HC Deb 19 January 1998 vol 304 cc685-6
34. Mr. Barnes

If he will make a statement on his Department's guidance to judges in relation to disability issues. [21478]

Mr. Hoon

The Judicial Studies Board has an advisory committee whose responsibilities were recently extended to cover all aspects of equal treatment training, including training on disability issues. The committee will be considering guidance for members of the judiciary on disability questions.

Mr. Barnes

Does my hon. Friend share my concern and that expressed by organisations such as the Derbyshire Coalition of Disabled People about the case of Mary Nevin, who asked to use an alphabet board in court because she suffers from multiple sclerosis but was refused permission by a judge? Will that decision be changed in the future so that disabled people are not discriminated against in court? Will the rules on accessibility of evidence be altered to overcome that problem?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend has been in correspondence with the Lord Chancellor's Department about that case. It is obviously not appropriate for me to comment on its details, but I emphasise that it does not set a precedent—each case must be considered on its merits.

I am encouraging members of the judiciary to be acutely sensitive to the needs of disabled people. The equal opportunities training of the judiciary will include that on disability to assist them to act sympathetically in a manner that will not impair their impartial role in the operation of the court.

Mr. Clappison

What the Minister says about making the judiciary acutely sensitive to the needs of the disabled will be welcomed throughout the House. Does he agree, however, that that requirement should be carefully circumscribed? What does he make of the comments made by one of his Department's officials who, speaking at a conference in Cambridge at the weekend, raised the possibility of greater investigation of the political background of judges and the evolution of the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords into something like the Supreme Court"?

Mr. Hoon

I am not aware of those comments, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his general support for the matters raised in the question. As I said earlier, it is important that, whatever is the response of particular judges to the disabled, that should not impair their impartial role in the operation of the court. In response to his further observations, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that information is already gathered about the political sympathies of an important element of the judiciary—magistrates.