HC Deb 05 March 1979 vol 963 cc902-4
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland, bearing in mind that justice in Scotland has been suspended indefinitely in the Court of Session, the High Court of Justiciary and most sheriff courts as a result of industrial action by clerks of court, whether he will introduce emergency legislation to deal with summary criminal cases and civil cases, for example, actions for personal injuries which may be affected by time-barred prescription.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Brace Millan)

I regret to say that since 23 February the Court of Session, the High Court of Justiciary and the majority of the sheriff courts have been seriously affected by industrial action taken by members of the Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association.

The Lord President of the Court of Session has made rules of court suspending normal sittings in these courts, except for certain categories of business, and also suspending procedural time limits laid down by the courts. Under the arrangements made, all courts are dealing with very urgent matters, for example, interim interdicts and committals of persons charged with serious offences. Moreover, some sheriff courts are able to deal with other matters.

I recognise that the position is serious and unsatisfactory and, along with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, I am keeping the whole situation under continuing review to see what further measures, including emergency legislation, may be required.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that under section 23 of the Summary Jurisdiction (Scotland) Act 1954 all summary criminal cases must be brought within six months? If the right hon. Gentleman does not introduce emergency legislation, many persons who are charged with crimes in Scotland will have cause for great rejoicing. They may never appear in court. That is most unsatisfactory for the rule of law.

Mr. Millan

The Acts of Adjournal deal with these and similar matters. We are containing the present situation, but I have not ruled out legislation.

Mr. Dalyell

I recognise the delicate situation in the courts, but how long does the suspension of time limits last?

Mr. Millan

I do not think that a limit has been imposed. We have suspended the sittings so that the time limits do not apply.

Mr. Henderson

Following that new version of the West Lothian question, will the Secretary of State consider civil as well as criminal cases? People may be time-barred from bringing an action if it is not launched within a specific period. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that there are sufficient arrangements to protect people's rights?

Mr. Millan

For normal cases the Acts of Sederunt that have been made by the Lord President of the Court of Session deal with the immediate situation. I appreciate that a number of cases may become time-barred and require legislation. If legislation were introduced, it would have to be retrospective, so that no one would fall outside such powers.

Mr. Monro

The Secretary of State does not appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Law and order have ceased to function in Scotland. Will the right hon. Gentleman introduce legislation this week? He has given no indication of the time scale. The matter should not be allowed to drift on week by week.

Mr. Millan

I have no intention of allowing matters to drift on, but I do not think that I shall be able to introduce legislation this week.

Mr. Failbairn

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that fundamental constitutional rights are being denied to the citizens of Scotland? It is nonsense to say that the Acts of Adjournal deal with statutory summary rights. Only emergency legislation by the Government can do that. It is a most serious constitutional matter. Does the Secretary of State also appreciate that I wrote to the Prime Minister on 26 February asking him to take it up at that level? I have not even had the civility of a reply.

Mr. Millan

What I said previously applies. If there are gaps that require to be dealt with by legislation rather than by further Acts of Adjournal, I shall consider them. I wish to ensure that no one charged with a criminal offence slips through the net because of the present situation.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Does the Secretary of State agree that the disruption of courts and of justice in Scotland is of the utmost constitutional gravity? Will he give a clear assurance that there is no possibility of an accused person being released and not being brought to trial? Secondly, when will there be emergency legislation? Thirdly, what steps are being taken to resolve this desperately serious situation?

Mr. Millan

I am open to suggestions on the hon. Gentleman's last point, but so far there have been none. The situation in the courts is part of a larger dispute involving two of the Civil Service unions. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should simply give in to the demands of the unions. I hope not.

I can give the assurance on the general position that the hon. Gentleman asked for. He will appreciate that that is dependent on a number of petitions that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate has made to the courts in Scotland. I assume that if further petitions are necessary these will come forward, and I must assume that the courts will grant them. But these are individual cases to be decided by the courts rather than the Government.

Mr. Taylor

In the absence of a settlement, when will emergency legislation be required?

Mr. Millan

I said that I was keeping that question under continuing review. I am not prepared to give a time for emergency legislation, should that prove necessary.

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