HC Deb 25 July 1990 vol 177 cc610-1
Mr. Fraser

I beg to move amendment No. 90, in page 73, line 9, at end insert— '(1A) In section 5 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (matters subject to investigation), the following subsection shall be added at the end— (7) For the purposes of this section, matters concerning listing in the courts (except directions by a judge in an individual case) shall, notwithstanding paragraph 6A of Schedule 3, be taken to be administrative functions of the Lord Chancellor's Department or, in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Court Service.".'.

The reason for the amendment is almost self-evident. It is that the Parliamentary Commissioner would have jurisdiction to look at the listing of court cases except when that was done under the direction of a judge; so that if a judge directed a case to be heard on a particular day, that would be a matter of judicial decision. But other listing decisions would be administrative decisions and subject to the jurisdiction of and investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner. Since most of the complaints made by solicitors about the inefficiency of the courts relate to listing, this would be an effective remedy and provide an effective supervisory function to be exercised over the dispatch of justice. As the Government believe in efficiency and saving money, I hope that they will accept the amendment.

Mr. Temple-Morris

The reason for the amendment is indeed self-evident. This is a primary cause for complaint, and far from being a judical act, this is often a purely administrative one. As such, it should come within the purview of the Parliamentary Commissioner.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) has said. It is wrong that the privilege of the judges should be extended to cover a matter of this nature. If we had had a minister of justice who was accountable to the House, listing matters of this sort would never have been excluded from the purview of the Ombudsman in the first place.

The Solicitor-General

I must resist these amendments. There is a misunderstanding. It is easy to say that listing is a purely administrative function, but it is not accurate to say so. The intention of the clause as a whole is to allow the Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate the administrative acts of court staff—that is, actions necessary to carry on the administration of the courts—but to prevent him from investigating actions taken in support of the judiciary in the judicial process. The distinction is important, as is widely recognised, if the independence of the judiciary and the judicial process is to be preserved.

I am surprised that the amendment is being pressed by the Opposition because, although it is perfectly true that listing is usually performed by court staff, it is a function carried out on behalf of the judges and under their authority. That is an important matter of principle. If listing were not accepted as a judicial function, it would theoretically be open to the Executive to influence the outcome of cases, including those to which public authorities were a party. The Executive could do that by, for example, ensuring that cases were listed before judges known to be sympathetic to a particular point of view, or simply by delaying or by bringing forward the hearing of a case. There is a much more important underlying point of principle involved than is recognised. I must resist the amendment.

Mr. Fraser

If a solicitor is negligent, he pays the costs of the case. However, if a judge or his clerk are negligent, they do not pay the costs. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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