HC Deb 20 October 2003 vol 411 cc470-7

16 The register having effect under section 73 of the County Courts Act 1984 (c. 28) immediately before section 98 comes into force shall be treated as part of the register required to be kept under section 98.'.—[Mr. Leslie.]

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

Remaining Government amendments agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

9.35 pm
Mr. Leslie

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all hon. Members for their participation in the debate, particularly the members of Standing Committee D, some of whom are still in the Chamber. I would like to put on record how grateful I am for their help in the passage of the Bill through the Committee. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs also gave the Bill close consideration in its first report, for which I am grateful.

The Courts Bill is a key part of the Government's overall aim to improve and modernise the criminal justice system. This Bill in particular contains a wide range of significant improvements to the entire justice system, to the work of the civil and family courts, and to the operation of the criminal courts. Courts are an institution central to the operation of our constitution, and are also integral to a fair and decent society. They need to be focused on good, just decision making, serving the interests of the public, of victims and of witnesses. We rely on the courts to deliver fair outcomes. We therefore have a duty to keep the courts efficient and effective in what they do. The new framework for the administration of the courts provided for in this Bill is a major reform that will create a more modern, more flexible institution, able to respond to local needs and changing circumstances, creating a unified courts administration that brings together in a new executive agency the magistrates courts, county courts and Crown courts. This will mean improved management and better use of resources.

The creation of courts boards will mean more reflective arrangements to replicate those within the community concerned with the input of the courts management, who will be able to look across the bigger picture. These arrangements will be better conceived than those for the magistrates courts committees. There will be new powers to improve safety and security in courthouses, with new court security officer posts being created. Proper arrangements for court inspection are also included in the Bill, as is a more appropriate structure for making court procedure rules and practice directions, along with new powers for the courts to impose costs on third parties for serious misconduct, and new powers for the civil courts to award damages as periodical payments, rather than simply in a lump sum.

Importantly, the Bill also contains new fine enforcement powers. Fine enforcement is a critical issue right now; we need to ensure that the courts have the power to enforce against those who are defaulting on their fines. The Bill also contains new collection order powers for the courts, powers to deduct from earnings and benefits, an ability to allow fines to be discharged by unpaid work, and new powers to pilot innovative collection measures.

All in all, the Bill signals important changes for the administration of justice, and I commend it to the House.

9.38 pm
Mr. Hawkins

I echo the Minister's thanks to the many people who have participated in the debates on the Bill—not only the members of the Standing Committee in this House but those who were involved in another place. I shall turn to what happened to the Bill in another place in a moment. I should also like to pay particular tribute to the Clerks who helped us on the Bill in Committee. Members of the Opposition parties are always particularly indebted to the Clerks for all their help with the tabling of amendments and discussions, and this Bill is no exception. I am sure that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) would agree that we have been particularly well served by the Clerk who helped this Bill's Committee.

The Bill had a long early stage in another place. Many of my noble friends played a big part in discussions there, including Baroness Anelay of St. Johns and Lord Hunt of Wirral to name but two. The battle was long. More than five months were spent on the Bill. The good news from the Conservative Benches was that during that time we persuaded the Government to accept a wide range of amendments and to make concessions. The combined Opposition forces inflicted defeats on the Government, who accepted some of those defeats with good grace—I see the Minister smiling at that—and accepted that we were right. Further welcome concessions have been made this evening on the Heath and Hawkins amendments, as we have called them. I shall certainly think back to tonight with pleasure when the first member of the Northern Ireland Bar becomes the Official Solicitor for Northern Ireland.

The Opposition led the campaign and won concessions from the Government on things that directly affect magistrates. We succeeded in establishing that the supplemental list should not be abolished, as the Government originally intended, and that justices' clerks should be assigned to local justice areas. We established the fact that there should be a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to consult lay magistrates on matters affecting them. We managed to ensure, at least in clause 30, that courts should be locally accessible. We wanted to hold the Lord Chancellor to account for the closure of more than 100 magistrates courts since the Government came to power. When we began the debate in Committee on 26 June 2003, I observed at column 26 that it was unfortunate that the Government had not put the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), an acknowledged expert and distinguished lay magistrate, on the Committee. I am delighted that he is in the Chamber. Perhaps he will favour us with some of the things he might have said in Committee had he been given the opportunity to do so.

