge power seem to me to be one of the most valuable parts of the Commission's proposals.
If the most effective use of judge power is one of the main policies on which the new organisation will rest, the other, as I have said, is the better use of accommodation. There can be no doubt that, as the report suggests, a considerable programme of court building will be needed over the next few years, and one of the first tasks to be undertaken will be a thorough survey of the courts and the taking of decisions on the priorities. Like all building programmes, however, this can only be achieved over a comparatively long period; and in the meantime, it will be necessary to make the best use of what we have, adapting and expanding it, sometimes even on a temporary basis, in the most urgent cases. These practical limits will make it all the more necessary to ensure that the new system of administration makes the best use of the buildings available by directing business there whenever necessary, in a way that is at present impossible.
I should now like to mention the arrangements we have in mind for dealing with accommodation. We accept the recommendations of the Royal Commission that future responsibility for accommodation, for higher courts, for offices and for judges' lodgings, should lie with the central Government. After the necessary legislation has been passed, this responsibility will be discharged by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works.
Accommodation which is at present used exclusively by the higher courts would be transferred with outstanding liabilities, but without compensation. Other accommodation would be acquired on payment for those parts not at present used by the higher courts and account would be taken of the accommodation needs of the magistrates. We also envisage some cases in which transfer would not be appropriate because the use of the buildings is shared with others, but where the central Government should be given the right of continued use on payment of appropriate running costs but free of rent.
609 Legislation, will, of course, be necessary to give effect to these changes. In the meantime, before that legislation is passed, we have to ensure that urgent needs are met and that there are no avoidable delays in the implementation of this long-term building programme.
In one or two places temporary accommodation may have to be provided without delay, and in the new situation created by the Government's acceptance of the Beeching Report it may be necessary for the Ministry of Public Building and Works to let contracts for this purpose in advance of legislation. It also seems essential that the Ministry should assume responsibility, in the interim period before legislation is passed, for design, planning and acquisition of land in respect of new long term projects.
Authority for action by the Ministry for these two purposes will rest on the Appropriation Act. I feel sure that the House will think that that is reasonable in the circumstances. We shall, therefore, be introducing a Summer Supplementary Estimate to obtain the necessary authority.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
Can my right hon. and learned Friend explain the relationship between the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Public Building and Works? Will the Lord Chancellor give guidance? Will he exercise general overseership? Will he issue general directions?
§ The Attorney-General
The Ministry and my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will operate most closely together, in co-operation with each other. I visualise their having no difficulty in achieving a harmonious relationship and in reaching a decision as to what is best. Obviously, the bricks and mortar problems are appropriate to be dealt with by the Ministry of Public Building and Works. The decision about the location of these projects will be ultimately for the Lord Chancellor after the review which will now be undertaken by the circuit administrators, to whom I shall refer in a few moments.
The House can be assured that expenditure by the central Government on higher court building in advance of legislation will be strictly confined to the minimum required to meet urgent needs and to avoid serious delays in the implementation 610 of the long-term programme. It is not our intention, however, that the Ministry should actually let contracts for long-term projects until the legislation is through, because obviously parliamentary control and accountability is of great importance.
These advantages of improved organisation and greater flexibility can be obtained only by bringing to an end the present multiplicity of court authorities. As the Royal Commission itself remarked, it is a great tribute to the devotion and ability of those who now manage the business of the courts that they achieve as much as they do.
The last thing that should be done is to replace too decentralised a system by one which is over-centralised, and it is no part of the report's recommendations, and certainly no part of the Government's plans, to build up a large administrative machine in the Lord Chancellor's office. Some increase in what has hitherto been a remarkably small staff compared with almost any Ministry in Whitehall is inevitable, but the whole of the detailed work of organising court business will take place not in the Lord Chancellor's office itself, but in the six circuits into which the report proposes that England and Wales should be divided, and the circuit administrators will have the support of staff who will, for the most part no doubt, be those who are already concerned with these matters but who will be brought together in a more tidy and uniform system which will enable the new and improved service to be built up.
The report, after taking careful note both of what is needed and of the restricting factors that limit achievement, has proposed that each circuit administrator should take responsibility for all aspects of the court service within his circuit, subject to the presiding judge. To quote the report—paragraph 311:His first duty will be to see that all criminal and civil business is disposed of promptly, and he will be answerable to the Lord Chancellor if delays occur.These responsibilities will embrace what is now the business of the High Court, assizes, quarter sessions and county courts, and the report has made thoroughly practical and workmanlike proposals for the division of court business between civil and criminal work, 611 for the division of criminal offences into three broad groups or bands which will enable the High Court judges to concentrate on the most difficult cases, and for an up-to-date system of location of the courts. Within this framework it will fall mainly to the circuit administrator and his staff to make the new system work in the best possible way.
Obviously, we shall achieve this only by appointing the right men to these key posts. The House may be aware that applications for these posts were recently invited and selections have now been made by means of an open competition. I understand that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor hopes to make a public announcement of the names very soon.
Although the report clearly saw the need for a strengthened administrative organisation of this character, I think that the Royal Commission was absolutely right in concluding that, while the burden of management must be carried by these administrators, it was, as the Commission expressed it in paragraph 256 —very necessary, on constitutional grounds, to provide a visible and effective safeguarding of the position of the judges serving the Circuits by assigning to each Circuit a senior member of the judiciary who will have a general responsibility for that Circuit and a particular responsibility for all matters affecting the judiciary serving there.The most important functions which the presiding judges will have to undertake are planning the itineraries of the various members of the judiciary throughout their circuit and inviting individual circuit judges to give assistance to the High Court bench. This assistance will take the form of helping with the simpler High Court civil cases and sharing the work of the High Court judges in dealing with what the Commission proposes should be called upper and middle band offences in the Crown Court.
The way in which this help will be given will depend to a large extent on guidance to be given by the Lord Chief Justice, but it will be for the presiding judge of the circuit to ensure that the new system works effectively and that individual cases are tried at the most suitable level. In paragraphs 134–147, the Commission gives both theoretical and practical reasons why a more flexible use of judge-power is needed than exists at 612 present. It puts forward, in paragraph 208, the circumstances in which, in civil cases, it would be undesirable for a High Court judge to release a case for trial by a circuit judge. These include such matters as —that the damages are likely to be substantial;…that an allegation of fraud or dishonest conduct is involved; that either party is entitled to claim trial by jury …On the criminal side, hon. Members will find the Commission's proposals in paragraphs 190 –195 of the report and will see that the Commission envisages that all upper band offences— that is, the gravest —should always come before a High Court Judge for consideration. The most serious of these, which include treason, murder and genocide, must always be tried by a High Court judge. Those which are less serious, and which include manslaughter, infanticide and abortion, must be tried by a High Court judge, unless he feels that the circumstances are such as to justify his releasing an individual case for trial by a circuit judge. I should emphasise that the decision in each case will be that of the judge himself.
The remaining cases which are at present triable only at assizes are referred to by the Commission as "middle band offences", and the proposals for allocating these between High Court and circuit judges are contained in paragraphs 194 and 197(b). The Commission envisages that allocation of any such case should be made by the officer responsible for listing cases who must, before making his decision, either consult a High Court judge or act in accordance with general directions from such a judge. This would follow the general pattern now in force at the Central Criminal Court, and I hope that the House will agree that it should provide the flexibility which is so badly needed if the present serious backlog of cases is to be reduced, while preserving complete judicial control over the arrangements for trial of cases. This will produce a greatly improved, and selective, substitute for the present system of Commissioners of Assize.
I commend especially to the House paragraphs 256 to 265 of the Royal Commission's report, which describe the case for having presiding judges in each circuit and set out in general terms the type 613 of responsibility that they should exercise.
It will thus be possible for the circuit administrators to have the support and advice of senior members of the judiciary without the latter having to assume detailed administrative responsibilities to an extent that would divert them from their main responsibilities, which, of course, will be to try cases themselves. I assure the House that this pattern of organisation is one that is entirely acceptable to the Lord Chief Justice and his colleagues on the bench, and I know that they will play their full part in making these arrangements work smoothly.
One of the features of the report which will, I am sure, commend it particularly widely is that, while its main proposals are fundamental and while the whole report is based on a recommendation that nothing can satisfactorily be done merely by tinkering further with the present system, the Royal Commission has shown every anxiety to retain in future the best characteristics we have today. The report sets out in paragraph 112 the main features which a good court system should provide, but, in addition, the members of the Royal Commission showed that they were anxious to preserve such considerable merits as are achieved by the movement of High Court judges between London and the provinces and the division of their work between civil and criminal cases.
The Royal Commission was particularly anxious, also, that, although it can no longer be justified to retain assizes in some of the smaller towns providing little business, justice should be within easy physical reach of as many people in the country as possible. This will, I have no doubt, be achieved by the Royal Commission's proposals, although at the same time it will only be sensible to limit the locations of the higher courts to places where the volume of business will justify having them.
The report has set out very clear and detailed proposals based on court centres of three kinds. First, centres where High Court and circuit judges will deal with both civil and criminal work; secondly, those where High Court and circuit judges will deal with criminal work only; and, lastly, those where circuit judges will deal with criminal work only.
614 These are in addition to county court centres which are already being reviewed and where, no doubt, a very heavy volume of business will continue to be transacted very much as at present, subject to the extension of the county court jurisdiction and the replacement of judgment summonses by attachment of earnings orders. The House will be interested to know that the Lord Chancellor has just made an order bringing into force the provisions of the Administration of Justice Act, 1969, which increase the jurisdiction of county courts in contract, tort and other matters, and which will give some much needed relief to the High Court in the disposal of civil cases.
I have already referred to the closure of some of the smaller assizes, and the House will be aware that we are preparing to take power to do this in the Administration of Justice Bill, now before the House, which, I pray, will have an easier course next Thursday than it had last Monday. When this Bill becomes law, my noble and learned Friend proposes that assizes should cease to be held in 15 towns in England and Wales where the business no longer justifies the attendance of a High Court judge, and the authorities concerned have already been given informal notice of this intention.
It goes without saying that most, indeed probably all, of these towns will regret the loss of this direct link with the administration of justice by the higher courts. I am sure that hon. Members will have considerable sympathy, as I certainly have, with those feelings. Having spent some of my happiest days at the Bar in some of the more distant assize towns, I share those feelings of regret. However, it clearly emerges from the report that the saving of the time at present involved in travelling to these sometimes rather remote areas and holding assizes when only a very small number of cases may come up, is one of the most valuable ways in which we can get more room for manœuvre in disposing of the total volume of business.
I would add that, while the Government accept the report's proposals about court locations generally, the precise choice of centres, especially of those for which new courts will need to be built, must await the detailed survey of the needs of the circuit and the available 615 accommodation which will be one of the first tasks of the circuit administrators when they take up their appointments. This is the point I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). Similarly, the circuit boundaries proposed are not inflexible and my noble and learned Friend will be very ready to consider suggestions for change of detail.
In this House, we are all aware—perhaps all too aware—that improvements of every kind cost money, and the improved administration of justice cannot be an exception to this inexorable rule. Nevertheless, the report sets out clearly the ways in which greater efficiency in running the courts will save a good deal of time and money that is now being spent.
Considering its fundamental importance to our society, the cost of administering justice is small in relation to that of other social services, and the Government are satisfied that some extra cost, including the capital cost of a court building programme spread over several years, will be well worth while to make the basic improvements that are needed, because a fair and competent administration of justice is the very bulwark of a free society. It is also, of course, inherent in acceptance of the Report that some costs at present borne by local authorities will in future fall on the central Government. I commend to the House paragraphs 328 –330 of the report, which set the position out clearly and provide an analysis which the Government broadly accept.
When the proposals are implemented, certain adjustments in the Vote structure will be needed and these will be put before the House for consideration in the usual way. It will be clear to all who have read the report that its implementation will require considerable reorganisation of the staffs who support the present system and that this will mean changes and adjustments for many of those concerned. The staff who support the various divisions of the Supreme Court in London, the staff in the county courts and the staff of clerks of assize will, in due course, find themselves fitting into the organisation under the various circuit administrators, including the one for the South-Eastern 616 circuit, whose responsibilities will include the whole of the administration of justice in the Greater London area.
Most understandably, all these people will want to know as soon as possible how they stand in relation to their transfer to the new organisation, the terms and conditions of service that they can be offered, or, in what I expect to be few cases, where transfer is not possible or appropriate, the terms of compensation.
These are complex matters and my noble and learned Friend and his officials will be giving them both careful and urgent consideration in close consultation with all the interests concerned, including the representatives of the employers of local authority staffs and, under Whitley Council arrangements, the representatives of the staffs themselves. Detailed proposals about organisation and staffing arrangements will be made as soon as possible, but it would be wrong for me to disguise the fact that there is a good deal of groundwork to be got through before we reach that stage.
The Royal Commission was set up on the advice of Her Majesty's Government because we could see a very real and urgent problem that had to be solved. In the meantime, the problem has not solved itself, alas. On the contrary, it has got worse. There is, therefore, every reason why we should press ahead as quickly as possible so that the very sound recommendations of the report can be translated into reality.
I would, therefore, like briefly to summarise what is being done and the course of action on which my noble and learned Friend proposes to embark. First, the Lord Chancellor's Office is being, in a modest measure, strengthened to handle this new and additional administrative burden; secondly, as I have already said, shortly be announced, and I hope that it will be possible for them to take up the names of circuit administrators will their appointments in the next few months so that they can join in the initial task of surveying and planning in their various areas.
Thirdly, instructions for the necessary legislation, a major Bill, is now being prepared. I have every hope that it will he ready for introduction in the next Parliamentary Session. Concurrently 617 with this, the detailed organisation required in the circuits will be worked out and, as I have already said, the necessary negotiations with staff and other interests will take place to enable us to bring the new court services into existence. We are, however, fortunate that, in the county courts service which is already responsible to my noble and learned Friend, we have the nucleus of a countrywide court service which, in many of its aspects, may, I think, be a most useful pilot or model for the organisation towards which we must work.
This is a considerable programme, the complexity of which we must not underrate, but I hope that we can move ahead with it sufficiently fast and sufficiently smoothly for the main changes to be brought into effect in 1972.
Accordingly. I commend these proposals to the House and ask with every confidence that the House will support them. I do not want to claim that they will be perfect, any more than any human organisation is perfect, and none of us is in a position to guarantee that the full burden on the courts will be limited to this or that extent. We cannot directly control the volume of either civil or criminal business with which the courts have to deal. I firmly believe, however, that the proposals in this report are those best calculated to make a really marked improvement in the speed and efficiency with which justice is administered without any detriment to its quality.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Sir Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)
Without even pausing for mulled claret, the Attorney-General has discharged his task —without even a sip of water. Although he took only 45 minutes instead of six hours, the whole House thanks him for the way in which he has explained the report to us and has given us an idea of the task which we think may fall upon our shoulders in the coming Parliamentary Session. We are glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was able to arrange this debate with his right hon. Friends. It is right that these important matters should be discussed, that preparations should be made for them and the whole House informed about the necessary tasks that have to be undertaken.
618 Having given us some idea of what proposals the present Government have and the steps that they are taking, we have an opportunity to welcome this report and make some further discursive reflections upon it. I would join with the Attorney-General in expressing thanks to the authors of the report, certainly for the lucidity and style. It rattles along. Unlike so many Royal Commission reports, with respect to their authors, I find this report extremely readable and lucid. Not only should the authors be congratulated upon its form but also all those who took part in this massive task. Justice is everyone's business, it has been said, and although one might not think so looking around the Chamber this afternoon, it is true. What we are debating will affect a great many people. It will not only affect those people such as judges and lawyers, those who administer, the officials who attend upon and around the courts, but also the public in a very large measure.
It will affect the parties to the action, the witnesses to the action, the defendants to the charges, the witnesses to those charges and the jurors who attend in the criminal cases, not forgetting the spectators who in our system of open justice are entitled to listen to the administration of justice. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that a more rational approach must be made to the administration of justice. While the court system of Henry II whereby the judges went to the people worked well, it is right to see where the people are before sending the judges off. What has been happening is that the judges have been going to where the people are not, and that is the reason why the 15 towns have already been warned of the sad but inevitable news that no longer will the Queen's Judges visit them.
In welcoming these proposals we should not overlook the strength of the present system. It is fashionable nowadays to decry our system and to point to the law's delays and to the manner of administration, but our system bears comparison with the best overseas. No one should be keener than the lawyer about the need to keep under review the practice and procedure of justice, but we should guard carefully the principle upon which justice is conducted. When we compare our system with similar systems 619 it will be seen that there are the two principles of speed and certainty. In other countries men await the outcome of appeals for months if not years, while here we place expedition in a prime place. Others may say that certainty should be in that place, but while we talk about the need for swift administration let us do nothing which would in any way reduce that degree of certainty which is an essential quality.
I do not suggest for a moment that these proposals do this. We should recollect how strong our system has been and is. Although we should always look for strength in it, we should take these matters into account. We therefore put into proportion the delays mentioned in criminal trials, the length of time between committal and trial. What is clear from the report, and from the experience of most hon. Members, is that there is one place where this delay stands out like a sore thumb and that is in and around London.
