HL Deb 27 November 1974 vol 354 cc1441-50

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Sheriffdoms Reorganisation Order 1974, laid before the House on October 12, be approved. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in the debate which has just ended, referred to the fact that when he first appeared as a bailie in Glasgow he felt naked. Coming to this second legal complication, I can assure him that I also feel very much like the Emperor who appeared without his clothes and was assured that he was very handsomely attired.

My Lords, the Order divides Scotland into six new sheriffdoms in place of the existing 12 sheriffdoms. It may be recalled that, during the consideration of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Bill in 1971, there was considerable discussion in another place whether part-time sheriffs principal should be superseded by whole-time sheriffs principal. The then Lord Advocate stated that, if experience showed that the only way in which the powers and responsibilities imposed on sheriffs principal could be properly exercised was to have full-time appointments, the Government would not hesitate to use the powers in the Bill to bring this situation about. Experience since that time is that part-time sheriffs principal, resident in Edinburgh and visiting their sheriffdoms only periodically, cannot undertake the level of local administration required by the more clearly defined duties and responsibilities placed on sheriffs principal by the 1971 Act. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in consultation with my right honourable and learned friend the Lord Advocate, has therefore decided that the time has now come when the efficient and speedy disposal of business in the sheriff courts throughout Scotland requires full-time sheriffs principal resident in their sheriffdoms, and that is really the nub of the changes proposed in this Order.

Your Lordships will also recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wheatley, drew attention in his Report on the reform of local government to the position of the sheriff courts in the light of his recommendations which, though not without material changes, were incorporated in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. These changes call for a reappraisal of sheriff court arrangements throughout Scotland in the first instance, and for a continuing high degree of local administration thereafter to cope with industrial changes and developments which affect population distribution, such as oil developments and New Towns, which in turn affect the weight of business falling to be dealt with in sheriff courts. The objective is to give to the people of Scotland whom the court exists to serve the more modern and efficient service in all aspects of its work which the Grant Report said Scotland badly needed and which it has not been found possible to achieve under the existing organisation.

Article 2 of the Order creates six new sheriffdoms. The decision to have six sheriffdoms and not five as was recommended by the Grant Committee was taken after a careful analysis of the situation, particularly in relation to the creation of the new local government setup and the need to produce manageable sheriffdoms keeping the right balance between administrative and judicial requirements. It has proved possible to create sheriffdoms that are broadly equivalent in certain respects; thus with the exception of Glasgow each sheriff principal will be responsible for an area that will require the appointment of about ten sheriffs; Glasgow will require about 15.

The Grampian, Highland and Islands sheriffdom, the Tayside Central and Fife sheriffdom and the Lothian and Borders sheriffdom each comprise entire local authority regions. Your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that it was considered impractical to have a single sheriffdom of Strathclyde. Your Lordships will recollect our debates on the reorganisation of local government in Scotland, and will not be surprised that I also think it would be quite impracticable to have one sheriff for that region. This would have meant a sheriffdom with a population of just under 3 million, much too large to be handled by a single individual as it is not possible to divide the Office of sheriff principal. To have isolated Glasgow alone as recommended by the Grant Committee would still have left a population of 1.7 million for the remainder of Strathclyde, and while this would not have been too inconsistent with the recommendations of the Grant Committee for that area, my right honourable friend takes the view that the administration of justice in the area would be much better served by the proposal to create three sheriffdoms. I cannot help adding, really quite wickedly, he gets awfully near the four regions some of us thought would have been good. Perhaps I should not be saying that now!

The combination of Glasgow and Strathkelvin takes account of local considerations; the district of Strathkelvin has no sheriff court within its boundaries and transport links clearly point to the Strathkelvin business being dealt with in Glasgow rather than at any other court. North Strathclyde comprises the area to the North and West of Glasgow down to and including Kilmarnock and Loudoun. The remainder of Strathclyde to the East and South of Glasgow is combined with the region of Dumfries and Galloway to form a sheriffdom. As I have said, it is believed that these six sheriffdoms represent six satisfactory units for administrative purposes. They have been proposed with a view to avoiding overlapping interests by the other organisations concerned with the work of the sheriff courts—police, social work services et cetera—and in the one instance where it has been necessary to divide a local authority region (that is, Strathclyde) we are advised that what is proposed will not cause administrative difficulty.

It is essential if sheriff courts are to be ready to operate efficiently in relation to new sheriff court districts on May 16, 1975, that the new whole-time sheriffs principal are in post from January 1, 1975, to undertake consultations with interested bodies with regard to the redefinition of sheriff court districts and the consequential detailed arrangements for the disposal of court business within these new districts. To permit this, it is necessary to define the new sheriffdoms first in relation to existing counties and sheriff court districts for the period from January 1, 1975, to May 16, 1975, and this is done in the second column of Schedule 1.

