HC Deb 12 December 1973 vol 866 cc569-78

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter which is of great importance to the efficient working of magistrates' courts throughout the country and to the Uxbridge Petty Sessional Division in particular. I refer to the acute shortage of court clerks, which is hampering the work of courts today to such an extent that in my constituency the number of courts has had to be reduced from four to three per day. In addition, Uxbridge court has had to sit on Saturdays to dispose of the work coming before it, which is particularly heavy, as it has to deal with all those cases arising from prosecutions connected with offences at London Airport.

The House will be aware that magistrates deal with the bulk of criminal cases, that only about two out of every 1,000 criminal prosecutions get beyond the magistrates' courts, and that in discharging their judicial duties lay magistrates are entitled to legal advice of a high order. A considerable proportion of the advice comes from court clerks, who are neither the clerks nor the deputy clerks, and are neither solicitors nor barristers. In practice, they emerge from the staff and their ability is based almost exclusively on experience. The few courses of instruction that exist for them are the result of the efforts of the National Association of Justices Clerks Assistants.

I have discovered that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has not yet prescribed the qualifications for a court clerk as he is enabled to do under Section 5(2) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1968. Although I believe that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary may now be genuinely anxious to press forward with arrangements for increasing the number of polytechnic courses available, I fear that he may have decided that it will be unwise to move further until he receives from the magistrates' courts committees an estimate, of the number of court clerks required. I am told that the whole question is now awaiting the appointment of the shadow magistrates' courts committees, who will be able to supply the answer to this question. As I understand the position, my right hon. Friend would then make firm rules prescribing the qualifications of court clerks, but the rules would not immediately become effective. It would be provided that they were to come into effect in 1980.

In concluding this debate, therefore, my hon. Friend may care to give the House some indication when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expects to prescribe these qualifications and to clarify the situation. A specified qualification for a court clerk would, of course, have to be a high one to be acceptable. The position of existing non-qualified court clerks would also have to be protected if magistrates' courts were to continue to function efficiently until newly qualified clerks began to enter the service. There would also be a need for a nationally organised recruitment and training scheme, a career structure, and salaries which compared favourably with competition from outside.

None of these desirable features exists at present. Even if such arrangements were miraculously to come into being forthwith it would be unlikely that a competent court clerk would emerge in less than three years. It is therefore quite clear that until proper recruitment and training schemes are available in the longer term the courts will be compelled to cope with an increasing amount of work with an inadequate complement of court clerks.

That situation is quite unacceptable. Urgent remedial action in the short term is therefore essential. The central problem is that the supply of court clerks has dried up because of the poor salary structure. In addition, the magisterial service does not offer career prospects which are attractive to the type of young man or woman it is hoped to recruit. There should be an attraction to persons wanting articles of clerkship to seek them with a solicitor justices' clerk. Many of them do so, but then find that their prospects compare unfavourably with opportunities in private practice. In 1971 there were 54 professionally qualified assistants in the magisterial service. Twenty-seven—exactly 50 per cent.—have left that service, and there can be little doubt that the service is therefore deteriorating and, with it, the standard of British justice of which we are so proud.

The only solution in the short term is for the courts to be able to offer realistic salaries and prospects to attract the right people. In addition, it is vital that the status of those involved in the administration of the criminal law is vastly improved. Status starts with public respect for the justices' clerk and it percolates down the chain of command to the junior court clerk. When justices' clerks' salaries are today little above those of assistant solicitors in private practice and junior clerks' salaries are below the national average wage it is hardly surprising that the younger man and woman with ability and a desire to enter public service are disinclined to do so. I therefore ask my hon. and learned Friend to consider whether he can take action now to ensure that this once proud and efficient service is restored to its rightful place in society, so that the administration of the criminal law may once again be as efficient as the public expect it to be.

I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip—North-wood (Mr. Crowder) wishes to speak, and I shall finish now, to give him a chance to do so. However, I must explain that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), who is unfortunately unable to be here tonight, has asked me to say that he wishes to be associated with my remarks.

11.38 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I had a word with the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson) on this subject. It is not a political matter. The hon. Member is a member of the Bar and I think I can say on his behalf, having discussed the matter with him, that in general terms he would agree with the few brief remarks I have to put.

I believe that this is both a general and a local problem. It is a local one in so far as it affects the difficulties which have to be resolved by the Middlesex Courts Committee. I assume that salaries are dealt with through a well-established negotiating machinery and that the special difficulties in London will be pursued through those channels.