If we examine the statistics for the time taken between committal and trial, there is no doubt that throughout the country it is a reasonable time but with the pressure of business in and around London, not only upon the Central Criminal Court but upon the Inner London and Middlesex Sessions, the time is too long. Although there have been increases in the number of judges, although the City of London generously has been building courts, the delays here seem to be intolerable and they must be dealt with. I do not knew whether the Attorney-General has any solutions. They are not easy to find. One solution is to use the Royal Courts of Justice more frequently for criminal trials. I know that there are difficulties about prisoners and so on. There are many empty courts in the Strand and we should take every opportunity of using them and seeking out other alternatives. The pressure in London is reflected in other parts of the country by the length of trials. There is no doubt that trials are longer as a result of legal aid. Legal aid is there because the House has decided that people should be properly defended, which means searching and probing and inevitably leads to longer trials. Someone who knows how guilty he is of an offence is nevertheless entitled to any form of legal 620 defence. But we should consider our procedure, especially with regard to trials of fraud, of investigation prior to the trial, so that we can eliminate those trials which go on for weeks and even months. How can the jury recollect evidence given weeks and sometimes months before?
Therefore, we need better organisation of courts, more courts better situated and more judges, without diluting the quality. I have never believed much in the idea of dilution of quality. Judges can and should be found. I know that the establishment at the High Court is under strength and this could be put right immediately.
I welcome this report. The reform of the court system is high on the agenda of the next Conservative Government. I share with the Attorney-General a completely bipartisan approach to this problem. This is not Monday evening all over again.
First, we endorse the proposed separation of civil and criminal work. Second, we endorse the creation of a single Crown Court for criminal cases other than those for the High Court judges, and without territorial limitations. We endorse the two-tier system of judges and the proposed circuit system, based upon main centres, suggested by the Commission, although many of us have views about the actual location of courts and the employment of those which are well sited, including adapting any of the suggested circuits to fit the realities and practicalities. We certainly endorse the unification of administrative responsibility, with a fully qualified administrator.
So we accept the broad conclusions of the degree of centralisation necessary. We are paying a price for the administration of justice in this centralisation, but we have to accept it. I am concerned that there should not be an increase in bureaucracy, replacing what the Attorney-General described as the "hamper" for moving around the circuit with a vast rabbit warren of offices and administrators breeding other administrators, so that we have a very top-heavy system. That needs to be watched.
It is right that there should be a presiding judge. That safeguards the judicial independence and it can be seen to exist. They should be drawn from the judges with more experience of a circuit 621 and should be able to preside and make the arrangements about itineraries and be responsible to the Lord Chief Justice for those tasks.
I wonder whether the strictures on the specialist judge are altogether convincing. The all-purpose judge is in many circumstances desirable—that is, the man who has gained his experience in many different fields of the law—but if that means excluding the specialist, the man who has spent his career, for instance, in the criminal courts, I am not sure that that is wise. We should make use of the specialist. I agree that the judge should move within the circuit and not sit at the same place, but specialisation is important. I always wonder whether the Streatfeild Report was over-concerned with the criticism of specialists. In the Central Criminal Court, the calibre of judges is high. They do not become in any way stale or fixed in a particular attitude any more than the all-purpose judge. So there is a place for specialist judges, although they should be fewer than the all-purpose judges.
The reorganisation of quarter sessions work should be gradual. It would be a great error to rush it. We need a larger panel of part-time judges, but the role of the recorder has been that of the part-time judge and it has also provided the practical experience and training for the judgeship. It is important to retain this system.
I hope that the suggested proposals in the report and the consequences of them will not alter the fundamental structure of the judicial career. The idea of the judge starting as a young man, successfully earning promotion and thus appointment into the higher ranks of the judiciary is not wholly desirable. The county court judge or the circuit judge should have the opportunity for promotion, but the idea of a step-by-step career leaves the judiciary open to the idea that if they perform well in a particular sphere they may be promoted and appointed. That would not be desirable. There always has to be opportunity for promotion, for an open road leading from the circuit judgeship to the High Court Bench. but I hope it will not be the main road. We must provide room for the exceptional talents.
622 I wonder whether we might not also reconsider the retiring age of 75. With the greatest respect to many distinguished men who have kept their faculties very alive up to that age, is it really good to retain it? It is a rather ancient age, nowadays.
The Attorney-General mentioned the appointment of solicitors to the circuit bench. As he said, the Royal Commission did not seek or receive evidence on this and its suggestions were hesitant. Also, in the modern profession, there are these different roles. The professional and experienced advocate only becomes one by the experience of practising in the courts.
I also welcome the fact that any solicitor with more than three years' experience can walk across the Strand and with six months' pupilage can immediately start to practise at the Bar. The inter-change between the branches of the professions is an enormous source of strength. However, it would be much harder for a barrister to go across the road to the Law Courts and to join in lucrative fields of the solicitor with all that a solicitor is required to know involving accountancy, book-keeping and all the rest. Just because people are advocates it does not make them superior in knowledge of the law. I have the greatest respect for the solicitor who sits in his office day after day dealing with inquiries and giving advice on the countless problems which are presented to him. I am sure that everybody, particularly the practising advocate, will pay tribute to the excellent service given by the solicitors' branch of the profession at a time when legislation is so great and so confusing. This interchange is a good thing, but I believe that strength is given by the separation of the two professions, though probably that is not a matter to go into at present.
The work at quarter sessions depends on the strength of local bars and their influence is of the greatest importance. Without young barristers there cannot be old barristers. Additional judges have been appointed in recent years because of the amount of work, but the problem of administration is of the greatest importance. I have some experience of the Royal Courts of Justice and I would point out that the appointment some years ago of Mr. Briegel in charge of 623 the lists has made an enormous difference and the service provided in the High Court has been immensely improved because of his abilities in that post. I hope that the administrative posts which are to be announced shortly will be filled by people of high calibre, quality and authority. It is never easy to organise the lists in the High Court since there can be no certainty as to how long a case may run. A case which is expected to go short may last for a long time and an expected long case may suddenly go short. I hope that the people appointed will be able to cope with all these difficult problems.
The report refers to the office of the Lord Chancellor and to strengthening the administrative side of his Department. I am wholly satisfied with the retention of the office of Lord Chancellor, which is of the greatest importance. I have never been attracted to the idea of a Minister of Justice with the overtones which it carries with it. I have never wanted to see such a Minister with responsibilities for the police, prisons, for the courts and for justice in general. I am glad that the present separation exists.
One of the strengths of the Lord Chancellor's office is that it is not a competitive job, although of course Lord Birkenhead became Secretary of State for India. But normally the Lord Chancellor of the day seeks nothing further than his own office. It would be a little different with a Minister of Justice since he could become Minister of Transport, or Minister of Pensions or whatever it may be. What is needed in the office of Lord Chancellor, and will be needed after the report, is greater assistance given to him by way of increased staff. This must happen. I was interested to hear what the Attorney-General said about the introduction in that office of an administrative officer. It is essential that he will have to be supplemented by others too.
As the Attorney-General has said, this all requires money. He also referred to the archaic squalor in which most of our justice is carried out, with great discomfort and inconvenience to people who are summoned to the courts. This is not only unnecessary but foolish. The more people who take part in the administration of justice—and I am glad that the Government have made a decision about the lay magistrates—the better. And the more 624 witnesses and juries are treated with courtesy and thought the better. But we must be prepared to bear the costs involved.
We have been very hesitant in providing money for the courts and for the administration of justice. I hope that there will be a change in that attitude. We should like to see a much improved and better system and we feel this can be achieved. Many of the proposals in the Beeching Report will go towards improving the administration of justice. Although there are many matters of detail which will have to be discussed, I join with the Attorney-General in welcoming this report.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)
To some it may appear odd that while brave men are being killed in Cambodia and disorder threatens in Northern Ireland we are debating today the report of the Beeching Commission. This appears to be the view of a number of my colleagues. But it is not the right view because of the important part played by the administration of justice in the quality of life.
The Motion before the House welcomes the Beeching Report and both my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) have echoed that welcome. I would join them in that welcome. I have no criticism of the proposals for reorganising the judiciary, nor have I any criticism of the proposed pattern of the courts or as to the answerability of the Lord Chancellor for the maintenance of the system. I am glad that the Government in extending their welcome to the report have not done so entirely uncritically.
I welcome the rejection by my right hon. and learned Friend and indeed by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor of the Commission's proposal that when magistrates sit with higher courts they should sit only as assessors. I have a little experience of magistrates sitting as assessors when as a recorder I hear appeals from juvenile courts. The magistrates come into the court in the middle of the proceedings. They do not quite know why they have come and, frankly, nor do I. We are all very polite. We are all a little shy and embarrassed. We deal with the case as best we can. But it is a very different atmosphere from that of the 625 ordinary court of quarter sessions where a magistrate sits as a fully qualified member of the court with a full share in its deliberations, although he is not a lawyer and cannot take part in directing the jury.
I extend my criticisms of the report a little further than my right hon. and learned Friend and the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom did. It may be a fault of the terms of reference, though I do not think so, but it seems to me that one fundamental defect of the report is that it surveys the problems with which it has to deal out of context. The problems of the higher courts cannot be examined adequately without reference to the problems of the lower courts, which have to carry a vastly greater case load than the higher courts. It is for that reason that, in my opinion, the proposed abolition of quarter sessions needs to be looked at critically.
County sessions, as distinct from borough sessions, are the hub round which the work of the magistracy revolves. Except on sentimental grounds, I hold no brief for the retention of borough sessions, but I see no reason why quarter sessions should not be retained within the framework of the proposed Crown courts, although the quarter sessions areas would have to be drastically revised in many cases when the proposals of the Redcliffe-Maud Report became effective. I do not know to what extent it is right to criticise the members of the Beeching Commission, but it is curious that they should have reviewed their problems as though the Redcliffe-Maud Report had no relevance to them.
The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom said that he hoped that the position of the Lord Chancellor would always be retained. He gave many reasons for preferring a Lord Chancellor to a Minister of Justice. I agree with him. But the functions of the Lord Chancellor have been greatly changed in recent years. As long ago as 1917, Lord Haldane, himself an ex-Lord Chancellor, recommended the creation of a Ministry of Justice, not as a substitute for the office of Lord Chancellor, but to allow the Lord Chancellor proper time to devote himself to his historic duties as head of the judiciary and Speaker of the House of Lords and, 626 as part of his duties as head of the judiciary, having the arduous responsibility of selecting judges directly or recommending their selection.
The Commission's philosophy in this respect seems to be that the best way of solving any problem is to create a new Government Department, and that the second best way is to enlarge an existing one. I am not satisfied that the adminitration of justice is a proper subject to be controlled from the centre in the detailed way that will inevitably result from the acceptance of the Beeching proposals in their entirety. It is all very well to say that the circuit administrators will do the job in the circuits and that, under them, there will be officers working in the various centres. There will be, but this is not our first experience of a Ministry having regional offices. The Department of Employment and Productivity has them, and the Department of Health and Social Security has hundreds, if not thousands. But all these regional and local offices are essentially central Government Departments. In most cases, it is good that they should be. But in a matter so intimately linked with many aspects of local life as the administration of justice, is the analogy of pensions and the work of the employment exchanges the right one?
With all respect to the Chairman of this Commission, I have never been happy about the Government's choice. One of the hazards of life in the twentieth century is that we are liable to be controlled by men with minds like Lord Beeching. I have great admiration for him, because he is obviously a highly competent and successful businessman, but clearly the best solution for him must be the administratively tidiest one. That is not the right approach to the administration of justice.
I agree that it is right to have a responsible Minister, but that is possible without divorcing local responsibility from local authorities. In this connection, we have the obvious analogy of the education service. That is a much closer analogy to the administration of justice than that of the Department of Employment and Productivity, the Department of Health and Social Security or, for that matter, the Ministry of Public Building and Works.
627 I hope that the Government will look again at this aspect of the problem. My right hon. and learned Friend has said that the circuit areas must not be regarded as fixed for all time. When the new areas of local government are defined, the circuits and quarter sessions could be based on them and responsibility for the latter could be shared, as it is now, between the local authorities and the magistracy, which has a vital part to play in our courts today and which, I am glad to say, the Government intend shall continue to have such a part.
We have become aware in the last few years of a revolt against over-centralisation as one of the political features of our time. In looking at the problems with which the report deals, we should not ignore this factor. The administration of justice is part of the life of each community and the links between the two should be strengthened rather than destroyed.
One of the tendencies of the administrative proposals in the report, as distinct from the restructuring of the courts as such, will be to destroy them. I believe that the Government should accept, as they have, the objectives defined by this careful, admirable, readable, unimaginative, and rather unperceptive report, but should have a long and critical look at the means that it recommends for carrying them into effect.
There is not just one problem common to the whole country. There are a number of diverse local problems, the solution of which require a flexible approach based on local knowledge. This is more likely to be achieved by co-operation between the local and central authorities than by placing all responsibility exclusively in the hands of the central authority. In so far as the problems are national, the gentleman in Whitehall may know best. In so far as they are local, he does not and cannot.
This matter calls for political, not judicial or administrative, decisions. I hope that the Government, while accepting the main recommendations of the report, will consider carefully whether the administration of justice is really suitable for a centralised service of the kind contemplated by the report.
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
Whether or not one agrees with the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells), I am sure that everybody will be extremely interested in what he said about the possible part which local government might play in the future structure and administration of our system of justice. I do not agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I accept the solution put forward in the report, although, like the hon. and learned Gentleman, I have similar judicial experience both on county benches and as a recorder. The difficulty that he faces is that there are, and for the foreseeable future will be, in the nature of things, limited resources of judicial qualified manpower and of those kinds of administrators which the system of justice, with its immense volume of business, requires and will require, I think, for the rest of time. If we are to make the best use of the judicial manpower and of those expert administrators, it is better to come down firmly on the side, as the Beeching Report does, of giving the Lord Chancellor and the central Government the full responsibility of organising the system through the circuit administrators.
I shall comment on some of the other points made by the hon. and learned Gentleman at a later stage. Meanwhile, I welcome not only the Royal Commission's Report, but also the debate, because I began asking for it some months ago. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for at last acceding to the requests made to him. The debate should have taken place before the Second Reading of the Administration of Justice Bill —my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) said so at that time—because that Bill in several important respects implements the Beeching Report. Clause 7 gives power to dispense with the holding of assizes and Clause 8 deals with the sittings of the Central Criminal Court. So I wish that the debate had taken place some months ago. I also wish that it had taken place on a day when there was less outside distraction for so many hon. Members than there is today. However, there it is!
We are discussing a very important matter. The administration of justice is the oldest of all the services provided by 629 the Crown for the people. I think that it is still the most important of all the services, because on it partly depends the internal peace of the realm and, to some extent, its prosperity. Also upon our system of administration of justice depends, in the last resort, the rule of law and the enforcement of the authority of Parliament and therefore the liberty of the people.
As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, our system has roots which go back to the Middle Ages and it is still based on Henry II's principle that justice should be brought to the people. But our higher appellate jurisdiction has always been and still is centred on London. The Royal Commission made no proposals for altering that. But I suggest that there is a case for arranging that at any rate the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal should sometimes go on circuit when the new system settles down. I think that that is well worth consideration.
Like most people, I broadly accept the Royal Commission's analysis of the present system, although I have some reservations about it based on my own experience. I also accept the principles on which its proposals for reform are based. But when we consider the detailed application of those proposals, I suggest that there is room for disagreement, and for further suggestion. Indeed, one thing that I admired about the report was that it was not too dogmatic about its proposals in detail. It said, for example, that the location of the places for the various three tiers of court structure should be kept under review.
However, I think that the principles lean rather too much towards saving the pocket of the taxpayer—which is normally an essential thing to do—and saving precious judicial time and not quite enough towards the principle of bringing justice to the people. So that we shall find that travelling time of parties, witnesses, especially police witnesses, of gaolers and of many others concerned may increase in many cases as a result of the detailed application of those principles.
Beeching will get rid of a small part of the over-centralisation in London, but will mean a good deal more centralisation out of London through the closing down 630 of so many of our assize courts for civil and criminal business. That must be accepted, so long as the most suitable places are chosen for the new High Court centres out of London. We should examine the detailed recommendations of the Royal Commission on this most carefully, because the proposals will undoubtedly be felt keenly by some people who are accustomed until now to having ready access to an assize town within 30 to 40 miles which they will not have in the future. I do not suggest that many more places should have been chosen as High Court centres than the Royal Commission chose, but we should consider whether those which the Commission chose are the best.
I take as an example East Anglia and the northern part of the South Eastern Circuit of which, many years ago, I had the pleasure of being the circuit junior. Norwich has been chosen as the only place to be a High Court centre in the whole of East Anglia. The nearest High Court centre to Norwich is Nottingham, which is firmly in the East Midlands, or London. Because the towns of Huntingdon and Peterborough are now on the Midland Circuit, the people living there will have to go to Nottingham for High Court business. I mention in passing that, if the Redcliffe-Maud proposals are ever implemented, Huntingdon and Peterborough are to be split between two unitary authorities. Huntingdon will then be within the Cambridge unitary authority and will look to Cambridge for most things, including most public services and for work and pleasure. But, under Beeching, Huntingdon people would have to go to Nottingham, which is much further away than Cambridge, for High Court cases, civil and criminal. Although, unlike the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North, I accept that the local government boundaries have not much to do with the sitting of judicial centres, to ignore them so completely as to produce such a strange result for Huntingdon cannot be right.