We also established in another place that an assessment of the Lord Chancellor's performance should be included in the new annual report of the unified courts administration. We further established that if the Lord Chancellor wants to change the guidelines on how the courts boards operate, he must obtain parliamentary approval first. However, we remain concerned that some of the new provisions for courts boards were not initially in a form that won the confidence of the magistracy. It is fair to say that some of the concerns that we and the Liberal Democrats share about courts boards have been ventilated again tonight. The Government were defeated several times in another place on clauses 4 and 5. We wanted to ensure that courts boards have at least two magistrates as members and that if the Lord Chancellor rejected the advice of courts boards, he should give them his reasons for doing so. Those were but two of the defeats that the Government suffered in another place.

The Opposition are enormously indebted to the Magistrates Association and the Central Council of Magistrates Courts Committees for their advice throughout the Bill's proceedings. I have also been grateful for advice from bodies such as the Institute of Legal Executives, the Medical Protection Society, the Fleet Street Lawyers Society, the Newspaper Society and many others. Without the help that we get from such organisations, we would not achieve as much success as we do in another place and persuade the Government to accept the logic of our arguments.

I am still disappointed that the Bill does not protect the position of the lay magistracy enough, that there are insufficient safeguards to prevent yet further court closures, and that we have not achieved enough to stop the Government's agenda of moving to more and more batch processing of cases. We debated and divided on some of those issues this evening.

None the less, I believe that in many of its provisions—certainly those that were not contentious—the Bill will probably become a useful Act. I hope that, even though we have not been able to defeat the Government on all the issues relating to magistrates courts, we will find other means of defending the lay magistracy and preventing further court closures. We hope that, as the Bill has progressed toward the statute book, the Opposition have played some part in improving it substantially from the form in which it originally emerged in another place.

9.45 pm
Mr. Heath

The Bill's genesis lies in another era—an era when the soi-disant Cardinal Wolsey of our time sat secure on the Woolsack in his full-bottomed wig, when magistrates and large parts of the judiciary were desperately concerned about the contents of the Bill, when magistrates clerks felt that they were being given the short end of the stick, and when many people felt that the Government simply had no idea of how to deliver justice effectively and locally other than through a modernising, centralising, integrating process. The Bill has ended in the era of decaff, the era of new "justice lite".

In the process, the Bill has been improved by the attentions of my noble Friends and the noble Friends of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). It has been helped by the Government's interest in getting their legislation though and by their listening to some of the arguments—I give credit to the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs for having listened to some of our arguments and responded positively. The Bill has been improved because of the weight of opinion outside this place that has been brought to bear on its provisions. The Bill that leaves this House this evening is a much better Bill than the one that was introduced in another place many months ago.

I still have doubts about some of the provisions. We have won serious improvements, but I continue to doubt whether the Bill will deliver the level of accessibility that we want. I would have liked to have seen an explicit recognition of the need for the independence of the judiciary, as well as a better structure for the courts boards, especially those in London. However, I accept that the attentions of hon. Members on both sides of the House, both in Committee and during later stages, have improved the Bill.

None of us has ever quarrelled with the stated intention to provide for a unified court system that will serve the interests of justice and of our constituents better than the present system does. I think that we will achieve that—marginally. I wish that we could have gone further, but I am content that, as it leaves this House, the Bill is sufficiently workable to achieve some of its objectives.

I, too, thank all those who have been involved with the Bill. It has been a delight to work on it as a non-lawyer—a distinction I share with the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs. We sometimes felt outnumbered by the lawyers in Committee and elsewhere—

Mr. Hawkins


Mr. Heath

I am being intervened on by a lawyer, to whom I shall give way briefly.