The sheriffdom boundaries for this period will not in all cases be identical with those after May 16, 1975, which are defined in relation to the new local authority regions, islands authorities and districts in column 3 of the Schedule, but the variations are relatively minor The sheriffdoms created at January 1, 1975, are comprised of existing sheriff court districts so that day-to-day business will continue to be discharged as at present. It is important to appreciate that, although for the reasons explained, it is necessary to create new sheriffdoms in this way, there will only be one change in sheriff court districts, and that change will take place on May 16, 1975, coincident with the defininition of new sheriffdoms in terms of the new local authority areas. The Order giving effect to court district alterations will be made at a later stage so that full account can be taken of the local consultations that will be undertaken by the new sheriffs principal.

Article 3 of the Order provides that existing sheriffs principal shall cease to hold office from January 1, 1975. For those who do not want or who are unsuccessful in obtaining appointments as full-time sheriffs principal, then under the powers contained in Section 2(3) of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971 the Secretary of State may, with the concurrence of the Minister for the Civil Service, pay such amount by way of compensation as is reasonable in all the circumstances, and this will be done.

The remaining provisions in Article 3 are consequential. Existing sheriffs and honorary sheriffs are automatically appointed to their new sheriffdoms. It is not because of the excellent support that I received from my noble friend Lord Wallace of Campsie to-day that that has been included. He will remain an honorary sheriff, but not because of his speech. Provisions is made for the continuance of commissary business and all references to sheriffs principal or sheriffs of existing sheriffdoms are to be construed as references to the sheriffs principal and sheriffs of the new sheriffdoms. Functions lawfully held by any person immediately before January 1, 1975—and this would include sheriff officers—are continued thereafter in the same areas and on the same terms as previously.

Articles 4 and 5 are transitional provisions and provide for the continuation in the same courts of any cases in progress on January 1, 1975, and for the allocation of cases arising before May 16, 1975, to either the appropriate old or the appropriate new court. If approved, the Order will come into operation on January 1, 1975. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Sheriffdoms Reorganisation Order, laid before the House on October 12, be approved.—(Lord Hughes.)

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord again for having introduced and explained this Order. The Secretary of State has been put in a very powerful position by the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971. If it is possible, I should like to know the extent of the appeal duties and also the purpose and extent of the new administrative duties of the new sheriffs principal. I know the Minister mentioned police and social work services, et cetera but that does not leave one with very much information. The Scottish Law Times has been, hinting at various duties which presumably have some foundation. Also, is it intended that the new sheriffs principal shall be judges at first instance, or not? The Minister has already answered the question I was going to ask about why the Grant recommendation of five principal sheriffdoms was not adhered to, and I am thankful. If the noble Lord cannot answer me now, I will be perfectly happy to await a letter from him.


My Lords, certainly at present the sheriff principal can be a judge at first instance. This has happened more so in the two cases where there are full-time sheriffs principal at the present time. It is not so much that there is to be a change of administrative duties; it is because of the way things are working out. It is now accepted that it is necessary for the sheriff principal to take a much stronger role in the administration of the sheriffdoms, seeing that things are working smoothly, to an extent which has proved perfectly satisfactory with the existing sheriff principal appointments. But where a part-time sheriff principal might be away for a long time on a planning inquiry, appearing as an advocate, for instance, it has not been possible for him to undertake the administrative duties in such a satisfactory way. It is not so much a question of a change but the opportunity to have the task carried out more effectively.

The other point is that the sheriff principal will of course be in exactly the same position. He will be a court of appeal as at the present time. What I think I did not make clear is that, as at present, he will hear criminal cases as a judge of first instance, but in civil appeals of course he will not; he is the court of appeal in that case. So the position is unchanged from the present.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord.


My Lords, I want to make only a very brief intervention. Having sat on the University Court of St. Andrew's for three years with the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, and with all due respect to my noble friend, the last description I would ever give to him is of being a bulldozer, of which he has been accused this afternoon. I think he has proved that in the conduct of the debate this afternoon.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, one point. I appreciate the extreme delicacy, as a member of the English Bar, of trying to tread in Scotland, but, like Agag, I shall tread delicately. Indeed, as an honorary sheriff, I fall due to be reorganised under paragraph 3(2). Still less would I try to say that anything about the English legal system is superior to Scotland's. The fact remains that the 12 sheriffdoms are to be reduced to 6; and as I understand it the sheriffs principal are to be full-time appointments. That apparently has the effect that there will be no opportunities for aspirants to the Scottish High Court bench to gain judicial experience.