What about the convenience of Cambridge people? I have consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane), who is using the time we are spending on this debate, I am sure sensibly, in his constituency. Cambridge people will have to go to Norwich for their High Court business and so will 631 Ipswich people; so will all the people in Norfolk, East and West Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Bearing in mind that area, surely it would be better to choose Cambridge rather than Norwich as the High Court centre for East Anglia. It is more central to the area, it has better communications, travelling times would be greatly reduced and Cambridge. which is an ancient seat of legal learning, now houses the Institute of Criminology. What better choice than Cambridge for a judicial High Court centre?
In case I am accused of looking only to the past, an accusation which is much too easily made these days in this House when people are talking quite good sense, I should add that Cambridge is also a great and growing modern industrial city, with a large population which will no doubt produce a fair amount of work. The Beeching Commission having said that we should keep the choice of centres continually under review. I suggest that we start that review this evening and ask the Government to start it next week. I do not ask for a reply on this point when the debate is wound up, but I hope to hear it said that the matter will be considered.
I hope I shall not be considered too bold if I just mention another area. In considering further the location of the judicial centres, the Government may also wish to consider the representations made by a body known as the Campaign for a Civil Court on Tees-side, which has produced a well argued case which I have read. I express no views on the case for it, except to say that Newcastle, which has been chosen, will involve a lot of travelling for many people which might be avoided if the centre were instead on Teesside. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) is not here, otherwise I might not get away with this.
The hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North, virtually made a plea for the retention of quarter sessions — Mr. William Wells: No, I specifically said that I shed no tears for the abolition of borough quarter sessions, except purely sentimental ones. I also said that I thought quarter sessions should be fitted within the framework of the Crown Court.
§ Sir D. Renton
I am happy to accept that there is much less difference between us that I had understood from the hon. and learned Gentlemen's speech.
The principles underlying the Beeching proposals for the new Crown Courts, both second and third tier, are right and, their choice of locations are mostly correct also. But in Kent, which is my native county, where I have practised and where I used to be a recorder, there is a strong case for a third tier court to serve the Medway towns of Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham. A lot of criminal work arises there, and a third tier court for those Medway towns would save a great deal of travelling to and from Maidstone. The distance is not great, only 10 or 15 miles, but in winter it always seemed that the North Downs which have to be negotiated produced a lot of snow and fog. I hope that the Government will consider this suggestion.
I am glad, not merely on personal grounds, but because it is a useful system in several ways, that the Royal Commission recommended that part-time recorders should continue to be appointed. The report does not say that those part-time recorders should be described as recorders of specific cities or boroughs or where the Crown Courts in which they will sit are to be located.
§ Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)
Without being able to refer to the paragraph, I think that the report does come out as saying that they should simply be described as the recorders and not linked to places.
§ Sir D. Renton
That is what I thought. My hon. and learned Friend has put it more accurately. It would be an advantage if they were described as the recorder of the particular places where those Crown Courts are. I know that this would be an anomaly, an inconsistency, but sometimes anomalies have worked very well in our legal system. There is good reason for it here, even though the system of local justice will be changed so basically. Some cities and boroughs quite properly cherish their recorder who is always their second citizen. They cherish him almost as much as they cherish their civic regalia. They like to have him present as often as possible, no doubt to enhance his dignity and theirs.
633 There are other places which treat their recorder with equal propriety and respect but simply as one doing a responsible and necessary part-time job as their local judge. They do not expect to see him quite so much on all the ceremonial occasions. But whatever their attitude may be—and I interrupt myself here to say in passing that I am delighted to see that Merthyr Tydfil is to be a third tier Crown court: I am sure that it is absolutely right and I am sure that it gives the Attorney-General great personal pleasure. Whatever the attitude of the local authority may be to the recorder, the people of the city or borough know that their recorder acquires a good knowledge of those criminal problems which arise locally and which do vary strangely from place to place.
I know of a place where most of the crime seems to be drunks and fists and of another place where it is mostly drugs and frauds. This needs to be dealt with according to local circumstances and therefore the recorders should be appointed to particular Crown Courts and be known as the recorder of the city or borough concerned.
It is also right that Members of either House of Parliament should continue to be eligible. I believe that the House benefits from having as wide a range of experience among its members as possible, on both sides. We have almost every profession represented here, although I only knew of one architect, and, if I may say so in passing, it is a pity that we do not have more. Ever since the days when Sir Edward Coke was a Member of this House and Recorder of London we have always had some recorders among our numbers. It would he a pity if this tradition were to be ended. I hope that hon. Members will still be eligible as part-time recorders.
It is one thing to accept the Beeching proposals but, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman candidly said, it is another thing to implement them. it is a gigantic administrative task being placed on the Lord Chancellor and his Department. It will take a good many years to implement them. We shall have to go into this more deeply when the legislation comes before us in the next Session, under a Conservative Government! It will involve a great deal of money and there will be a lot of jostling 634 for priority. The money will be needed for new hospitals, schools, training centres for the mentally handicapped and the urgently needed new prisons. It is obvious that the large sums which will be needed will come mainly by instalments of rather modest amounts.
I have a criticism of the Beeching proposals and it affects their implementation: it is that the proposals completely ignore the function of the police in the administration of justice. I could not find a reference in the report to the immense amount of police administration that goes on in criminal cases. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom in his interesting speech, with all of which I could agree except for one detail about the Central Criminal Court, and I speak as someone with a fair amount of experience there, referred to the delays in London being appalling. He suggested that they were due to court administration.
I do not consider that is so. I think that they are due not to court administration but to difficulties experienced by prosecuting authorities in getting cases ready for trial, difficulties experienced through non-attendance of witnesses through illness, difficulties sometimes in connection with the Bar. Administration at the Old Bailey is absolutely first-rate.
To return to the question of the police, it is all very well to say that so many places in the country shall be centres for Crown Courts and have administrative buildings for that purpose. We have also to consider the fresh arrangements which the police will have to make. They will have to adapt their administration to the new centres for criminal work and the same is true of the prison service. It is fair to say that Beeching mentions that the prisons will have to be provided reasonably near to the Crown Courts. In addition to the provision of new courts and administrative buildings, the provision of police headquarters and the building of extensions and new prisons to serve these courts must be borne in mind.
It is a gloomy assumption upon which the whole of the Beeching proposals are based, namely, that the present crime wave will continue, indeed is likely to increase. When one looks at the appendix on page 5 the figures are appalling. In 635 the last year which Beeching gives, 1968, there were 30,000 people tried on indictment. That is three times as many as in 1938. If we look back, over a longer period than Beeching did, we find that there have been some remarkable fluctuations. In the year in which I was born, 1908, over 14,000 people were tried. In the year I reached the age of 21, 1929, the number was halved to only 7,000.
This is really very interesting when we are perhaps committing the country to vast expenditure on courts, administration, buildings, police stations and so on. So perhaps if the Government or their successors feel that it is in the public interest to improvise, make do and mend, and make the best of what we have when they cannot get all the money needed, they may after all be doing a public service. However, that may be a complacent attitude and too hopeful. It might be better for us to assume, alas, that the crime wave will go on rising. Certainly the population will go on increasing for some time. So whichever Government is in power in the next Parliament must be given the full moral support of the House in providing money to get our system of justice, especially our system of the administration of criminal justice, greatly improved, so that we make better use of judicial manpower and there will be fewer delays in bringing people to trial.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lomas (Huddersfield, West)
It has been a privilege to listen to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). I feel like apologising as a layman for intervening in a legal debate, but the more I hear of them the more convinced I am that members of the legal profession always consider themselves right. There is no question of their honour, and by their speeches one assumes that they are always very learned. It is a pity that on occasions they get down to party politics.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman referred to outside distractions at the moment. That is one of the reasons for my speaking. I had to choose between helping my party increase its representation on the Huddersfield local authority—which it will do—or speaking for my 636 constituents on a general basis. Being a good Member of Parliament, I decided that I should speak for the whole of my constituents and not just for one party or section. I am sure that the House will approve of that sentiment.
Although I have not reached the heights of many of my hon. and learned Friends on either side, since 1960 I have been a justice of the peace for the County of Chester—which I do not often mention in my Yorkshire constituency. I have tried to serve on the Bench to the best of my ability. Although I am not completely conversant with all facets of the law, I have a nodding acquaintance with what most magistrates' courts are concerned with.
What I want to raise is very much a constituency point. Indeed, it affects Huddersfield as a whole. Huddersfield has a purpose-built court building in the new development that is taking place in the town. However, it is likely to have its quarter sessions removed some considerable distance away. The local authority and I believe that this would not be in the interests either of the people of Huddersfield itself or of the people of the area generally.
Incidentally, I am surprised by the terms in which the Government ask us to support the Motion. They ask us to welcome it. To have asked us to note it would have been better. There is a slight difference of nuance in tone. I cannot say that I completely welcome the Beeching Report.
As far as I understand it from my local authority, the general effect of the Beeching Report on the North-Eastern Circuit is that there will be a new high court at Leeds, Lincoln, Newcastle, Sheffield and for some time at York. There will be a Crown Court, served by a high court and circuit judges, at Durham for the time being and then, when courts become available, at Tees-side. Then there will be Crown Courts, used by circuit judges only, at Bradford, Doncaster, Durham, Grimsby, Kingston-upon-Hull, Wakefield, and York, and again for some time, at Northallerton and Tees-side.
In effect, there will be no criminal courts higher than magistrates' courts in Huddersfield and Halifax and quarter sessions work for that area will have to be done at Bradford. Leeds and Wakefield. I am not happy about this because 637 I agree with what paragraph 30 of the report says—that it is the tradition that an accused person should be tried at a court for the area in which his crime is committed. I agree with that statement. It is something we should try to carry out. But I believe this will not happen under the Beeching proposals because the more serious Huddersfield cases would not be tried in that area.
Paragraph 65 refers to the overlaying of the Central Criminal Court. It says that, for criminal trials at the Old Bailey, nearly 70 per cent. of all accused persons had to wait longer than the eight weeks recommended by the Streatfeild Committee as the period within which a person should be brought to trial. It adds that more than one-third —36 per cent. —were actually in custody. It appears that the general effect of the Beeching Report is that it would concentrate all the trials for the Huddersfield area at Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield, and presumably by doing so would create problems of accommodation and organisation. Presumably, the quarter sessions courts at Halifax and Huddersfield, which are at present operating in good accommodation and without delays, would be removed. My local authority and my constituents think that this would be wrong.
Paragraph 67 is illuminating. It refers to the kind of problems we face. It says:We are faced with the highly unsatisfactory situation that, while judges are fully employed and even over-burdened, accused persons, litigants, witnesses, jurors, cuansel, solicitors, prison officers, police officers and probation officers are kicking their heels in the corridors of the courts waiting for their cases to come on, and many return to do the same on more than one occasion. Added to this is trouble caused by the outdated and inconvenient location of the courts, by accommodation of archaic squalor, and by uncoordinated sitting of courts, which cause overloading of the services on which they are dependent, in particular those of the Bar. Because of this, not only are a very large number of people who find themselves involved suffering severe inconvenience and delay. but also the true availability of the high quality justice that the courts are intended to provide is greatly diminished.That is true in many cases. It is not true in the case of the purpose-built courts in Huddersfield. In dealing with the problem of waiting for cases to come en, a simple but effective system has been in operation there for some time, whereby the police have a liason officer for the area 638 available to the court for all the cases for one day. This works very satisfactorily. There is also a system whereby a liaison probation officer is present to advise on all cases so that only one probation officer has to be on duty at the court on one day. The attendance of barristers at the court at Huddersfield is arranged by a liaison barrister's clerk in Leeds, who suggests lists of cases for the courts so as to create the minimum inconvenience to barristers and those attending.
The jurors who attend there are all Huddersfield people. They live within a few minutes of the court, and travel there by public transport or in their own cars. Hon. Members know that it is necessary, at any court, to summon more jurors than are required, to allow for challenges, and so on. In Huddersfield those who are summoned can get to the court building within a few moments. If the quarter sessions are taken away from Huddersfield and held at Wakefield, as the crow flies it is only 10 or 15 miles, but in terms of using public transport it will involve a two-hour journey and the time of many people will be wasted in having to undertake that journey. This is another reason why Huddersfield should be retained with a superior court.
Those jurors who arrive at the Huddersfield court and are not required for duty on that day give up, at most, only half a day, instead of a full one. They can, if necessary, go back to work, and everyone benefits as a result. As my town clerk has commented to me, they can, if necessary, go home for lunch.
The Beeching Report refers to the archaic squalor of some of the courts. I wish that the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General would visit the court building at Huddersfield. The courts there were built within the last few years to standards equal to, or better than, those in any other place in the country. I say that not from a constituency point of view, but as a fact of life. The courts make provision not only for microphones, but provide central heating and air conditioning for the sort of summer that we are having at the moment. There are jury rooms, robing rooms, and waiting rooms. The courts provide all the necessary ancillary accommodation to the highest standards. It seems to me that we 639 measure up to if we do not surpass many of the other court buildings in the country.
We accept that buildings in other parts of the country are not up to the high standards which the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General want, but we say that the answer is for the Government to undertake a national planning operation and to request local authorities to see that courts which are out-dated are brought up to date. Where necessary, the Government should provide grant incentives to enable this to he done
Paragraph 70 is headedTaking justice to the people.That sounds all right, but if the report is implemented it will mean that from the point of view of Huddersfield and many other towns justice will be taken to remoter areas, and away from the area in which the crime was committed, and we are far from happy about that. We think that the Government should look carefully at this proposal before any recommendations are made, or legislation is introduced.
Paragraph 73 refers to the poor location of assize courts and says:The main criticisms made to us about the assize system are that it does not, in fact, provide justice when and where it is neededThe report may answer the criticisms of the assize system, but in doing so it should not be allowed to detract from the benefits of the present quarter sessions system.
It is accepted by the people in my constituency and by my town clerk and council that there may be a need to reorganise the assize system with all its arrangements for visits by assize judges and the provision of accommodation for them, but it seems that there is by no means the same criticism of the quarter sessions system, and that there is a strong case for looking carefully at and sifting the recommendations of the report.
The report goes on to talk about many other matters, one of which is the work of quarter sessions itself. In the view of my local authority the work of the quarter sessions depends on the extent of the crime in the area, and this cannot be planned to occur at regular intervals for the convenience of the courts. The administration of quarter sessions by local 640 authorities means that at times when there is a large amount of crime and long lists the resources of those authorities can come into play and staff can be directed to quarter sessions for short periods, while during slack times they can get back to their normal duties. This is worth remembering before there is any talk about introducing legislation.
Paragraph 88 refers to the bunching of courts, and it says that on 28th July, 1966, when a survey was taken, it was found that 20 courts were sitting at seven venues on the North-Eastern Circuit. It is all very well making a statement like that, but one has to ask to what extent the situation would be relieved in the West Riding of Yorkshire by the proposal to have 20 or more courts sitting at fewer centres. This is something which the Attorney-General must be prepared to consider and comment upon.
Reference is made in this part of the Report to the difficulty of obtaining consistency in sentencing with 300 persons holding part-time appointments. This really is not on. This does not seem to be a major difficulty, because, in any case, guidance can be given on a national basis, and we must accept that there is a far greater number of magistrates, of whom I am one, and consistency in sentencing is as important in the magistrates' courts as anywhere else. We have to rely on agreement between ourselves, or on the guidance which we receive from the top authorities, so I do not think that that is a valid argument.
Paragraph 90 says:Apart from the strain imposed on those who serve the courts, and on court accommodation, the cramming of quarter sessions into short periods of the year presents magistrates with very much the same problem as they face with assizes, namely, finding a court to which to commit their cases. Although quarter sessions courts are fairly well located so as to be within easy reach of most of the population, it is not always possible for magistrates to take full advantage of this element of convenience because, in some places, the courts do not sit frequently enough to ensure a trial within the specified time limits.Let us consider the case which the Beeching Report is trying to make for taking away the quarter sessions from Huddersfield. Quarter sessions in the adjoining boroughs of Halifax and Huddersfield are spread throughout the year. They are not crammed into one 641 short period. Quarter sessions in Huddersfield are to be held during February, April, June, September and November, and the same sort of thing applies to Halifax. I do not see the argument advanced in the report, and I hope that the Government will look carefully at this issue.
Paragraph 91 refers to the difficulty of a busy recorder committing himself in advance to long sittings at quarter sessions. This problem has not arisen in Huddersfield. If there are any lengthy cases, they are dealt with by the second court which is presided over by an assistant recorder. We get over our problem in that way. Huddersfield is not being treated as it should be. I sincerely hope that consideration will be given to this.