Mr. Hawkins

Despite the fact that he is not a lawyer and I am, does the hon. Gentleman agree that he and I have in common a slight concern that, just as we approached Report stage and Third Reading, we both received letters from the Lord Chancellor saying that the Bill might be used in another place as a vehicle for yet further changes on criminal procedure rules, which—even though that dog did not bark tonight—did not suggest that the Government had necessarily finished tinkering?

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman is too modest. Far from finishing their tinkering, the Government had in mind wholesale disruption. However, they were dissuaded from that course of action by one simple fact—they could never get it through another place. The Bill would have returned to the Commons as sure as eggs is eggs, and it would have ping-ponged backwards and forwards—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) says that eggs do not ping-pong, but this one would have done so and destructive tendencies would have been displayed in the process.

Before I extend that metaphor any further, I will accept that it is time to call it a day. However, as I have said, we have established some base camps. Over the next few months, we will see the developing future of the judiciary and the Department, the development of a supreme court, the abolition of the Lord Chancellor and changes in judicial appointments. This is the biggest constitutional change in the judiciary for more than a century. It is essential that we get it right, so I make no bones about the fact that we will scrutinise the Department's next piece of legislation every bit as closely as we have the Bill, and we will make every attempt in, I hope, a constructive way, to make it better. However, if it does not do the job we will reject it either here or in another place.

9.51 pm
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) expressed regret that he is not a member of the large minority of professional lawyers in the House. Neither am I—I am a member of the even more reviled minority of accountants.

Mr. Heath

As a matter of record, I expressed no regrets whatsoever—it is a badge of honour.

David Taylor

I accept that clarification and correction, but I draw to the attention of the House the fact that I am a member of the Magistrates Association, and was a lay magistrate on the Ashby petty sessional division in the '80s and early '90s sitting at Coalville courthouse, and am now a member of the supplemental list of that bench.

Unifying the administrations of all the courts in England and Wales is a defining point in the history of the lay magistracy, and a watershed in the development of the judicial system. In future, magistrates will be welcomed as full partners in the judiciary—some may say that that is long overdue— and will share the same rules, guidance, guidelines, practice and procedures. The Bill introduces sweeping organisational changes to the court system in England and Wales, and many of its clauses relate to the lay magistracy. When it was first published, our concerns focused on the role and function of what were then called courts administration councils—now courts boards. The key matters about which the lay magistracy expressed concern included consultation with magistrates, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) mentioned; the size and number of local justice areas; the recruitment strategy for magistrates—I am not yet convinced that one exists that is worthy of that name; and supplemental lists, the future of which I am glad has been secured. The House will have heard me say that I am a member of such a list. The lay magistracy also had reservations about the grounds for removal of magistrates from the bench; the training of magistrates; and the roles and powers of justices' clerks and fines officers.

Amendments to the Bill in the House of Lords have fully met some concerns and improved the situation regarding others. However, there is great anxiety that none of those gains should he lost. The Government must keep certain matters under close review, and I shall give a small number of instances. In relation to the roles and functions of courts boards, for example, the unified administration of magistrates, crown and county courts naturally entailed the replacement of both magistrates courts committees and the Court Service. In their place, local management bodies with executive powers were needed. The original proposals for the court administration councils were quite unsatisfactory, as they were a hybrid of management and consultation. They appeared to be toothless talking shops with no local ownership and no ability to prioritise local requirements or reflect local needs. Magistrate membership of the CACs was minimal.

Although the Government remain firm about the courts boards' role being non-executive, amendments to the Bill have improved the situation and resulted in courts boards being given an effective role and the ability to make genuine decisions. We welcome that. The Bill now provides that at least two magistrates will be members of each courts board. I congratulate the Government on these changes, and all those in the House and in another place who brought about the changes through pressure.

Full executive power remains the preference of many magistrates, and any further strengthening of that role would be welcome. Any loss of the powers that have been gained would be disastrous.