The situation in England has been that either as recorders or, until recently, deputy chairmen of quarter sessions and now deputy circuit judges, members of the Bar have been able, as it were, to cut their teeth in criminal and indeed sometimes in civil matters before going on the High Court bench. Have the Government given this matter some consideration, bearing in mind that these are very large sheriffdoms? Could perhaps deputies on a part-time basis be appointed in the future if such a course proved desirable? I know that the Scottish Bar is tiny compared with that of England; indeed I believe that the numbers in Edinburgh are fewer than the Liverpool local Bar. Be that as it may, they have the same needs as their English counterpart, and I suggest that this is something which is worthy at least of consideration.


My Lords, I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, has made those points. It is of course right that the disadvantages of the proposals which the Government now put before the House should not be missed out altogether. The point which the noble Earl has made is of course a very real one, that there will be broken the contact between Parliament House and the sheriffs principal because in certain cases they will no longer be able to be in close contact with the evolution of law as it takes place in Parliament House. This is a disadvantage. The second point is that they will not be in the same position of being likely ever to be moved on to the Bench of court of session. That means, unless one is much mistaken, that you are likely to get people of not quite the same quality.

The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, is probably aware that when this matter was gone into by the late Lord Grant the distinguished Committee divided 8 to 6 as to whether the sheriff should be full-time or not, This shows that there is a sharp division of opinion among those who are fully qualified to examine this issue thoroughly. Great emphasis was laid on local administration, but those who administer the full-time sheriffs in the North of Scotland will not be capable of much administration. From Aberdeen to Stornoway is going to be an area which will take a lot of time for local administration. I ask the noble Lord whether this will not cost more, because you have to pay the sheriffs principal, full time, a very reasonable salary if they are men of the calibre expected. They are said to be resigning—in fact they will be kicked out at the end of next month. Have we any information about the terms of their appointment? Have we information on what their salary is going to be at that time?

As to the title Sheriff of South Strathclyde, Dumfries and Galloway, can we not get a shorter title? It is a terrible title by which to have to address somebody. My final point is that there really is no hurry about this matter and if ever there was a subject which was wholly suitable for a discussion by a Scottish Assembly it is this one. The present situation can continue perfectly well regardless of the changes in local government. If the noble Lord was shortly going to introduce a Bill for a local Assembly, this would be an admirable subject with which they could start their discussions.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, I confess I am a little mystified as to why the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, and the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, should feel that this change would stop recruitment and the opportunities of going to the bench. It does not mean that because a man accepts an appointment as a sheriff principal he is debarred from becoming a—


My Lords, the noble Lord has my point completely wrong. What I was asking the Government to do was to reconsider the present situation by which sheriffs principal who are part-time gain judicial experience in both the criminal and civil fields so that if they then go on the Scottish High Court bench they have, as it were, this experience tucked under their belt. If this reorganisation Order passes into effect, as I understand the position (and I hesitate to say this, but it has been put to me by a Scottish advocate) there will be no part-time judicial experience open to advocates in the future. This is nothing to do with becoming a judge; it is the opportunity of gaining experience as a judge before an appointment to the High Court bench.


My Lords, I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, had made two points but that the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, had made only the first one. I accepted that what he said about the advantage of contact within the faculty was one that would not be so closely available to those who were sheriffs principal under the new procedure. But there will be still possibilities because many members, particularly of the junior Bar, are appointed as temporary sheriffs and there is also the facility for appointment as temporary sheriff principal in Section 11 of the 1971 Act. So while there is obviously some element of what both noble Earls have said, they are not correct in assuming that there will be in fact a complete cut off of this contact. It is almost impossible in any change of this kind for anyone to say that all the advantages lie in the new system and that everything that is being done away with is a disadvantage. Obviously we lose certain advantages almost in any change that is made, and I must admit there is an element of what has been said in this case.

The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, asked me about the cost of it. The expected cost of these changes is of the order of an extra £20,000 a year on salaries. It is difficult to isolate other costs. Money will have to be spent on accommodation to take account of reorganisation, but this will be a small part of the cost of making very necessary improvement in court facilities generally. I did not find myself in agreement with the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, in his criticisms of the possibilities of administration being carried out by the sheriff in the very wide area. The administrative duties relate to the number of sheriff courts and to the number of sheriffs, and it must not be felt that this is multiplied because of the acreage or square mileage in which the sheriffs operate. There will be ten sheriffs (if I remember the figures which I quoted) there and elsewhere; and it seems to me that the administrative duties will be no greater.

So far as the salaries are concerned, the present salaries will obviously be a guide in the matter of the two full-time sheriffs principal who are in existence. These salaries are £10,400 to £11,200.

My Lords, I think that I have answered each of the points which has been raised and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, for the kindly recollections which he has of his old days in St. Andrews.

On Question, Motion agreed to.