I have tried to curtail my quotations from the Beeching Report but it would be to the advantage of the House for me to quote paragraph 109 on the question of accommodation. This is a very important point which I make on behalf of my constituents. The paragraph refers tO:
The divided and confused responsibility for the courtsin the provision of court accommodation. Half way through the paragraph it says:As a result, in many places, particularly in some of the large towns, the court buildings are a disgrace to the bodies which own and maintain them. Accused persons, litigants, witnesses, jurors, police officers and even solicitors and council conferring with clients all jostle together in embarrassing proximity in halls and corridors, which, far from providing any elements of comfort, may well be stacked with the paraphernalia associated with other uses of the building, such as dismantled staging, parts of a boxing ring, or the music stands for a brass band concert. We have seen courts with no waiting rooms, no consulting rooms, no refreshment facilities and with toilet facilities which were disgustingly insanitary. Beneath the courts some of the accommodation for remanded prisoners is so cramped and primitive that prison officers avoid using the worst of it if they can. Behind the scenes the judge's retiring room may not be much bigger than a cupboard and may, indeed, serve the charwomen in that capacity when its distinguished occupant is gone.Come to Huddersfield and see an absolute transformation of that, a modern purpose-built building constructed for the benefit of all the people mentioned in that paragraph. I hope that something will be done to ensure that Huddersfield has the superior court in its area. The Home Office has very stringent rules and 642 standards. It is to be hoped that it will say that the standard set by Huddersfield shall be the standard for the whole country.
We accept that there has to be a reorganisation of the whole system of quarter sessions and assize courts throughout the country, but before the Beeching Report is implemented very serious consideration should be given to taking away from an authority this provision when it has a purpose-built building. Those standards should not be thrown away. There is a great argument in favour of retaining Huddersfield as a superior court. The Beeching Commission has gone into this matter in great depth and interviewed a great many involved with the running of the courts. I am making not a political point but a point for the town itself. Whenever a person has come to Huddersfield to preside over the court he has spoken highly of its facilities and the way in which it provides everything that is necessary.
I hope that the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and the Government, before reaching any final decision, will give very serious consideration to this matter and will have consultations with the Huddersfield local authority to ensure that its purpose-built building is retained as a superior court in the West Riding.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I shall be able to call every hon. Member who wishes to speak in this debate if speeches are brief.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) has brought a refreshing lay approach to our deliberations and has emphasised an important constituency case. I am sure that we are all most grateful to him. He deployed arguments with reference to the existing system of quarter sessions with which, when I first approached the problems considered by this report, I had considerable sympathy. I am sure that the Attorney-General listened with great care to what he said. about court buildings.
There is no doubt, as the Attorney-General said, that the detailed proposals of the Beeching Report are not like the Laws of the Medes and Persians. At a time when the implementation of those 643 proposals will necessarily entail the expenditure of a very large amount of money on court buildings it is important to consider as between the relative claims of two centres not very far from each other whether one centre has gone to the expense of providing what nowadays are called purpose-built buildings for its courts of law.
I turn to more general considerations. I share the unreserved welcome given by both the Attorney-General and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) to the Beeching Report in its general lines. There is no doubt that the assize system has come very near to a breakdown in the last few years. All of us who practise at assizes and on circuit have seen this happening. It has been extremely difficult, as appendix 8 of the report shows, to get civil cases heard at assizes because the first duty of Her Majesty's judges is to clear the gaols and there has been such a great increase in crime. I shall not go over the figures which have been discussed in debate after debate and which are set cut in the report.
It is not only the increase in crime which has caused these enormous delays and postponed the trial of civil actions at assizes. There is also the fact, as the Royal Commission noted, of a vast increase in the number of contested cases. All of us who attend assizes or who sit in judgment at quarter sessions are fully aware of the number of pleas of not guilty which are entered and fought when everyone knows that there should have been a plea of guilty and that the accused is gambling on an outside chance. Of course, occasionally the gamble comes off. However much we streamline the procedures and organisation of our courts system, however much we rationalise the situation of our courts, however much we marry up the quarter sessions and assizes system —as I believe we must —there will still be the danger of delays and the danger of postponement of the trial of civil actions because criminal trials have to take precedence, unless at the same time we do something to attack the real cause of those delays.
This is not the time to discuss what we can do about the incidence of crime itself. I do not propose to get led along paths considering what we should do 644 about police organisation and matters of that kind. But we must look very carefully at criminal procedure. Along with the reforms suggested by the Royal Commission, we must consider most carefully what reforms are needed in criminal procedure and be busy at the same time to ensure that they are carried out. Our procedure is far too heavily weighted in favour of the accused man. It is that which causes him to gamble on this outside chance and quite often get away with having done so.
Again, I am not intending to go into great detail about the kind of reforms which could be carried out in this field. I will mention just one or two by way of headlines. It is time, is it not, that we considered very carefully whether the caution as a preliminary to the admission of a statement, of a voluntary confession, should go? This procedure for the protection of the accused—and such it was —grew up at a time when juries were far less educated than they are now, and far less well able to discriminate and assess the value of statements taken in different circumstances.
We should consider very carefully the rule which at present enables the accused man to remain silent and, once there is a case to answer, not to go into the witness box and answer it. We should consider very carefully all those rules of our criminal procedure which were gradually developed in other times and in other circumstances now that legal aid is freely available and the services of the most experienced men of the Bar are available to men in trouble in the criminal courts. Those procedures were developed when those services were not available and the accused man stood, as often as not, unprotected by counsel before the bar of the court. Times have changed, and unless at the same time as we implement the proposals of the Royal Commission we look very carefully to our criminal procedure. I am very much afraid that we shall find we have palliated the problems facing us but have not solved them.
With that observation, which is the first thing that occurs in the minds of a great many of those with experience in law when we approach these proposals, which are good ones, I turn to a brief consideration of a number of headings which arise in considering the report.
645 I return to the matter of quarter sessions raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West and by the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells). When I first studied the Beeching Commission's Report I had a good deal of sympathy for the view that the assizes were badly in need of the kind of reforms adumbrated and proposed, but I believed that quarter sessions as a system did not work at all badly. I believe the criticism of bunching, of the fact that all of us who hold part-time judicial office tend, for reasons we all know, to hold our sessions at much the same time, did not lead to the grave inconveniences which the Commission suggested, although at first sight this may seem strange. On my own circuit I canvassed opinion upon it. It is true that one finds sessions being held very much at the same time. I never found, at any rate on the Midland circuit, that there was a lack of counsel to attend sessions being held at the same time in that way.
Similarly, the system has the great advantage of flexibility. Most part-time recorders and chairmen of quarter sessions are only too willing to make themselves available to fix dates for long trials to suit the convenience of the parties and counsel concerned. In my experience, the system has worked very well. It has done so thanks in no small measure not only to the officials who work it but to those members of the Bar who give their services in this way and have done so as a duty over a great many years. However, if our system is to be reformed I am quite convinced by the arguments of the Royal Commission and by the facts of the present situation that there is a strong case for uniting the two systems into the Crown Court.
It will lead to great flexibility. It will enable cases to be tried with the assistance of good administrators probably more quickly; and although there is a danger of persons having to travel longer geographical distances, as was said by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West, nevertheless I believe that that is a small price to pay for having the administration of the law in the provinces concentrated in centres with all the administrative facilities available for ensuring that trials are dealt with speedily.
646 I welcome the proposal for part-time recorders. When I rose to interrupt the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) I referred to paragraph 239 of the Commission's Report, where it is suggested that recorders should not be married to their towns as they are at present. Speaking as recorder of one of the most ancient boroughs in the country, that is something I cannot but regret. But when one approaches reforms of this kind it is important to remember what Tom Paine—of whose views in general I disapprove—said of Burke—of whose views in general I approve—that in the French Revolution he pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird. We must not pity the plumage too much, though we cannot be but nostalgic when reforms of this kind are proposed.
There is one important detail that I would like to draw to the attention of the House. It seems to me that in its proposals for a Crown Court the Royal Commission has failed to take into account at present, though there is no reason why legislation should do so, the fact that the inferior courts, which of course include courts of quarter sessions, are at present subject to overriding control of the divisional court of the High Court exercised by prerogative orders of mandamus certiorari and prohibition.
The Commission refers briefly to those prerogative orders in the report. In paragraph 232 it says under the heading "Prerogative Orders":Our recommendations for the separation of criminal and civil business are not intended to affect the jurisdiction of the Divisional Court in such matters as habeas corpus, prerogative orders and cases stated.But, though they may not be intended to affect that jurisdiction, the fact that recorders and judges of the second and third bands, circuit judges, will be sitting as members of the crown division of the High Court is bound to affect the position as it is at present; because the crown division of the High Court will be a co-ordinate division of the High Court, co-ordinate with the civil division. The result is that unless special provisions were incorporated into the requisite legislation, the divisional court could not call into question decisions as having errors on their face of judges sitting in 647 the Crown Court as subordinate judges, as I see the position.
This is a highly technical matter. It is not an unimportant one because this reserve power in the divisional court is an important one for the protection of the liberties of citizens. I am sure it is one at which the right hon. and learned Attorney-General, if he has a hand in this legislation, or we on this side if we have that hand, as I hope and expect, will look with care, because clearly it is one which will require careful drafting in the formulation of the requisite legislation. It is really not quite enough to say, as the Commission says:Our recommendations are not intended to affect the jurisdiction.Quite clearly, as they stand they do.
I am glad that in paragraph 202 of the Royal Commission, which considered many ancillary details of the administration of the criminal law, recommended that judges should retain, for a month after passing sentence, the power to vary the sentence. As all legal Members know, this is a very important power which can at present be exercised by those sitting in judgment up to the end of the quarter sessions. There can be few of us who have not gone home at night thinking over a sentence. Often we come to the conclusion in the morning that it was the right sentence. Sometimes we think that we have not taken some factor into account, in which case it is possible to send for the accused and see with some pleasure the relief on his face when a reduction in the length of his sentence is effected.
I was glad that the Attorney-General said that details are very much at large. One matter going to detail is that of circuit boundaries. I have an axe to grind here as a member of the Midland Circuit. I have practised on that circuit for the whole of my professional life. I saw with great regret the proposal that Lincolnshire—the second largest county in England and in many ways the centre of the circuit life for many practitioners on the Midland Circuit—should be taken from the Midland Circuit and put into the North-Eastern Circuit.
I hope that this proposal will be carefully considered. Lincolnshire is much more a Midlands county than a Northern county. I understand that there was at 648 one point some hesitation on the question whether Lincoln should be retained as an assize centre. I am glad that it is recommended that it should be retained as a full assize centre.
It never occurred to those who gave evidence from the circuit that the Commission might also consider taking Lincolnshire out of the circuit. The whole of the legal work in Lincolnshire is geared to chambers and to barristers practising in London, in Leicester, in Nottingham, and occasionally in Birmingham. If this proposal were to be implemented, Lincolnshire solicitors would have to look north to Leeds, and possibly even further north, for counsel to represent their clients.
I am glad that judgment has been reserved on the Commission's somewhat half-hearted recommendation of the possibility of appointing solicitors to judicial office in the circuit courts. I entirely share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom on this matter. The professions are very different: they have different aims, different ends, and different ambitions. and they serve the public in different ways. Nowadays those who set off in one profession and consider that their talents are more apt for service in the other can make a change with much greater ease than was the case.
It is important in the public interest that the mutual respect, understanding and knowledge which have been the cement of the Bar and the Bench for many hundreds of years, and which are based upon a profound knowledge and experience of one another in day-to-day practice, should not be tampered with. No doubt these considerations will be developed in future debates.
For the reasons I have given, I welcome the Commission's proposals for a modernisation of a system which has served the country well for many generations. However well systems may have worked in the past modernisation is sometimes necessary.
I should not like to resume my seat without saying a few words by way of tribute to the permanent officials of the circuits who, in the face of very great difficulties, have made the system work as well as it has up to the present. Practitioners who go into the circuit office 649 on the first day of an assize see the clerk of assize, the clerk of arraigns, and perhaps two other circuit officials and no more, surrounded by enormous hampers which, far from containing chicken and cold wine, alas contain great numbers of papers done up with red tape. These persons look to all the world as if they are sitting in a state of absolute chaos, just undoing the luggage. Yet they are in complete command of all that is there, in complete command of the list, and willing to help counsel, litigants and solicitors. Practitioners realise that, without the enormous devotion on the part of these persons, the system would not have worked at all up to the present. I greatly hope that those who have proved their worth in the system as it is will be amongst those who will carry the new system on to success in the service of the country.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Mr. James Tinn (Cleveland)
My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will not be surprised to hear that I intend to make a constituency point. I am not usually a contributor to legal debates, not having practised in one of the legal professions, not having been, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) a J.P., and having been fortunate enough to have kept out of the courts in any other capacity.
I do not wish to detract from the Attorney-General's praise of the report; in that regard he has my support. However, he will not be surprised if I take up one point briefly, because I know that he is not the type to measure the weight of an argument by its length or the merits of a point by the number of times it is repeated.
I greatly regret—this view is shared by many on Tees-side, and I was grateful for the passing reference made by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) to the problem of Tees-side—the omission from the Commission's recommendations of one for a high court for Tees-side to try civil cases there. Reference has been made to the cogent and persuasive memorandum circulated by the Teesside Study Group. The group's secretary, David Simon, is to be congratulated on the memorandum. As a copy was sent 650 to my right hon. and learned Friend, I can be brief; I shall stress the main points made in the memorandum.
We welcome the recommendation for a crown court to try criminal cases on Tees-side but are gravely concerned at the omission of any provision for civil cases. Civil cases originating in the Teesside area are now dealt with at New- castle, Durham, York and Leeds. In paragraph 112 the Royal Commission lists features as being essential to a good legal system. It places high on that list ease of physical access. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will take the point I make on this, because it is very relevant to the problem of court facilities on Tees-side.
For example, if a case is heard at Leeds it involves a return journey from Tees-side of 130 miles to buildings which are admitted to be unsatisfactory and with totally inadequate accommodation. I will give the House an idea of what this means in practical terms to someone involved in a case and requiring to use public transport. In order to arrive at Leeds in time for an early conference at, say, 9.30 a.m., he would have to catch a train from Middlesbrough at 6.27 a.m. and change twice. In addition, of course, many among my constituents live 20 miles from the station at Middlesbrough. The return journey might involve arriving back at Middlesbrough at about 9 p.m. If the case is heard at Newcastle, the situation is a little better. The return journey is 72 miles and the rail communications are better. But the accommodation there is even poorer, and in any case the courts there are already fully loaded with work. The difficulty of travel is a great burden to a particular category of people in my area. A great proportion of my constituents are shift workers, and the kind of timetable I have described might involve them in the loss of three shifts for a single day's attendance at court.
I appreciate that judicial manpower is strictly limited and that we have to be able to make a case to show that it would not be wasted if a high court were provided on Tees-side. I will not develop this at length but the point is made if one looks at the number of civil cases heard at Durham and York in 1969 and the proportion of them originating on Tees-side. Of the 216 cases heard at Durham, I understand that 107 originated 651 on Tees-side, while of the 117 cases heard at York 73 originated on Teesside. These figures include the sort of cases which I have already referred to as going sometimes to Leeds and Newcastle. Even in terms of the most efficient use of judicial facilities, these figures alone would justify the provision of a high court on Tees-side.
I cannot but believe that the Royal Commission has not fully appreciated the position on Tees-side, which is a tremendously expanding area. The area of the Tees-side county borough is rather narrower than the wider catchment area I am appealing for. Nevertheless it is the seventh largest county borough in England. The conurbation of Tees-side is the only one in England—with the exception of Coventry, which is only 10 miles from Birmingham—with more than 300,000 population which does not have such a court. I will give an indication of the expansion of the area to justify my case. It is not often realised that in terms of dry tonnage of cargo Tees-side is already the third port in the United Kingdom, being surpassed only by Liverpool and London. It also contains the largest chemical complex in Europe, employing 30,000 people.
What facilities already exist there? Obviously, accommodation is a major factor. A new court house is already being erected at a cost of over £1 million, and it will provide all the facilities needed. It is being constructed over a period of two years. Following the amalgamation of local authorities into Tees-side county borough, the old town hall of Eston Urban District Council, itself a new building, has been used for Tees-side quarter sessions. It has a number of very commodious court rooms with all ancillary facilities and is served by good road communications. But I shall not follow that point too far because otherwise I may fall into the trap my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West fell into when he described the court facilities of Huddersfield in such glowing terms that one felt that if one had to get into trouble anywhere Huddersfield was the place to do it.
I have tried to put these points with logic and force and backed by evidence. In my striving for brevity, which I hope I have achieved, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will not underrate the weight of the arguments I have 652 put. I believe that if he accepted them there would be a great improvement in the provisions of the judicial system in the Tees-side area.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
The hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Tinn) will not expect me to follow his special pleading for Tees-side but I must say that I found it rather convincing. I looked at the map opposite page 98 in the Beeching Report while he was speaking. It shows the proposed administrative circuits and gives in pink circles the population in relation to the 1961 census. I note that Tees-side is well endowed with pink whereas there is a paucity of pink in the Principality which I represent.