Perhaps, apart from that, something may be done in London by the magistrates' courts committees collectively—perhaps, with Home Office help, to encourage the recruitment of school leavers. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will be able to comment on that. For 14 years I have had the honour and privilege to sit as a deputy chairman or chairman of quarter sessions, or as a recorder, but always with a magistrate. Magistrates do their work for nothing. One can have nothing but admiration for the selfless and conscientious work they devote to justice in this country. But when they sit with me in the Crown courts or quarter sessions—always a different one every time—they say, "We are very fortunate in our clerk. He is so helpful and conscientious in every way that we could not do our job without his assistance."

If one were to ask a foreigner what he admired about this country, probably his first answer would be the monarchy and his second the majesty of the law and the administration of justice. It is something of which we are all justly proud and to which the whole world looks up. It is also something for which the public pays the very least. Enormous sums are paid over in fines every day, not only in magistrates' courts but in Crown courts. I do not know the figures, but the country seems to be getting something of which it is justly proud for practically nothing.

Under Section 1 of the 1967 Act, under which matters are committed from magistrates' courts to Crown courts without depositions being taken or evidence heard, a great responsibility naturally falls upon the clerks in giving advice. The evidence is read over and the magistrates do not have the opportunity of deciding not to commit. They rely on the clerk. If he bears such responsibility, he should be properly paid.

I believe that, as things go on, a higher qualification should be required of clerks, but they should be paid accordingly. Far from saving money and time, Section 1 of the 1967 Act has wasted more time and money than perhaps any other measure that has come before the House. Some cases that now come before Crown courts would never have arrived there but for that section. Therefore, a great responsibility rests upon the clerk who has to give advice. If the British people wish to maintain our system of justice and their pride in it, they should pay for it.

11.43 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) have raised the important issue of the status and salary of court clerks. I appreciate what they Have said about the importance of this position in magistrates' courts, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge slightly exaggerated. I think that the figure for cases tried in magistrates' courts as opposed to higher courts is not 998 out of 1,000 but 98 out of 100.

I am aware of the overall problem, and particularly the problem of vacancies among positions for court clerks in the magistrates' court at Uxbridge, which has heavy lists and which has had to change and curtail sittings because of this shortage.

The term "court clerk" is a description of a function and not of a grade of individual. It defines those who do the important job of regularly advising magistrates on the law, taking a note of the proceedings, recording the decision of the court and generally supervising its running. I do not think any of us doubts that the efficient running of a magistrates' court depends to a large degree on the efficiency of its court clerks.

When we talk of court clerks we refer to the justices' clerk, the deputy justices' clerk and the justices' clerks' assistants who sit and act in the court as clerk of the court. Each petty sessional division has its own justices' clerk, although an individual clerk may be responsible for more than one petty sessional division.

Earlier this year, outside the inner London area there were 275 full-time justices' clerks and 152 part-time justices' clerks, all of whom qualified under the provisions of Section 20 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1949, the qualifications being that they should be either barristers or solicitors, or should have had not less than 10 years' experience sitting as clerks prior to 1st January 1960.

In practice, the vast majority of justices' clerks are solicitors. Almost all the part-time justices' clerks are solicitors in private practice. They are appointed by the magistrates' court committee, which also fixes their salary. They have a joint negotiating committee for the fixing of salaries, which are related to those of senior officers of local authorities and to the population of the area the court serves. As I understand it, there are enough qualified justices' clerks available.

In addition to the justices' clerk himself these are the people referred to by my hon. Friend. In each of the larger petty sessional divisions, with the additional volume and complexity of the work they have to do, most of them are responsible for several courts at the same time. It is therefore necessary to have not only the justices' clerks' assistants but clerks of the individual courts affected, either as deputy justices' clerks or taken from the ranks of the justices' clerks themselves. The degree of responsibility varies greatly from place to place in which they may sit.

The size of the establishment of staff in any petty sessional division is decided by the magistrates' court committee, which is also responsible for the grading of the justices' clerk's assistants. Sitting in the magistrates' courts today, as well as the justices' clerks there are about 254 deputy justices' clerks and about 350 justices' clerks' assistants who act as court clerks. They must be looked upon in relation to the total staff of the magistrates' courts, which is about 4,000. In view of what my hon. Friend has said, I make it clear that no single petty sessional division has complained direct to the Home Office that it has been unable to staff its courts.