The number of courts boards has yet to be decided, but account must be taken of the desirability of ensuring that their areas are coterminous with current police authorities. It is important that the number should not be lower than 42, the number of police authorities, in order to retain that vital local accountability and identity. I urge the Government to accept that figure and acknowledge the importance of that principle.

On consultation, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, after much pressure in this place and elsewhere, not least from Back Benchers, the Government have imposed a duty on the Lord Chancellor to consult lay justices on matters affecting them in the performance of their duties. It was disappointing that that was not in the original Bill, but its inclusion in it now is to be welcomed. This is a separate matter from the administration of the court, but it is vital for confidence in the system. It is a welcome restatement of the centrality of local people to local justice.

Frequently, at Question Time, Ministers restate their view of the importance of local people administering local justice to local people in local courthouses. Current bench areas are to be renamed local justice areas, and we have been assured that the boundaries of these will be the same as existing benches to begin with. Any changes thereafter will involve consultation, but I regret that there are no guarantees or safeguards against future rationalisation or centralisation.

The local justice areas must remain local. The greater distances already travelled following court closures and amalgamations are putting a strain on the court system and undermining local justice. Court closures have an enormous effect on a number of agencies and on the general public. The police have to spend more time coming to court for criminal matters. Youth offending teams, which are essential to the youth court, and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which is essential for family proceedings, lose links with their local courts. Those who have to attend as victims or witnesses suffer cost and inconvenience, and there is a greater risk that they will simply fail to appear.

Newspapers cover courts less frequently if they are more distant, and that weakens the deterrent effect of judicial hearings and penalties. Should there be yet more court closures, there would be a related negative impact on the recruitment and retention of magistrates. Clause 30, as we heard, specifies that the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the need to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area. The wording was rightly designed to cover both geographic and physical accessibility and is a crucial component of the Bill.

On justices' clerks, the relationship between justices' clerks and benches is of the highest importance. I am pleased to see that clause 27 retains a specific link by assigning a justices' clerk to specific local justice areas. It is a welcome addition to the original Bill, and it must be a central feature of the new system.

Finally, on fines officers, magistrates are broadly content with the new fines officers and the fines collection scheme. We are satisfied that the benches will retain judicial control, and that fines officers will be operating a scheme that has been agreed and imposed by a bench. Benches will also be able to retain a case, rather than make a collection order, if they think that is the proper course of action. The piloting of the collection scheme in order to test the efficacy of various options within it has met with wide support.

The unified administration recommended by Lord Justice Auld has great benefits for court users and for the magistracy. For court users, there will be a clear understanding of the court system, a commonality of procedures and processes, and a logical use of court buildings. There is potential for a further streamlining of transfer of cases between magistrates courts and Crown court, and between family proceedings courts and county courts.

For me, two key questions remain and I would like the Minister to address both. First, how will the unified administration of the courts affect the relationship between the magistracy and the higher judiciary? There is great potential for much more contact with the higher judiciary and vice versa, which can only improve a consistency of approach to judicial decision making. For magistrates courts, there is an existing special relationship with justices' clerks, who must be part of any judicial consultative group.

Secondly, is there an adequate number of justices? If not, what can we do to address that and how many will be required? Any new system of court administration will depend heavily on those foot soldiers of the whole process, the lay magistracy, so we must have the appropriate number in appropriate places who are appropriately trained and appropriately committed. However, the number of justices has decreased dramatically over the past few years. Now, the magistracy is approximately 3,000, or some 10 per cent., under strength.

We know that the Lord Chancellor's Department has a national recruitment strategy, but it has to be backed up with resources, particularly those aimed at encouraging employers to allow their magistrate employees time off work. Inability to have time off for bench duties is a huge disincentive to applying for the magistracy and the most common cause of resignations.

The Bill is a major step towards modernisation, transparency and justice for all. I support its core conclusions and its core clauses, and I believe that the improvements made to it enable it to be a measure that I can support. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.