It was refreshing to hear a layman's voice in the debate. As the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) said, this report concerns everyone. It is a matter of regret that the debate is dominated by the legal profession. From the point of view of the judges and of both branches of the profession, there may be a great deal to be said for the report. What I am not entirely convinced of is that there is all that much to be said for it from the point of view of the public.
The convenience of the public is clearly a matter of great importance, and I do not think that, as yet, the great public are really aware of these proposals. Because of Lord Beeching's activities in another direction, it would be difficult for certain people in the Principality of Wales to reach these proposed centres of legal administration, and I do not think that this is yet fully appreciated.
Nevertheless, I give general support to the proposals. Like the Attorney-General, I have a tinge of regret in seeing an end to the old circuits as we both knew them. The old circuit towns had their own particular charm, and many of the nicest nights on circuit were spent at some towns and not at others.
In Montgomery, they were so keen on having a visit from the red judge that they shared the honours between the court at Welshpool, which is the county town, and Newtown, which is a rival as an administrative centre. Lo and behold, the High Court judge had to share premises with the local cinema manager. This went on very well for a number of 653 years until Mr. Justice Hallett, on his last visit to Newtown, directed a jury so that they were out for some hours. When they returned they learned that there had been an irate discussion between the High Court judge and the cinema manager as to which of them had the prior claim. Needless to say, that ended the claims of that particular building.
I want to join the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) in the tribute that he has paid to the circuit officers. The circuit system worked very well under them, so well that it gave very good value for money. Whatever other results the Beeching proposals will achieve, the administration of justice will cost a great deal more. The argument in the report that the conditions for which the circuit system were designed have changed is generally valid but not with regard to all parts of the country
I represent a part of the country, and am chairman of quarter sessions in a part of the country, where the conditions for which the circuit system was designed still exist. We suffer from trying to apply a general pattern to the whole country when it is not necessarily suitable for each area. If we look at certain areas there is a great deal to be said for the quarter sessions system and for the occasional visit of what is called the red judge.
Lord Beeching in his report deals with this argument at paragraph 71 in his rather sweet way when he says:The argument that the presence of a High Court judge impresses the populace and deters crime is put forward in favour of the Assize system and more specifically in justification of the large number of Assize towns. When we examine this argument the only conclusion we can come to is that the presence of the judge is most noticeable where it is least important.I regret to say that there is considerable force in that observation.
It is interesting that the Principality had its own separate system of courts from 1542 until 1830—the Courts of Great Session—which eventually provoked a great speech by Edmund Burke in this House when he attacked the courts particularly because they were manned by judges who practised at the English Bar and were Members of Parliament. The system was scrapped, and that is how Wales came under the circuit system 654 which had applied in England for many years. The County Borough of Chester has always been regarded as part of Wales for this purpose; it is run under the same system.
It is inevitable that we have such changes, and in my own experience of the Beeching Commission it was very ready to try to meet various points and arrange, as it has arranged, for criminal and civil work to be tried in some of the centres more accessible than those originally put forward. It has also maintained three-tier courts, as it were, in areas particularly inaccessible in Wales in winter.
It is a good thing for judges not to be engaged in one type of case. It is good that they should have a much broader experience. I do not share the view that it is a good thing for judges to be isolated. This argument has been over-done in this country. No judge is more boring than the judge who only talks to other judges or other lawyers, who drinks with them, plays golf with them and has little experience outside the legal profession, at least in social contacts. It is important that his social contacts should be broadened. The idea that we can put a judge in solitary confinement. save for servants around him in circuit towns, may have some merits but I doubt them.
I have been greatly impressed by the Scandinavian legal system. We are very fond of thinking that our system is much the best and we know little of others. On two visits to Scandinavia, I was greatly impressed by the way in which justice was carried out there, very effectively and efficiently, yet unobtrusively. We can learn from other countries. It is a good thing that judges should not be isolated. The idea of a pool of judges in any area is a good one.
I was recently on a visit to another circuit where I was conducting, with a number of others leaders of the Bar, a case which only a few years ago could only have been tried by a High Court judge. It was tried by a county court judge sitting in a crown court and tried as effectively as any High Court judge would have tried it. It is good that county court judges will in future sit a good deal to hear criminal cases, and it will be a good thing for recorders in crown courts who are at present confined to criminal cases to be able to sit 655 in civil courts. There is a good deal of high judicial quality about. In my own circuit I know of a man who has held a number of part-time judicial appointments. He has by no means a large practice at the Bar, but all members of the Bar who have ever appeared in his courts, and they have done so for many years, agree that the justice meted out is of a very high quality.
I want to make a special pleading, which will not surprise the Attorney-General, about the boundary between Wales and the Chester Circuit and the Northern Circuit. I make the plea on the grounds set out in the report. It is expected that there will be a growth in local Bars. This is important if the public is to be well served because there must be a pool of barristers available in any area to serve the courts. For centuries the county of Cheshire and North Wales have virtually gone together. It used to be called the North Wales and Cheshire Circuit.
The barristers were provided either from London or from Chester. Chester is the administrative capital of the county and at present has a local Bar of 20 members. They also man the courts in North Wales, and for those not acquainted with the geographical difficulties in Wales let me say that it is impossible for counsel from Cardiff or Swansea to get to courts in the North-West. For geographical reasons it has been almsot inevitable that solicitors have sought counsel at Chester, where there is a larger pool of work than in North Wales. It is estimated by the practitioners at the Bar in Chester that 60 per cent. of the work comes from the county of Cheshire.
In order to provide the kind of service which the Beeching Commission envisages as desirable, it will be necessary to have a strong local Bar at Chester. Under the administration proposals, the county of Cheshire, save for its county town, is attributed to the Northern Circuit, which is a very populous circuit and which has a strong local Bar at Liverpool and Manchester. The effect of the proposal would be that if the administration of that part of Cheshire is under the administrator of the Northern Circuit and the prosecution cases go to barristers on the Northern Circuit at Liverpool or Manchester then 656 inevitably the pool of barristers at Chester will be cut down drastically.
It is estimated by the local Bar that the North Wales work could probably support a local Bar of six. This is not partisan pleading on behalf of a local Bar, but, if the Beeching proposals are to be effective and successful in the manning of courts by barristers in North Wales, it is absolutely essential that there should be a strong local Bar at Chester. Those courts cannot be manned from Cardiff or Swansea, which are the other legal centres for Wales.
The county of Chester is administered from the county town of Chester; the police headquarters, the probation headquarters and all the county facilities are there, and, naturally, the transport facilities from all parts of Cheshire are very convenient for Chester. It is true that from the eastern part of Cheshire, in Sale, the transport facilities are easier for Manchester. It is vitally important that the matter should be looked at again. I think that it will generally be found that there is a desire in many parts of Cheshire that the area should be under the administrator of the Wales and Chester Circuit.
There are bound to be boundary problems of this kind, but this one warrants further investigation. If we are to have a successful pool of barristers in Chester able to man the courts in North Wales, it is important that they have access to other work. The inevitable consequence, if an adjustment is not made, is that the courts in North Wales will be manned from Liverpool and Manchester. That may raise political problems which are not at present apparent but which could become so as time goes on.
I see that the Joint Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office nods in agreement. He has probably a greater sense of anticipation and knowledge of the problems that could arise in the circumstances I have described. I ask the right hon. and learned Attorney-General to look at this problem anew.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
I will not follow the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) in his plea. Indeed, as someone who practises in the City of Cardiff, I reassure the Attorney-General that the Beeching Report moves admirably along the lines on which it 657 should move by taking into account the population and the needs of Wales. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery has echoed the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) in indicating his interest in the works of Burke, and the hon. and learned Member for Solihull has indicated his diffidence towards the doctrines of Torn Paine. My predilections, inevitably, are contrary. I see the report as a splendid one, not intimidated by history.
It seems that at long last we are ready to repudiate a system which has been with us since the twelfth century. The Royal Commission has rightly acknowledged that our judicial system has produced an administrative structure like an ancient rambling mansion burdened by excessive reverence to the past, over-convinced by the need always to move with caution and by evolutionary methods. Efficiency within the existing structure has become impossible. Rightly, therefore, the report proposes revolutionary Paine-like changes. It is only at times that it is almost afraid of taking minor steps, although on the appointment of solicitors to the bench on balance it comes out on what I regard as the right side.
Since I am the only member of the solicitors' profession who has so far contributed to the debate, it is right that I should reply to the comments that have been passed. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery stressed the dangers of insulating the judge from the common populace; but the consequences to a barrister, who is by the rules of his profession insulated from his clients and from those who have to face a criminal charge, are too frequently ignored.
The right hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson) has paid a generous tribute to my profession which I am sure is well deserved, but he should remember that it is precisely because of the extraordinary amount of clinical material which comes into a solicitor's office, and which he has first hand, that he may in some respects have special, worldly and sophisticated qualifications which may be needed upon a bench.
I accept that there is a strong argument that the structure of the two professions should not be excessively tampered with, but it would be very disappointing if it were believed that there is a vested interest in one side of the profession so 658 strong that it is expressing, albeit gently, hostility towards the idea recommended in the report. I hope that when the voices are collected those of us who can only stammer out our piece and lack totally the advocacy which the right hon. and learned Member has told us is the special perogative of the Bar will have an opportunity to be heard. He may think that some of the inarticulate stammering members of the lower profession may perhaps be equipped in some measure to cope with the great problems which come before the bench. This was not what I wanted to speak about, although I was provoked into mentioning it.
In a report which is so revolutionary, I find it all the more bizarre that its irreverence ceases once it is confronted with the role and the capacity of the Lord Chancellor and his Department. The Royal Commission is quite prepared to savage the twelfth century assize system, but the seventh century creation, the Lord Chancellorship, is a different matter. This the Commission treats apparently as some sort of totem pole, and it cannot be queried. Prepared as the Commission is sweepingly to centralise in large measure the administration of justice, it nowhere questions the ability to create or the constitutional propriety of creating under an old name a new spending department and taking the present answerability out of the House to the other place.
Here we should be speaking not as lawyers but as House of Commons men, jealous, for our constituents' sake, of our province. Should not we therefore look with care at a proposition which suggests that powers of scrutiny hitherto exercised by the Home Office, the Minister of Public Building and Works and the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall all be transferred to another place? Should not we query a similar transfer of control out of the hands of the democratically elected boroughs and county councils to the other place?
The Lord Chancellor has made it abundantly clear that the bad conditions and the delays—can only be cured if those most nearly concerned … Parliament and the country, can be brought to realise that with changes here, sacrifices there, and above all the provision of the necessary money and labour … great improvements can be made.659 The Lord Chancellor, anticipating the report, some time ago bluntly said that if this task were added to everything which the Lord Chancellor's Department has it is not one with which it is equipped to deal. I am sure this is the position despite the fact that, as anybody who has any contact with the Department knows, it is manned by startlingly efficient and dedicated men, a score or so of lawyers, and similar numbers of civil servants who are probably the cream of our Civil Service.
The fact that it exists does not necessarily mean that when any steps are taken everything should flow to that Department. It is extraordinary that this valuable report gives no indication to justify the conclusion that, although the report presents an overwhelming case for a need for change, the overseership for the whole of the system should lie with the Lord Chancellor. It would in any circumstances be droll for a Labour Government to come to the House of Commons in 1970 and say that power and surveillance now resting here must be transferred from the Commons to the Lords and that a substantial spending department should be created answerable in the first place to the non-elected other place.
To suggest that the new authority should be vested in an untouched Lord Chancellorship must be a totally unacceptable proposition. We are being asked to put a new Rolls-Royce engine into a creaking early-century Ford. We cannot evaluate critically, as we are doing in this Royal Commission Report, the present structure and administration of our courts without at the same time makine assessment of the whole office of Lord Chancellor. Perhaps there is an advantage in being a solicitor since a barrister might be inhibited from talking in this way. This is one of the good fortunes of being a member of the lower profession.
The tasks which have accrued to the office of Lord Chancellor over the centuries compel the office-holder daily to disenjoy a multiple of metamorphoses beyond the endurance of even a Lord Chancellor as rarely able and as indefatigable as the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. Almost wholly engaged as he is, and as any other Lord Chancellor 660 would be, in the mornings as a politician, he is overwhelmed with the inevitable Cabinet meetings, Cabinet committees and Ministerial committees. Then in the afternoon he, chameleon-like, changes to his other role and his dress to preside over the House of Lords on the Woolsack. He may break off to see the Lord Chief Justice, or the Attorney-General, or indeed difficult delegations led by awkward people like myself from this House. clamorously importuning him for more law reforms, and it is highly probable that during the day in the Lords he must transform himself from his identity as chairman of the Lords to participate in debates in the role of a Front Bench spokesman.
Apart from all this —and this where we are now to place the control and overseer-ship of this structure in our legal system —he then has the task, which the present incumbent has told us he regards as his most important task, involving the exercise of his patronage. Let him describe this himself, and no one could do it with greater fluency or authority, in a lecture in which he spoke about the work which his patronage compels to fall to him. In that lecture he said that the Lord Chancellorhas a scandalous amount of judicial patronage because he recommends the appointment of all the High Court judges, all the county court judges, all the London stipendiary magistrates, all the chairmen and deputy chairmen of quarter sessions, all the recorders and ail the Queen's counsel and appoints all the county court registrars and some 15,000 justices of the peace. To help him in the last task he has about 190 advisory committees throughout the country. He himself appoints the committees. He also appoints some 500 clergy to livings. In this sphere, as in the case of all appointments, the greatest care is taken to find the right man for the right position. A member of his staff sees everyone on his register to ascertain the applicant's education, history, aptitude and wishes, and the bishop and churchwardens are consulted.Then, apart from all this, the Chancellor is responsible forarranging the daily list of the cases to be heard by the House of Lords and the Privy Council, which cases are to be taken and who is to sit. He is directly responsible for a large number of bodies outside Parliament or the Law Courts. He has a separate county courts branch to assist him in the administration of the county courts. He is responsible for the Public Trustee who has in his charge the funds in court and some hundreds of millions of the money of members of the public. He is responsible for the Land Registry, the Public Record Office, the Court of Protection, 661 the Land Tribunal, the Pensions Appeal Tribunal and other tribunals and he is also the Minister responsible for the council on Tribunals. We now have over 1,000 tribunals with some 700 lawyers and 17,000 members who are not lawyers sitting on them. He is responsible for the Judge Advocate General's Department and for the Official Solicitor. He is also responsible for maintaining judicial comity with Commonwealth and foreign judges.During January and October, when the Lords are not sitting, he sits in his judicial capacity on the appellate court with the Lords of Appeal. He has, too, to rule on peerage claims, to be responsible for civil legal aid, and to be involved in the whole question of legal education. The rules of the Supreme Court and the county court are all his ultimate responsibility, and he has, of course, the duty to maintain close and constant relations with the Bar Council.
Is it seriously being propounded that without scrutiny on the part of this House to this great judge—chairman, Front Bench spokesman, grand public relations officer —to this most powerful of patrons in the land, we hand over yet more responsibilities? Is it being said that we should take these responsibilities from three or four other Departments and authorities and dump them in his lap?
If it be urged that I am over-jealous of the rights of this House, that we are blessed with the Lord Chancellor's alter ego, an Attorney-General who, as we all know, is always so accessible to Members—as indeed remarkably so is the Lord Chancellor—and that the Attorney-General will be answerable here, does not that reply smudge yet more the already well-nigh intolerable ambiguity of the Attorney-General's rôle?
If we implement the recommendations of this report. Members will undoubtedly wish to ask hosts of questions. They will wish to ensure that their constituencies within a particular circuit are well provided for. They will ask questions about court locations, court delays, the building of new courts and their maintenance. The Attorney-General may not consider that it should become part of his duties to reply to questions relating to the conditions of the ladies' toilets in the Wigan courts.
Already we have had a precursor this afternoon in this debate as to what is likely to happen. Naturally, the hon. 662 Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas), the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Tinn), and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery have urged constituency interests. Just as the first Beeching plan provoked inevitably a huge amount and weight of constituency ire, inevitably and predictably there is bound to be a new weight of questions falling on the Attorney-General in this House if he is to remain solely the alter ego of the Lord Chancellor when this report is implemented.
The Attorney-General has many difficulties. Already the ambiguity of his role is extraordinary. The Attorney-General appears in court as well as here, and he has a relationship with the Public Prosecutions Department while remaining a combatant party politician. All these matters cause difficulties. This is not an academic issue.
The result of the ambiguity of the present dual role of the Attorney-General is that a Labour Government once fell when the issues in the Campbell case reverberated throughout the land. We have seen signs of these old troubles in the last week or two. I have no doubt that the Director of Public Prosecutions rightly initiated a prosecution against a Member of this House, no doubt on the basis of the information then in the possession of his office. But, rightly or wrongly, there is the suspicion that the prosecution brought against Mr. Will Owen which has led to his acquittal would not have been brought if it were not that there is a compulsive need to show, since the Campbell case, that there is never any political interference in an intended prosecution.
I regard it as unfortunate that the Attorney-General must be not only white, as we all know he is, but whiter than white. I doubt whether the Attorney-General would in practice be happy to assume answerability to this House for the new departmental responsibilities which would arise from the implementation of this report. They would add to the immense difficulties which he already has to overcome on the strange tightrope which holders of his office have to walk.
