HL Deb 17 July 1972 vol 333 cc607-9

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Order standing in my name on the Order Paper. I think I can do so very briefly as this is a short Order. As those of your Lordships who have a copy in front of you will see, it is different in kind from the previous Order. It is, alas! stating the obvious to say that during the present conflict in Northern Ireland there has been a great increase in the number of persons appearing before the courts charged with indictable offences. I have some figures here should any noble Lords want them. This has placed a tremendous burden on the courts, and whilst various other measures have been taken in an attempt to meet this situation it is now necessary that additional sittings of the county court be constituted during what, in more normal circumstances, would be the summer vacation. That, in brief, is the purpose of this Order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the County Courts (Additional Sittings) (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, be approved.—(Lord Windlesham.)


My Lords, the advantage of taking several Orders together is that I can come back on the Minister's reply on the previous matter. He knows that I am not seeking to harass him. I take it that this is an Order which would not be called a legislative Order and that this could have been made as an Order under Northern Irish legislation. I realise that it is actually made under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act. At any rate, it is a genuine, bona-fide Order. I will therefore reserve my remarks in relation to the Acts until I come to the next Act of Parliament. Being unfamiliar with Northern Ireland, I was under the impression that county courts did not deal with criminal matters. Perhaps something has happened in England that I do not know about ; perhaps this has always been the case in Northern Ireland. I will sit down in a moment and maybe the noble Lord, Lord Wade, will be able to answer this point. I can only express regret, which everybody shares, that this Order should be necessary.


My Lords, I was not going to speak on this Motion ; but, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, I must say that I think something has happened in England.


My Lords, not only has something happened in England but the jurisdiction is quite different in Northern Ireland. Unlike what has traditionally been the situation in this country, where county court jurisdiction is civil and not criminal, the county courts in Ireland have a criminal jurisdiction. Under Section 8 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, a county court can try every offence except murder ; conspiring, inciting or attempting to commit murder ; and a small number of crimes such as offences against electoral law ; or treason. Therefore, what we are talking about are the courts which take a large part of the proceedings resulting from indictable crime in Northern Ireland. In addition there are the Belfast City Commission and the Assizes, and these Courts, too, have been meeting for exceptional periods. But they come under the control of the Lord Chief Justice. These higher Courts have been more or less in continuous session, I believe, for about six months. But to extend their sittings does not require an Order from the Secretary of State. In the case of the county courts an order is required.

As the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, surmised this is an Order in Council of an emergency nature. It was no part of the Government of Northern Ireland's legislative programme ; the situation could not have been forecast at that time. It is merely necessary, alas, due to circumstances, that the courts should sit in August and September.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I say that I am not sure that his answer was entirely on all fours with what the noble Lord, Lord Wade, said? Perhaps it was unfair to ask him to explain to me. I am well aware, of course, that there has been a major change here. At any rate, I gather that in Northern Ireland the county courts, unlike the county courts in the past in England, have always dealt with this matter.