Having said that, I nevertheless realise that Uxbridge has been in difficulty and has written to the Lord Chancellor about it. I realise that in several other areas there is difficulty in recruiting adequate suitable staff, and that concern has been expressed, as my hon. Friend has said, at the fact that many legally qualified assistants are leaving to go into private practice. The justices' clerk's assistant, sitting as a court clerk, needs no professional legal qualification, as such. Some are solicitors, some are barristers, some are articled to the justices' clerk, and some are reading for the Bar.

I fully realise the force of what my hon. Friend has said about the necessary and appropriate desire to have a higher proportion of qualified people sitting as court clerks. Originally a justices' clerks' assistant acquired his knowledge by practical experience in day-to-day work. Some years ago the National Association of Justices' Clerks' Assistants, together with the Justices' Clerks Society, set up a diploma course in magisterial law. In 1968 the Home Office set up a training committee comprising representatives of all the various bodies concerned to formulate advice on training.

It was agreed from the outset that the primary need was to provide specialised training for the assistant called upon to act as a court clerk. Accordingly, a training course was set up for them, first—in 1968—at Manchester Polytechnic and subsequently, and in addition, at Bristol. These two courses provide, in all, about 50 places a year. The course lasts for a total of three years. Each year the students spend six weeks in residential training, which they have to supplement by home study. The syllabus for these courses is designed to combine instruction in the law—with special emphasis on criminal law—with practical training. As the polytechnics are of university standard a high standard is achieved, and discussions are going on about the possibility of successful completion of the examination at the end of the course providing exemption from some subjects of the common entrance examination to both branches of the legal profession, now being considered by the Cross Committee.

I fully accept what my hon. Friend said about the importance of training and of courses of this nature in providing adequate status for those who wish to become clerks in our magistrates' courts. I assure my hon. Friend that it is the ultimate intention to use the power of the Justices of the Peace Act 1968 to prescribe that assistants acting as court clerks shall have completed an approved course on the lines of those now being operated by the polytechnics, unless they are in other ways qualified, by being already barristers or solicitors or people with long experience. It would obviously not be practical to do this and to prescribe the powers until a sufficient number of court clerks have been trained to meet the various needs.

I cannot say when that time will come, but I understand that the National Association of Justices' Clerks' Assistants raised this matter at a recent meeting. It was agreed with the Home Office that further consideration of these proposals should be deferred until the new year, when there will be further time to consider them. It is hoped that the prescription of qualifications will be accomplished over the next few years.

My hon. Friend also mentioned salaries. I appreciate that, as in all other walks of life, the salary scale is important. Salary scales for all justices' clerks' assistants are negotiated by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Justices' Clerks' Assistants, which consists of representatives of the magistrates' courts committees, the empolyers—the local authorities, which are the paying bodies—and the National Association of Justices' Clerks' Assistants. The Home Office is not represented on the committee and consequently does not and cannot take any initiative in questions relating to salaries.

The last assistants' salary round was negotiated in October last year, when they received an increase, operative from 1st July 1973, within the prevailing limits of the Government's counter-inflationary policy of £1 plus 4 per cent. I understand that the salary scales agreed at that negotiation committee for justices' clerks' assistants relate to various clerical and executive grades in local authority service.

I realise that, as with other public services, there are special difficulties in recruitment, especially in the London area. One way of assisting recruitment may be to award an increase in the London weighting allowance, which is allowed within the terms of stage 3. At present it is based on the allowance paid in the local authority field. The National and Local Government Officers' Association is negotiating for an increase in the London allowance. If an increase is granted, a corresponding increase could be negotiated for justices' clerks' assistants.

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-North-wood (Mr. Crowder) that recruitment is of importance. Justices' clerks' assistants are appointed by the magistrates' courts committee concerned. They are under the direct control of the individual justices' clerk to whom they are assigned, and recruiting is conducted locally. It has not hitherto been thought necessary to undertake special recruitment measures. Nevertheless, activities on the lines suggested by my hon. and learned Friend—approach to school leavers and assistance from the Home Office—could be extended if there is a demand by magistrates' courts committees for assistance, as has been suggested to the Middlesex Magistrates' Courts Committee during consultations following concern about the position in Uxbridge.

I hope that we can look at this question from a wider viewpoint, if that is demanded. I have no doubt of the importance of the justices' clerks' assistant. Competent clerks of courts are a necessary part of the English legal system. We must not forget the training that they obtain through experience. Nevertheless, like my hon. Friend, I should like to see a higher status for these court clerks brought about by the provision of training on a more central basis.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.