If it is said that we can probably get over this problem, my reply would be that we have already had one experiment. There was the experiment which hon. 663 Members will recall when a Minister without Portfolio was appointed as an additional Minister to answer Questions in this House on behalf of the Lord Chancellor. It was not a happy experiment, and presumably the Government recognised its failure when they discontinued the appointment.
Surely it is time that a division was created between the administrative and the judicial functions of the Lord Chancellor's Department. There must be a more formal separation of the Department's political and neo-judicial r ôles. The personal integrity and high capacity of our Lord Chancellor and our Attorney-General cloak the inherent difficulties. But we should not institutionalise these anomalies by the legislation prompted by this report which we are told that we shall have in the next Session.
I differ from the right hon. and learned Member for Epsom, who swept aside in too facile a manner the possibility of creating a Minister of Justice. The fact is that, in many ways, the report highlights the need for the creation of a Minister of Justice, not necessarily a lawyer, in whom the oversight of the administration of justice as distinct from all these other judicial and patronage roles could be vested. In industry today we know that there is a need for the clear identification of roles. That is well recognised as a prerequisite to efficiency. Such an identification in Government is no less necessary, in my opinion. Because we are lawyers in love with our institutions, because of the pomp, glory and history of the Lord Chancellorship and because we like the subtlety and sophistication within our constitution of someone with a role like the Attorney-General, it is not good enough to draw back from considering whether it would not be more desirable to have a Minister of Justice. Before we have legislation, this is a matter which should be considered by Lord Shackleton, who has been charged with the task of reviewing matters such as this in his machinery of government assignments.
If legislation is brought before the House without these matters being really thought through, in the long run we shall be in danger that much-needed reforms to our system will be snarled up. So far we have closed our minds too much to 664 whether we should not examine the positions of the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General.
We should also ask ourselves whether we can with efficiency, despite the extraordinary capacity of the handful of dedicated men who at present run the Lord Chancellor's Department, successfully graft on to this very ancient system all these radical and much-needed changes which have been stimulated by the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General, whose radicalism expresses itself in their desire to embrace this report and implement it as speedily as possible.
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)
The main problem for which this report seeks to find a remedy is not only the somewhat archaic mechanism of our legal system but the terrible delays which confront any member of the public who seeks to bring a case before the courts.
In joining the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) in his tribute to the Lord Chancellor, I do not think that I can do better than quote the noble Lord. He said:We have a far smaller number of whole-time judges than any other Western democracy or our old Dominions, and we spend a far smaller proportion of our annual budget on justice than anyone else does.We are rightly proud of our legal system, which is the envy of the world. The moment has now arrived when we have to pay for it. I often wonder what its net cost is. I saw a figure published the other day of the enormous sums of money which are taken in fines by magistrates' courts only in regard to motoring offences. If one adds fines taken at quarter sessions, assizes and magistrates' courts in respect of other matters, it would be interesting to see the balance of the money which goes into the public purse set against the cost of our legal system. Almost all of the money paid out in legal aid goes into pockets of solicitors and members of the Bar. But it does not stay there very long. One knows that something like half of it normally finds its way back into the Exchequer.
If I may give a personal example of the delays which are commonly experienced, about a month ago I was involved in a case in the High Court. It had been transferred from the Old Bailey. It was 665 not a particularly complicated matter, although it lasted for nearly five weeks. It concerned a fraud involving lorry drivers who had been misusing their agency cards. The men were arrested and given bail on 22nd May of last year. The case did not come on for trial until the middle of March of this year.
Let me give another example which hon. Members will recall. I was instructed in the recent "queer-bashing" case on Wimbledon Common. That was a far more serious matter. It was murder, and the defendants involved were very young men. Their ages were 15, 16 and 17. They were arrested in September of last year, and the case did not come on for trial at the Old Bailey until January.
To return to the case in which I was involved in the High Court, one afternoon it was necessary for the defendant to go through some papers, so the court adjourned for half an hour. It was three o'clock in the afternoon. Having nothing to do, I thought that it would be interesting to take a stroll round the courts. What interested me was the number of unoccupied courts. Admittedly it was three o'clock in the afternoon, and it may be that the cases in some of those courts had been settled earlier in the day.
Being of an inquisitive frame of mind, I put down a Question to the Attorney-General. I thought that February would be as good a month as any, because it is in the middle of the term, as it were. I askedhow many courts are now available for use in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand; and how many of those courts were empty and unused during the month of February, 1970?The Attorney-General gave me this Answer:Forty-eight courts are available. Six of them are substandard, of which two should be used only in an emergency. During the month of February, 1970, there were 71 occasions when, for various reasons (including other calls on judicial time or illness) the satisfactory courts were not used."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th March, 1970; Vol. 798, c. 523.]That is 71 judge-working days in the High Court of Justice in February. When we consider that there are, in effect, only five working days a week—in other words, 20 working days in the month—on the face of it it seems an absolute scandal that that should be the situation. I have a shrewd idea that the reason why those courts are empty is because there is so 666 much crime and judges are not in London but out on assize work.
There is a tremendous backlog of cases not only in the civil work in the Strand but also in criminal work at the Central Criminal Court. I do not understand why the Lord Chancellor, with the powers at his disposal, cannot either appoint more full-time judges or commissioners.
The Library has given me some interesting information. I asked how many new posts of judicial office had been created as such since 1965. 1 was given the following information: Lords of Appeal in Ordinary, one; Lords Justices of Appeal, two; puisne judges of the High Court, four; puisne judges of the High Court of Northern Ireland, one; county court judges, civil work, 24. I am beginning to wonder whether that is sufficient.
I think I am right in saying that this Government, since they took office, have appointed no less than 193 Queen's Counsel. I do not know the purpose for that. It may be some form of devaluation. Nevertheless, the numbers of Queen's Counsel practising over the past five years are 208, 209, 221, 236 and 262. I should think that at least half a dozen of those 262 Queen's Counsel now practising would be willing to occupy some of those empty courts in the Strand to take some of those cases which are, and have been, awaiting trial literally for months and get rid of them in that way.
I appreciate that there are security difficulties in the High Court. But the defendants in these particular cases have been on bail the whole time. They are usually fraud cases which take up a lot of time. I suggest and commend such a course as a start. I add at once that both the previous Conservative Government and this Government, for some reason or another, have been particularly obstinate in their unwillingness to appoint more full-time judges.
I turn now to the report and what it has to say about quarter sessions. I must declare an interest as Recorder of Colchester and Chairmen of Hertfordshire Quarter Sessions, particularly as the report recommends dispensing with my services in both respects.
I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) that it should be possible to retain 667 the quarter sessions within the framework of the new Crown Court. Looking at the map, we see that one proposal of the Beeching Report is to create a Crown Court centre at Luton. To do that it will be necessary to build a new court. Yet only nine miles away from Luton is the ancient town of St. Albans where the quarter sessions for Hertfordshire are normally held, although on occasions the court sits at Hertford. A new courthouse has been erected in St. Albans at a cost of £285,000. It contains two quarter sessions courts, a magistrates' court, a dual purpose magistrates' and juvenile court, and a small court for occasional emergency use. There is ample ancillary accommodation. It has been in use for three years.
I can quickly describe the kind of work that that court is doing. In 1967, 582 defendants were dealt with and in 1968 the figure was 609. I think that roughly the same figure was dealt with last year, although the figures are not yet complete. In 1967 the court sat on 179 days and on 199 days in 1968. There is only one recorded instance of a defendant having to wait more than eight weeks to stand his trial. Nearly every case is dealt with within four weeks of committal, unless there is a special request from the defence.
People may ask: how does it come about? It comes about in this way. We have a largish panel of deputy chairmen. Most of them specialise in criminal work. I have found—this is an argument against the all-purpose judge—that the specialist seems to get through the work faster. I think that is the general experience of the Bar. But we never find ourselves in a situation where we are without a chairman or deputy chairman.
The system works well in two ways. We set out a list of sitting days for the various deputy chairmen for the whole year. Everybody tries to adhere to those dates. If one of the deputy chairmen is defending a man and his case suddenly comes into the list—this is one of the main complaints about our system—that man is not deprived of his services. A strong and understandable complaint sometimes made by a defendant is that after he has seen his counsel he is surprised to find somebody else turning up the next day or the following week to 668 conduct his defence. Having a large panel there has been, and always will be, I am sure, somebody else who can sit at short notice. That quarter sessions is working as near perfectly within range of London as anyone could wish in the 1970s.
Why interfere with something which is working really well? One of my main complaints about the Beeching Report is that it seeks, as far as I can see, to impose a rigid system upon the whole country. It may be that the proposals in the report are needed, shall we say, on the North-Eastern Circuit. The situation is such in Manchester that they are, in effect, working already.
We should not impose them where they are not required and, in particular, is it not rather strange to spend about £1 million to build a court nine miles away from St. Albans when £285,000 has just been expended on the most magnificent court with, unlike most courts, the best acoustics of any court of which I have experienced?
Hertfordshire, a large and widely spread county, has innumerable magistrates and a population of 1 million or more. The usefulness of the magistrates seems to be that they meet at quarter sessions. We all have lunch together and over lunch we talk shop. This is of great assistance to chairmen and deputy chairmen because one can hear about their local problems, and that is where local justice is so important.
Equally, one can hear all their complaints about how, in their view, quarter sessions are dealing with people committed for, say, borstal training or sentence, and how they are dealing with appeals. We find a very strong liaison between the magistrates' courts and quarter sessions and this exchange of ideas is totally beneficial.
Apart from that, I always find that when one must sentence a man it is of the greatest possible assistance to retire and discuss the matter with somebody who has experience, albeit of a different form, rather than to have to make up one's mind on one's own. Magistrates tell me that in their turn they learn a lot from us in the same way. Is the whole of this system—this mutual confidence; they know their deputy chairman and so on very well—to be destroyed throughout 669 the country, particularly when it is working well in a place such as Hertfordshire?
I am a great believer in the part-time recorder or chairman because he is active in the courts and is inclined to get through his work rather quicker than the full-time judge. This is because he probably has somewhere else to go the following week and, in any event, the part-time recorder or chairman knows that if he is not able to get through his work and be wherever he must be the following week he will lose the brief. For this reason there is a greater despatch about his handling of cases compared with the full-time judge, who has nothing apart from his judicial duties to occupy him.
There are many matters about which I could address the House, but I must restrict my remarks. Late sittings are referred to in the report. I am very much against them, mainly because they are extremely hard on the jury. If a juryman does his job properly he will be sitting from 10.30 a.m. till 1 p.m. and then from perhaps 2.5 p.m. till 4.15 p.m. and will be concentrating for the whole of that time as if he were playing a game of bridge for high stakes.
Ask anybody who is not accustomed to that sort of activity to sit for four-and-ahalf or four-and-three-quarter hours with that degree of concentration, being wholely untrained for the job, and one is asking a great deal. Indeed, we do not show enough consideration to our jurymen, for jury service can mean a lot to a man with, say, a small business. He is anxious to be clear of the court shortly after 4 p.m., when he can probably put in two-and-a-half hours' work in his own business or profession. He is not able to do this if the court sits late. He also has the advantage of avoiding the rush hour it the court rises shortly after 4 p.m. Equally, it is of great assistance to counsel that the court should rise at that hour because they probably have conferences and consultations to attend, in addition to which they often wish to return to their chambers at the Temple to see clients and so on.
In a massive report of 167 pages, one can only touch on some of the points. I pay tribute to the fact that it is a workmanlike document, is well arranged and is readable. I pay tribute to many of its proposals. However, I plead with the House not to make the proposals rigid 670 and not to enforce them where they are not needed and can only do harm.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)
I listened with the greatest interest to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) and I have much sympathy with him when he questions whether we should interfere with a court of quarter sessions when it is working well and serving the needs of the locality.
The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) seemed to suggest at the outset of his remarks that any system which has endured since the 12th century must automatically be wrong. I would have thought that it is more sensible to start from the assumption that if a system has endured for so long, it must have been well designed in the first place. There is, therefore, a heavy burden on those who wish to cast it aside and start with something new.
I had not intended to comment on the vexed question of whether solicitors should be appointed to the Bench, and I do so only because the Attorney-General invited our comments on the subject. It is only because of that invitation—realising that it is easy to be accused of special pleading—that I speak on the issue.
It seems that the arguments in favour of appointing solicitors to the Bench are much weaker now than they were a year or so ago because there is great ease of transfer now between the professions. If a person has practised as a solicitor for a number of years and decides that he would like, after a number of more years in the profession, to be eligible for appointment, he can easily transfer and become a member of the Bar.
While the arguments in favour of the appointment of solicitors to the Bench have become weaker, the arguments against such appointments remain as strong as ever. There is as strong a need today as there has ever been to attract the right calibre of young men to the Bar. One of the greatest attractions of the Bar as a profession is that there is a fair chance of one's getting an appointment sooner or later.
There are some severe restrictions on the ways in which members of the Bar can operate, and if they must endure 671 those restrictions, they might reasonably expect to keep some of the privileges.
It is a pity that this debate on the Royal Commission's Report has been long delayed. While we have been waiting for this debate the Government have already taken powers to implement some of its recommendations.
I am referring to Clause 7 of the Administration of Justice Bill which extends the power to dispense with the holding of assize in any place. We learned from the Attorney-General that an Order has been made dispensing with the holding of an assize in no less than 15 towns. We also heard that already advertisements have been published for applicants for the posts of circuit administrators. It seems a great pity that before there is a debate on the principles of a report of this nature such decisions should be made. I would have thought that the desirable thing is to have the debate first and make the decisions afterwards.
Having said that I would like to pay my tribute to the way in which Lord Beeching did his work. I know something of the endless trouble to which he went to find out the views of people in the profession and those responsible for operating the court system. He came to Manchester and attended a Bar mess, he attended a meeting of the clerks when they were arranging the lists for the following day, he went to great pains to speak to numerous members of the staff in the courts. That, to my mind, is the way a Royal Commission should carry out its work.
If we are to say goodbye to the present system we should not do so without a most heart-felt "thank you" to those who have operated that system so well over the years. It would be quite wrong to suggest that over these years all has been chaos. It would be wrong to give the impression to the country that inordinate delay in the hearing of cases has been the rule rather than the exception. It would be wrong to give the impression that for years no attempt has been made to remedy obvious defects.
We all know perfectly well that the Streatfeild Committee was able to make proposals which remedied many of the defects at that time. I have been rather distressed that the public might get the 672 impression from some of the contributions this afternoon that we have been facing for years the most grievous problems and that for years successive Governments have failed to tackle them. There is a case for reform but the old system has to my mind worked pretty well throughout most of the country and I have nothing but admiration for the way in which business has been conducted at our county quarter sessions in Lancashire, which I shall be sorry to see go.
The main proposals in the report are absolutely right. The separation of the civil and criminal work will mean that the work of the courts will be carried out more expeditiously. The time has come for fairly radical changes in the administration of the court system. But the need for the reform of the administrative structure undoubtedly confronts us with a real dilemma. If the Lord Chancellor is to be responsible for the administration of the High Court, the Crown Court and the county court and even in part at least, in conjunction with the Minister of Public Building and Works, for the court buildings which house the magistrates' courts, the Lord Chancellor's Department will have to be expanded greatly.
The greater the work-load on the Department the greater the pressures there will be—we have seen some of these pressures a few moments ago when the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) spoke—for a Ministry of Justice. That is something from which I hope we will for long be preserved. I would hate to feel that our system of justice was in the hands of a politician in transit between Posts and Telecommunications and Mintech. That consideration weighs with me much more heavily than the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Pontypool who at times during his speech became quite fanciful. I would not have thought that there was any great danger to the British Constitution if some of the responsibilities for maintaining the fabric of a few buildings is transferred from a Minister in the House of Commons to the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords.
The Administration of Justice Act, 1969, already provides for an increase in county court jurisdiction to £750. In the Beeching Report there is a recommendation that there should be a further increase in county court jurisdiction to 673 £1,000. Obviously we would expect the jurisdiction of the county courts to be increased as the value of money declines but I have a feeling that we may now be going too far. The county court is not a very suitable forum for the hearing of complicated cases because the judge usually sits in one place for only one day at a time and then moves on to another town on the circuit.
If the case is not completed it is very difficult to find another day which suits all the parties, all the solicitors and counsel involved. I concede that it does not follow that just because a lot of money is at stake the case is necessarily complicated, but very often this is the case and we know from experience that there is a tendency to dwell longer on a case if more money is involved in it. What I do not like, and this matter has not so far been raised, is the suggestion that a High Court judge should have the right to remit a High Court jurisdiction case for trial by a county court judge without the consent of the parties.
It seems to me that litigants are entitled to have their cases tried by a High Court judge when they are prepared to pay High Court costs if they lose. The litigant is getting a very bad bargain if he starts a case in the High Court, with all the risks attendant upon such a course, and is then told that his case will not be tried by a High Court judge but by a county court judge, but that if he loses he will have to pay High Court costs. I urge the Government to reconsider that recommendation because it is one of the rare cases where Lord Beeching has come pretty close to putting administrative convenience before the genuine rights of the parties.
The valuable experience which members of the Bar get by sitting as deputy recorders and deputy chairmen of quarter sessions, experience which is not only valuable to them but to those who might have the job of considering them for permanent judicial office, has already been touched on. I wonder whether enough people of the right calibre will be prepared to act as part-time judges if they have to guarantee, as Beeching recommends, at least one month's work on the Bench each year, at a time to be fixed in advance. It is not beyond the wit of man to devise a system whereby more members of the Bar could 674 be used as part-time judges for fewer than 28 days a year to the advantage of all.
Lastly I come to the recommendation that lay justices should be encouraged to sit with the county court judge, but only as assessors. I was glad to hear the Attorney-General say that the Government were not prepared to accept that recommendation, believing that lay magistrates sitting at county quarter sessions perform a valuable function. They gain valuable experience and I have never had the slightest feeling that that part of our judicial system has not been working admirably. That recommendation of the Beeching Report was in any event very difficult to reconcile with another recommendation that justices should sit as full members of the court hearing juvenile appeals.
Although by constitution and nature I am prone to defend that which has endured for a long time and although that is my attitude to this sort of problem, I think the case has been made for complete separation of the civil and criminal work. The change recommended by the Beeching Report will allow the work of the court to be conducted more expeditiously. With the minor qualifications I have advocated I give a hearty welcome to the report.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Bruce Campbell (Oldham, West)
My intervention will be brief. I do not have the experience of circuit work to speak with any knowledge of what goes on in parts of the country other than London, but I want to say a word or two about London and, in particular, about the shortage of court accommodation in London and to enter a plea that absolute first priority should be given to the provision of more court accommodation in London.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) spoke about delays in cases in which he was concerned. I can speak of more impressive ones. Yesterday was 6th May, 1970, and yesterday I was concerned in a criminal case in which the crime had taken place on 6th May, 1969. The defendents, of whom there were four, had waited for a whole year to be tried. The trial took place with the witnesses, police officers, frankly admitting that they had no real recollection of the events. 675 Fortunately, they had their notebooks in which they had recorded notes of the events almost immediately after they happened, but they all frankly admitted that they relied entirely on their notebooks. When they were asked any question of which they had no record they had to say, "I am sorry but I simply do not remember".
It was a case concerning shoplifters— professional shoplifters, not a housewife who steals a pound of suet, but stealing to get valuable property and sell it. One of the defendents, when arrested, was found to be wearing an extra pair of the voluminous underpants in which it was suggested he proposed to conceal the stolen property. Such had been the delay in that case reaching trial that that important exhibit had been lost. So the court and the jury could get only a description from the police officers about those underpants, and their descriptions did not altogether agree because they relied on their memories. The garment had not been described in their notebooks, and the police officers were not at all sure what the underpants looked like.
We had an imperfect kind of justice. It was made clearer to me yesterday than ever before how true it is that justice delayed is justice denied and how true it is to say that it is as important that justice should be swift as that it should be sure.
I had a discussion this morning with the Clerk of the Peace at South East London Quarter Sessions about this problem. He told me that it is solely a problem of court accommodation. In London there is now a system whereby those courts which are most over-burdened with work transfer cases to other courts which are not so over-burdened. The case about which I have been speaking was one which should have been tried at Inner London Quarters Sessions, but it had been transferred to South-East London Quarter Sessions because that court was not so over-burdened.
Even with this transfer of cases, the problem remains acute. I urge the Government when it comes to implementing the Beeching Report to give first priority to the provision of more court accommodation in London. If it is not possible to implement the report in full at this stage, cannot London have priority in this respect? 676 We heard from the hon. and learned Member for Ruislip-Northwood that in St. Albans there is no problem. I have no doubt that in other parts of the country there is no problem, but in London there is a tremendous problem.
I want to refer to causes of the vast backlog of cases. Another hon. and learned Member said that more people plead not guilty now than used to be the case. No doubt this is due to a large extent to the fact that they can get legal aid. They can get counsel to appear for them whom they would not have if they had to pay them. When they have that advantage they think that they might as well have a run for their money and plead not guilty. This is one of the penalties we must pay for having a Welfare State and providing legal aid. It is a penalty we should gladly pay because it is better that we should bear that burden than that anyone should not be legally represented if he wishes to be.
There is another matter which I think contributes to the vast amount of work in the criminal courts at this time. Now there is a mandatory requirement that in certain cases the court shall impose a suspended sentence of imprisonment. In a case where a court intends to impose a sentence of not less than six months, it has no discretion and must suspend the sentence. It simply cannot send the man to prison. It must say, "You will go to prison, but only if you commit another offence during the next year" or two years, or three years.
The result of that is that every criminal in the land knows that he can have two bites at the cherry. Every criminal in the land knows that he can safely commit one crime, be caught and be convicted, and not go to prison. He knows that he can do it at least twice before he will go to prison.
§ Mr. Crowder
My hon. and learned Friend says that a man can do this at least twice before he goes to prison. I heard of a case the other day in which a man was arrested for a comparatively minor offence. He stupidly made a clean breast of everything and asked for no fewer than 245 other cases, of which the police had no knowledge, to be taken into consideration. Had that not been so, he would not have been sent to quarter sessions. He would have been given a 677 suspended sentence. He had 245 bites at the cherry.
§ Mr. Campbell
I am much obliged to my hon. and learned Friend for underlining the problem. I am not saying that everybody who commits a serious crime should go to prison the first time. I recognise how important it is not to send people to prison if possible, and not to send them for the first offence, because once they have been to prison they start on a life which may be spent mainly in prison. Anything that we can do to stop a person going to prison for the first offence, we should do.
What I am submitting is wrong is that we should let these people know that we cannot send them to prison until they are convicted on a second occasion. I urge the Government to give serious thought to removing the provision—I think that it is in the Criminal Justice Act, 1967—which requires a court to impose only a suspended sentence in certain cases. If that is done I do not think that the courts will send more people to prison, but it will let the criminals know that even if it is the first occasion on which they are convicted they may go to prison. Perhaps that will be something of a deterrent, and perhaps ease to some extent the overwhelming burden which now faces the criminal courts, particularly in London.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)
The background to this debate is that there is, happily, an immense amount of common ground among everybody who is interested in this report and the subject to which it refers. There can be no doubt about that. We are all agreed about our objectives, which are to ensure that we have such a number of courts, of such quality, and so placed, and so manned, with such a number of judges of the appropriate quality, that the standard of justice which we regard as the birthright of everyone who lives here shall be available at the minimum inconvenience which is possible.
It is common ground that there is great scope for improvement. It is common ground that we should not allow the fact that something is hallowed by antiquity to be of itself a reason for not doing away with it. I hope that we shall not go to the other extreme 678 and regard it as a reason for doing away with it.
It is common ground that the report makes a significant contribution to thinking on the subject, and I am glad to have the opportunity to echo what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Sir P. Rawlinson), and to express my appreciation of the work done by the Commission.
I think one can say that most people agree about most of the principal recommendations. It is about the detail that there is room for critical discussion, and I think it has been recognised in this debate that there ought to be critical discussion. There is room for it, and it ought to take place, and it is a good thing that we are having this debate before the matter goes any further.
I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) that it is a pity that it was not possible for the debate to take place earlier, but I shall not endeavour to develop that. We on this side of the House are glad to know that such preliminary steps as could be taken to save time on those matters which are clearly matters of agreement have been initiated. I know that the Government will take note both of the noises of approval made this evening, and of the notes of criticism, and I propose to offer some of each.
I think it is fair to say that all relevant considerations really fall under one of three heads—the provision of buildings, the provision of judges, and the administration of the business so as to make the best use of what we have in both those respects. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom spoke mainly on the question of the judiciary. I shall speak mainly on the questions of buildings and administration.
The Commission rightly stressed the need for flexibility. That has been stressed many times in the debate. What has not been said—or, if it has been said, it has perhaps not been said with sufficient emphasis—is that there is great flexibility in the present system. There are few things which cannot be done under the present system if there is a necessity for them, particularly in matters of speed. When this investigation started I thought that one of the things that would baffle 679 anybody except a lawyer, and one of the things which would make the present system seem quite impossible to the tidy administrative mind, was the flexibility of the system.
We must be careful that, whilst professing to seek greater flexibility, we do not allow undue preoccupation with that to lead us unwittingly into a pattern of uniformity which could well at the end lead to less flexibility. If we recognise the danger, it can be avoided. It is undoubted that administrative efficiency and a tidy system do not always ensure flexibility and may produce the opposite.
Assuming the question of quality—there is no need for us to discuss that; we all want the highest quality that can be provided—the flexibility should be designed to ensure speedy trial and the convenience of everybody who takes part in the trial and to make better use of the time of the judiciary. I mean no disrespect to the judiciary by deliberately placing that aim third in my order of priorities.
There is something here about which we must be very careful. The report mentions the question of taking justice to the people and saving the time of judges by cutting down their travelling time. To a certain extent these two things are necessarily inconsistent. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) said that Cambridge would no longer be a centre, which would cause inconvenience to many people. The hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) made a similar point about Nottingham. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas)—what a pleasure it was to have a layman take part in the debate; would that there had been many more, both present and, more especially, taking part—drew attention in some detail to the situation which would arise in Huddersfield, which, leaving aside the question whether the situation is avoidable, clearly indicated that the convenience of the citizens of Huddersfield might be somewhat less, rather than greater, than it was before. I understand that the hon. Member for Cleveland (Mr. Tinn), whose contribution I did not have the pleasure of hearing, made a similar point about Tees-side.
680 I hope that we shall not be mean. As has been said, the amount Britain spends on the administration of justice is very small compared with other services. Of course we should be as economical as we can, but I hope that we shall not pursue that policy to the point of meanness. If there is a doubt as to whether or not Huddersfield should be brought in, let not the question of expense be the central consideration that keeps it out. If it is a question of whether we should have 21 or 23 towns of a particular category, if it is to contribute materially to the convenience of those who are directly concerned in the administration of justice, I hope that inclination will be to tend always towards greater numbers rather than to cut out one or two places for the sake of saving the very small amount of money that that would save, particularly when the towns in question, like Huddersfield, St. Albans and Cambridge, already have adequate court facilities and would not, therefore, call for any or any appreciable capital expenditure for their continued use.
Like others, I was very glad that the Attorney-General paid some tribute to what we have, a tribute echoed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom. I would like to add to it a little. The background to the present volume of work in the courts is threefold: a vast increase in the amount of crime, a big increase in the amount of civil work—partly the result of a large body of extremely complicated and difficult legislation which is giving rise to new questions which come before the courts today; and the effect of legal aid in both those spheres. All those factors coming at the same time have resulted in a very rapid build up over a very short period of years. It is interesting and worth a minute or two to see how the courts have coped with that.
Appendix 7 of the report gives the statistics for the delay in criminal cases. One of the difficulties of the Royal Commission was that until it started its work there were no statistics showing the delay for the country as a whole; so the Commission had to embark upon a statistical survey. It is upon that that appendix 7 is based. It is stated in the report that that survey will be published, but it is not available at the moment and so one must look at the 681 figures in appendix 7. The figures are those for persons tried or sentenced, global figures. They really become relevant when one gets down to the break up of the figures by types of court. One finds that at assizes 25 per cent, of the cases are not disposed of within 60 days of committal. In Crown Courts the figure is 16 per cent. These are important figures. In borough quarter sessions, 12 per cent, and in county quarter sessions 13 per cent.
Put in another way, it means that of all cases tried in borough quarter sessions 88 per cent, were finally disposed of within 60 days of committal; and in county quarter sessions 87 per cent, were disposed of within that period. I would have thought that that was a rather proud record, especially when one allows for the fact that not all of these are people, who had to wait more than 60 days. They include people who applied for their cases not to be taken within the 60 days for a variety of reasons, such as availability of a witness, of a solicitor or of counsel, to have time for searching for other witnesses and so on. All such cases are included in the 87 per cent, disposed of.
Looking at page 164, we see that in all the borough quarter sessions and county quarter sessions for the whole of that year there were fewer than 2,200 cases not disposed of within 60 days, and there were only 363 people in custody whose cases were not disposed of within that period. I doubt whether any system will improve on those figures. If it does it will be a marginal improvement.
I cite those figures for two reasons. The first is to give credit where it is due. The figures are the result of the work of the local authorities who handled the matter and the large body of people—not only members of the Bar, but including them— who have given their time towards making the system work. My second reason is to echo what other hon. Members have said. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom counselled gradualness in implementing the report in relation to this kind of work. The hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North counselled critical consideration of this part of the changeover. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood (Mr. Crowder) put the case 682 even more strongly. He quoted one case of which he has the most intimate knowledge, making the point I have just made in a different way in relation to particular sessions and in effect asking how any one can improve on that. He questioned whether it was not folly to risk spoiling it.
Those facts suggest that radical changes in county and borough quarter sessions are not only not necessary as a matter of priority but might be distinctly unwise, because wholesale and speedy upsetting of that system could easily result in a worsening of what we seek rather than an improvement. This is a question of priorities. In time those sessions must be assimilated into whatever form the new system settles down in. That is a terrible piece of grammar, and I apologise for it. I could not see any way of getting all those prepositions into the right place. As the system settles down I dare say that there will be changes here and there. In time borough sessions and quarter sessions must, of course, fit in to whatever new system takes the place of the present one.
The facts to which I have referred suggest to me, and should suggest to the House and the Government, that we might consider leaving well alone in those two fields, at least at the beginning. Certainly we might say that they are low on the list of priorities and all the things that have to be done and upon which money must be spent.
So much for the criminal figures. I invite the attention of the House to the figures for civil cases in appendix 8. I want to draw attention to one consideration. The time over which the courts have the greatest control—they have not entire control because much depends on the activity of the parties—is between the setting down of the case and its coming on. According to appendix 8, this time varied between some four and a half months average for long defended matrimonial cases in the High Court in London down to about 10 days for long defended divorce cases. Indeed, one does not want to set down such a case unless one wants it heard almost next week. That, however, is because of the fall in the number of defended divorces and the fact that a lot of work has been taken off the shoulders of the divorce judges 683 and put on to the county courts, with the result that more High Court judges are available for this work. The longest wait for trial in the High Court in London was nine months for non-matrimonial cases. I do not know what the comparable figure is now, but I am told today that the waiting period for a fixture in London—if one does not want a fixture one can go on more easily—is 10 to 11 months.
It is important to mention these facts because people tend sometimes to speak in terms of cases taking years rather than months to come to trial. There is a good case for reconsidering the procedures prior to the setting down of cases and the machinery to deal with those procedures. The hon. and learned Member for Derby, North (Mr. MacDermot) mentioned in a debate last week that a committee set up by Justice was considering this question, but that is outside the scope of the Beeching Report. We have to consider the delays between the setting down and conclusion of a case, and although there is room for improvement it is remarkable that the delays, despite the great increase in business, are no worse.
The Attorney-General gave us interesting figures last week, showing an 86 per cent, increase in civil work, a 42 per cent, increase in criminal work, a 221 per cent, increase in one kind of criminal appeal work, and 119 per cent, in criminal appeals coming to trial. This is all being dealt with with an increase of only 19 per cent, in the judiciary without adding to the delays that there were. I mention these figures because we should pay tribute to everyone who has had any hand in producing that result. It is remarkable how those concerned with the judiciary and the administration have kept abreast of the problem, although there is still room for improvement.
I want first to mention some of the ways of not improving the situation. The undesirability of over-loading has been referred to. It is tempting to try to speed up the process of justice—the number of cases dealt with—in this way but it is a thoroughly bad way. I am glad that the question of courts sitting beyond 5 p.m. has been mentioned, both in the report and in the debate, but particularly in the report, in Recommendation 516. I am glad that the report does 684 mention this because when lawyers defend the practice of not sitting beyond 5 p.m. it is often suggested that they are doing so in order to get out on the golf course by 6 p.m. People do not realise the legion of reasons why it is undesirable for courts to sit beyond 5 p.m. —not least being the reason mentioned in the report and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip—North-wood, which is the pressure which is put upon juries, quite apart from those taking part in cases, and the inconvenience caused to all of them if the courts sit beyond that time.
I am glad that the need to reduce the amount of work in the courts has received attention from hon. Members. The report refers to the number of people who plead not guilty and, although it does not say so in terms, it seems to have the underlying feeling that perhaps there should be some limitation on legal aid so that fewer people would plead not guilty.
It is often said that a lot of cases are fought today because of legal aid which would not be fought without legal aid. However, that is precisely why legal aid was introduced; so that cases which could not previously be fought were able to be fought. We cannot have it both ways. We must remember, in any event, that the overall cost of legal aid is still within modest bounds compared with what we spend on other aspects of Government. I agree, nevertheless, that we must see that this money is not wasted.
I echo what has been said about the proposal to separate criminal from civil work. Undoubtedly, and rightly so, because of the priority which is given to criminal cases—we must make the necessary arrangements in the gaols—civil cases are delayed. It must, therefore, be right to endeavour to have courts sitting in permanent centres dealing solely with civil work so that this work can be expedited and not subject to the criminal work having to be dealt with first. There is also the added convenience of fixed dates. The beauty of such a system is that it does not seem too difficult to introduce, though much will be required before the new system gets underway.
I echo what has been said—this was stated when we were debating the Administration of Justice Bill—about attendances at assize towns where there is not 685 likely to be much work. I hope, however, that sufficient flexibility will be maintained so that for, for example, a long case, it might be convenient to have it tried at one of the assize towns which will be dropped from the circuit. We do not want to become so inflexible that arrangements of that kind cannot be made. The circuit administrator should be able to say, "This case will be tried at the most convenient place."
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom spoke of the need for more judges and said that we were four under establishment. It seems curious that we should be complaining about lack of judge power without stressing that we are four under establishment. We must also provide adequate staffs. My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the appointment of Mr. Breugel, and it is well known that he is doing splendid work. Those with knowledge of London will echo what has been said about that work. He is so busy that if one wishes to apply for a fixture one must wait two months to get an appointment to hear an application to fix a date for a case. This is because Mr. Breugel has so much work.
I will not add to what has been said on the civil side. Considering the problems on the criminal side, I am not convinced that there is an overall, universal remedy or a solution that can be put into effect immediately. However, there are many things that we can do individually. For example, where there is bunching of sessions, causing inconvenience, there should be practical methods to avoid that bunching. If we take the civil work away from assizes, that will reduce the load of work falling on judges and should speed up the process. We should not be afraid to deal with this in areas rather than by hoping in one bound to go to an entirely new system.
Everybody knows that the situation in London is very serious and we have heard sophisticated reasons why. I do not think this has anything to do with administration, although it might be improved; it is simply that there are too few courts and too few judges for the number of cases. The Government have now taken steps to alleviate that situation, and so has the City of London. I pay tribute to the City of London. In 1962 the City 686 had six courts; three were added, then another four, and now the foundation stone is being laid for two more. The position of the City of London in relation to the report will call for careful consideration.
The terms of reference of the Commission did not at first refer to the City, but were widened to include the effect of the Commission's proposals on the City. Had I been a member of the City Council, I doubt if I would have read those terms of reference as including the abolition of the Central Criminal Court. For this reason, it may be that there is room for more discussion between the City authorities and the Lord Chancellor's Department. The City has been generous in the provision of courts. Common sense dictates that central Government will have job and expense enough to provide courts elsewhere, and it might be foolish to jeopardise this source of support so generously and readily offered, especially as there is local involvement in this.
The report uses phrases like "civic pride" and "civic status" with slightly snide overtones, and this is a pity. There is nothing wrong with civic pride or civic status. Dignity is to be upheld, not stood upon. People who take pride in the standards observed in their own locality may be led to live up to the standards which have been set.
I hope that we shall be able to achieve a greater degree of local involvement than would be achieved by implementing the report as recommended. This might be done through advisory committees and by the retention in some places of the recorder. Where there is to be a part-time judge, let him be the recorder of the city. We should not be insensible to the advantages of local involvement. Nothing but good will come from making use of the present local involvement and adapting officers such as the sheriff to the modern system.
It may be that, implicit in what I am saying about a rather slower implementation of those parts of the report concerned with the criminal law, is a slower changeover to full-time judges than is suggested in the report; if so, more judges would be required.
I agree with what has been said about the suggestion in the report that the judiciary could not be increased without 687 dilution of standards or an undue reduction in the ranks of the Bar. It is always the case that those in the senior walks of any life always think that the talent coming on is getting thin, but it usually turns out to be all right. I suggest that those who have to consider the matter need not be unduly worried. It is not necessary to make much of the point because it would appear that the Lord Chancellor takes my view since had he thought the ranks were so thin he would not have recommended the appointment of so many Queen's Counsel.
There have been many references to archaic squalor and disgustingly insanitary conditions of court buildings. Some of the worst examples are to be found in the magistrates' courts. But if we wish to have decent court buildings it will be a big job. I hope that when we come to build new courts the emphasis, in addition to locating them in the right places, will be on the convenience of witnesses, jurors and parties. We cannot under-estimate its importance to the administration of justice. How often one hears of persons who have been kept in some dingy passage while waiting to give evidence and who have been soured probably from ever wishing to attend a court again and who would not readily wish to come forward to give evidence.
In practical terms I am sure that the Attorney-General would agree that any thought of a substantial number of courts being built within a short period of time is somewhat unrealistic. Probably a good deal can be done by the provision of a little more money, but somebody will have to decide where the money is to be best used.
There is one aspect on which the Attorney-General could help us when he comes to reply. I am glad to hear that any buildings which are to be taken over will be under the Ministry of Public Building and Works rather than under the Lord Chancellor's department. I have been worried by the thought that the Lord Chancellor's department should be regarded as the correct department to run buildings. It involves very different functions and a different kind of personnel. I should be sorry to see the nature of the department change, but it is a source of relief to know that the majority of the Lord Chancellor's department 688 in future will not be concerned with central heating, and so on.
There will be three bodies primarily concerned in this matter. The first is the Lord Chancellor, as the overall planner who says where courts will be needed. Then there is the Treasury which will provide the money. The third party concerned is the Ministry that does the work. May we be told what will be the relationship between these three departments, since it might help to understand how the system will work in future? It may be that there is scope to involve local authorities a little more perhaps by using them as agents of one or other department.
On the matter of court management I hope it will be remembered that it is vitally necessary to meet the objectives on which we have embarked rather than to set up a tidy administrative structure and that the whole emphasis must be on service. The whole purpose of what we are discussing is to serve litigants, jurors and witnesses, and we need to concentrate upon the distribution of business so as to speed it up as much as possible.
I do not think that it was appreciated by the members of the Royal Commission that at quarter sessions, borough sessions and county quarter sessions already there is a great deal of fixing of dates in criminal cases. At the only courts of which I have knowledge, the dates are published at least a week before and, almost invariably, are kept. There are small differences. A case may run on to the next day, but a reasonable degree of proficiency is obtained. It would be of great assistance to litigants, witnesses and jurors if they were notified of the possible date of a trial.
It would be useful if the Attorney-General could help the House by telling us about the relationship between the presiding judge and the court administrator, if that has been considered. If it has not been, of course I do not wish to push the right hon. and learned Gentleman into any snap judgment on it. Whatever formula is devised, I hope there will be no doubt where the ultimate responsibility lies on the circuit. It must be with the presiding judge. He must have ultimate control over the administration of justice on his circuit, though I do not know how that should be achieved.
689 In a way, there is a big weakness in what we have been doing today. We have been considering the restructuring of the system with a view to improving courts, getting them in the right places, and so on. But we have done it without considering the magistrates' courts and where they fit into the rebuilding programme. They might easily take most of the available money.
Another important consideration is where the magistrates' courts fit into the administrative structure. The Attorney-General may have sen the memorandum published by the Justices' Clerks' Association recommending an administrative structure tied in with the new circuit administrative structure. I appreciate that that cannot be carried very far today, but, if the Attorney-General can give us his thoughts on it, we shall be helped in the further consideration of it in which we shall engage as a result not only of this debate but of all the steps which will soon be taken.
Subject to those comments, I conclude by again welcoming the Report.
§ 9.13 p.m.
§ The Attorney-General
I agree with the initial observation of the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) that it is agreeable that there has been much common ground on both sides of the House about the welcome that it is giving to the Beeching Report.
This debate will prove to be of considerable help and value to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Government in regard to the points of criticism, the points of substance and points of detail which have been raised and the suggestions which have been made. Some issues of major substance have emerged with which I shall deal in a moment, and we have heard about other issues relating to more local problems which are none the less important in regard to the administration of justice because they are local, since the courts are institutions where for better or worse, the citizen is liable to appear at some time in his life.
There was an eloquent passage in the speech of one hon. Member who hoped that the attendance at the courts would continue to increase. I hope that he was not extending that enthusiasm too far to the criminal courts, and particularly 690 to a special part of them. It is the increase in crime and the number of criminals that has been largely responsible for the current crisis with which the administration of justice presents us.
I join in the tributes paid to those who have been running the system of our courts, to the clerks of assize and their dedicated officials, to the clerks of the peace, and to those who run the quarter sessions and the quarter sessions courts. I add my tribute to those who man the Lord Chancellor's Department, and I would venture to add my own small Law Officers' Department in this connection. I do not know what the proprieties are here, but I am bound to say that it has been a privilege to know and work with the able and dedicated public servants who man these vital Departments, affecting so much the freedom, security and justice of our country.
I shall say something later about the inevitably more fundamental approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Ponty-pool (Mr. Abse). But first I would refer to some of the anxieties expressed about local problems.
We had a refreshing breath of air from the two lay Members, my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) and Cleveland (Mr. Tinn), who have both stayed here to the bitter end. I can assure them that their representations will be most carefully considered by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. We have already had approaches from the local authorities concerned—Huddersfield Corporation and the Teesside authorities. What has been said with such ability and eloquence by my hon. Friends will be considered most carefully by my noble and learned Friend in conjunction with the circuit administrators when they are appointed. I am grateful that my hon. Friends have gone to the trouble of presenting in such detail the anxieties they have expressed.
In the old days the red judge was a figure of terror, something not to be sought after but rather to be avoided. It may be a reflection of the sense of fairness in the administration of justice in our courts and the feeling of privilege about having assize courts in localities that the anxiety now is not that the red judge shall come but that the red judge shall come no more. There has been no dispute in the debate that the location of 691 some of the assize courts in small communities is now wasteful and unjustifiable, and that the change must come.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) thought that the Beeching Report surveyed problems a little out of context —I am sorry that I did not hear his speech—because he felt that it did not give consideration to the inferior courts. As I ventured to say in opening the debate, magistrates' courts, as he knows, were outside the terms of reference of the Beeching Commission. But the future administration of these courts is a subject which clearly requires careful study in the light of our acceptance, in principle, of the Beeching Report. However, as I also said in opening, the most urgent problem now is the serious situation in the higher courts, and we are concentrating on achieving that object. I apprehend that my hon. and learned Friend will not greatly quarrel with that priority.
It has been suggested that the situation regarding quarter sessions is really not so bad. I think that is so. Nevertheless, I venture to think that the flexibility and the centralisation of administration with the common administrative service which the Beeching scheme provides is obviously calculated to save accommodation, to save judge power, and to achieve greater efficiency.
I had some anxious inquiries about various matters relating to recorders. I share affectionate regard for the status and well-being of recorders, having enjoyed that status myself for all of 13 years. I was asked whether there was any hope that the recorder could be linked with the place which he may primarily be serving. The Government will certainly consider the possibility of continuing the link between the recorders and particular towns. To express a personal view, without being able to commit my noble Friend, I greatly hope that that may prove possible. But, even if this is done, it must be accepted that recorders should be prepared to sit in any part of the circuit. Otherwise, we should be sacrificing part of the necessary flexibility in the use of judge power, which is the very essence of the Beeching proposals.
I have been asked—I do not see my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, 692 North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) in the Chamber—whether Members of Parliament will remain eligible to be recorders. The answer is yes, subject to the House of Commons Disqualification Act, 1957, which does not presently disqualify them. However, the rule that they must not sit in a judicial capacity in their own constituencies will, naturally, continue.
Various proposals and suggestions were made for improving procedures and saving the time of the courts in that way. But it was agreed that this is not perhaps the appropriate occasion on which to discuss various methods of reducing the time taken to conclude trials. It is undoubtedly a disturbing phenomenon of recent years that trials are taking longer.
The hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) made some suggestions about procedural and evidential matters which will be carefully noted. I know that some, at any rate, are now being considered by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. I understand that its report may be expected fairly soon, so we may get some changes which will reduce the length of trials, although I have no great confidence that that may be the result. Therefore, I do not think that too much can be hoped for from that source.
The hon. and learned Member for Solihull drew attention to paragraph 232 of the Report and referred to a matter of which we have been aware and which we have been discussing with the Lord Chief Justice. However, I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the issue.
The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) suggested that the Court of Criminal Appeal might from time to time go on circuit to the big centres. That has been considered, but my noble Friend is inclined to agree with the views expressed by the Beeching Report, which says in paragraph 222:In the course of our inquiries we considered whether provision should be made for sittings of the Court of Appeal outside London. We found that there was very little demand for this and it was generally agreed that, because the basis of hearings is mainly documentary, the present arrangement causes little inconvenience and has the advantages of ensuring consistency and of using judge power economically. Therefore, although we wish to enable the main court centres outside London to give the public as comprehensive 693 a service as is reasonably possible, we do not advocate any decentralised sittings of the Court of Appeal, nor do we think it will be advantageous to provide for these in the foreseeable future.I find those conclusions convincing and impressive.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ponty-pool suggested that the nature of the changes now proposed called for a fundamental change in the machinery of Government. He appeared to recommend the setting up of a Ministry of Justice, though the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Waddington) disapproved strongly.
My hon. Friend referred to some of the remarkable features of the functions of the Lord Chancellor and myself. The doctrine of separation of powers has certainly never been a feature of the activities of either of those great offices of State. However, they have grown, by historical processes, and their great quality is that they work and that they have established for the administration of justice in this country a reputation for integrity and for the decision of delicate matters without regard to party or political considerations of a party kind which has made the administration of justice in Britain the object of admiration by many other countries.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool that he made a serious point which we have already considered when he suggested that, in view of the additional responsibilities which the Beeching Report will place on my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, the time has come to reconsider our arrangements for dealing with the administration of justice as part of the machinery of Government.
My hon. Friend rightly referred, in particular, to the heavy additional expenditure which will in future have to be borne by central funds. He suggested that, in these circumstances, we should have a Minister of Justice in the House of Commons. We have been giving consideration to this suggestion, and we have reached this conclusion. The Lord Chancellor's Department has for many years had considerable responsibilities in relation to the administration of justice and, in our view, what is now proposed is no more than an extension of this and not an entirely new function.
694 What we have in mind regarding this problem is what I indicated at the opening of this debate. Clearly these new responsibilities will require an increase in the personnel and establishment of the Lord Chancellor's Department. As I said, it is not part of the Beeching recommendations, and certainly no part of the Government's plans, to build up a large administrative machine in the Lord Chancellor's office. Some increase is inevitable and has taken place already, but the whole of the detailed work of organising court business will take place not in the Lord Chancellor's office itself but in the six circuits into which the report proposes England and Wales should be divided. So there will not be any major change in the structure, the character, or duties of the Lord Chancellor's Department, but an extension of responsibilities which it has exercised for very long.
I was asked by the hon. and learned Member for Southport what was the relationship that would exist between the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Treasury and the Ministry of Public Building and Works. It will be the same as exists between other client Departments and those providing Departments where buildings and services are needed. Money will be provided on the Vote of the Minister of Public Building and Works. I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Member's sentiment that the Lord Chancellor's Department should not be responsible for the bricks and mortar and actual court accommodation but should retain its duties in regard to the administration of justice proper.
§ Sir D. Renton
We would all be interested to know to whom Questions should be addressed when it is suggested that new court buildings are required in any particular place. Would it be to a Law Officer in this place or to the Minister of Public Building and Works?
§ The Attorney-General
I should expect that a Question whether a new building could or should be set up ought to be directed to the Attorney-General as the spokesman in this House for the Lord Chancellor. I hate to admit it, but I think that is the case. If I were asked why there was an insufficiency of hygienic accommodation in a given court, I would expect that Question to go to the Minister 695 of Public Building and Works who is so expert in that field of human activity.
There was, I think, no doubt in the debate that hon. and right hon. Members were all disposed to agree with the view of the Beeching Commission which is expressed in regard to administration of the courts in these words:we are in no doubt that the present haphazard distribution of responsibility for different aspects of the courts between various Ministers and a great many local authorities, which is an accident of history rather than the outcome of design, is a prime cause of much of the present trouble.I apprehend from what I have heard in the debate that the House supports the principle that is the cornerstone of the Commission's recommendations; namely, the assumption of ministerial responsibility by the Lord Chancellor and the creation of a unified court service. I think the pattern of a circuit administrator to provide the administrative efficiency with the presiding judge establishing the clear control by the judiciary over the trials themselves and their conduct is an excellent pattern.
I was asked about the availability of accommodation in the courts in the Strand. We have looked very carefully into that, and increasing use has been made of those apparently empty courts. The difficulty in the way of making more Strand courts available for cases from the Old Bailey is that, unhappily, the Old Bailey cases are likely to last longer than the time for which the courts can be made available if there is to be room for divorce judges coming back from circuit to resume their activities in London.
I assure the House that we are giving most careful consideration to all these matters of increasing the use of available accommodation and judicial manpower.
I am grateful for the valuable contributions which have been made during the debate. I apologise if I have not answered all the matters which have been raised, but I assure the House that all that has been suggested will be considered most carefully in the months that lie ahead during the preparation and fulfilment of what will be one of the major changes in the reform of the administration of justice that the country has seen for more than 100 years.
§ Question put and agreed to.696
§ That this House welcomes the Report of the Royal Commission on Assizes and Quarter Sessions (Command Paper No. 4153).