HL Deb 13 May 1975 vol 360 cc687-91

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Draft Administration of Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, laid before the House on 8th May, be approved. There have in recent years been three major Reports upon the organisation and jurisdiction of courts in Northern Ireland. While the Draft Order which is before you today does not purport to implement all, or even the majority, of the wide-ranging recommendations made in those Reports of three Committees—which sat under the chairmanship of Lord MacDermott, the present Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland and Lord Justice Jones respectively—it will none the less give effect to some of their most significant recommendations. It also contains certain other requisite amendments of existing legislation governing the administration of justice in Northern Ireland: of this latter category of amendments the most important is undoubtedly the increase in the number of Lords Justices of Appeal in Northern Ireland for which provision is made in Article 3.

Since its creation in 1920 Her Majesty's Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland has been comprised of two Lords Justices and the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland: in 1968 the number of puisne judges in Northern Ireland was increased from two to five, but no provision was then made for adding to the strength of the Court of Appeal. Although the provisions of Section 5(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1962 enable former judges of that Court and judges of the High Court, at any time, at the request of the Lord Chief Justice, to sit and act as judges of the Court of Appeal, it is desirable that the permanent strength of that Court should be sufficient to ensure that out of a court of three no more than one member should be acting in a temporary capacity. Accordingly, with the increased commitments of the permanent members of the Court of Appeal, both in criminal and civil proceedings at first instance and, in particular, with the increased administrative commitments of the Lord Chief Justice, it is now necessary to increase the permanent membership of the Court, and Article 3 makes the necessary provision.

I am sure that your Lordships will appreciate the need for early implementation of this provision at a time when Sir Robert Lowry, the present Lord Chief Justice, is beginning his chairmanship of the Northern Ireland Convention. I think it would be the wish of your Lordships' House to wish him every success in this very difficult job he has taken on. I have every reason to suppose that both last night and today he has been following our affairs with interest.

Turning to the remaining provisions of the Order, may I draw to your attention Articles 4 and 5 which, in amending and consolidating several existing provisions relating to assizes in Northern Ireland, go a considerable way towards implementing a recommendation of the Jones Committee that a system of Crown Courts should be established in Northern Ireland. The creation of a Crown Court system in Northern Ireland would involve the redefinition of the role of judges both of the Supreme Court and of the county court and a major reallocation of their jurisdiction and functions: as such it would require legislation of greater scope and complexity than may appropriately be included in an Order in Council at this time. The provisions of Articles 4 and 5 will, however, permit greater flexibility in the arrangement of assize business and the involvement of county court judges in the work of assizes. Thus many of the organisational and structural advantages of a Crown Court system will be achieved while preserving the most familiar features of the existing assize system until a comprehensive review has been completed.

A relatively minor, but important, provision of law reform is achieved in Article 6, which renders of no effect any provision of an enactment of the Northern Ireland Legislature which excludes the powers of the High Court to exercise its supervisory jurisdiction by making orders of certiorari and mandamus. This Article also consolidates the relevant provisions of the Tribunals and Inquiries Act 1971 in relation to Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament which apply to Northern Ireland. Powers relating to the appointment of county court judges and resident magistrates in Northern Ireland now vest in my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, and the provisions of Article 7 will transfer from the Secretary of State to the Lord Chancellor other powers closely related to those of appointment—namely, the assignment of county court judges and resident magistrates to divisions and districts.

Both the Interim Report of the Lowry Committee and the Report of the Jones Committee recommended an increase in the monetary limit of the general civil jurisdiction of the county court in Northern Ireland, which was fixed in 1955 at £300. In view of the depreciation in the value of the pound since 1955 and of the recent increases in the corresponding jurisdiction in England and Wales, this figure is now totally unrealistic, and accordingly the provisions of Article 8 and Schedule 1 will increase it from £300 to £1,000. This will bring the monetary limits of the general civil jurisdiction of the county court in Northern Ireland into line with the corresponding limits of jurisdiction in England and Wales which was the objective recommended by the Jones Committee which reported at a time when the limit of jurisdiction in England and Wales was fixed at £750 and thus recommended £750 rather than £1,000—which is now the relevant figure. Corresponding increases are made in relation to other jurisdiction of the county court.

In the light of this increase in the county courts' civil jurisdiction, provision is made, in Article 10, for an increase in the monetary limits of jurisdiction of courts of summary jurisdiction in debt and ejectment proceedings. Article 11 provides that, as in England and Wales, the Lord Chancellor may designate one justice of the peace for each county and county borough to be keeper of the rolls for that county or county borough. Keepers of the rolls will exercise the functions formerly exercised by the custodes rotulorum, the principal of which is to maintain a list of justices of the peace for their area. In the context of justices of the peace, I must add that a further recommendation of the Jones Report is implemented by Article 12, which will enable clerks of petty session to exercise the statutory functions of justices of the peace in relation to the signing of summonses.

My Lords, as you have heard, this Order comprises a miscellany of amendments of existing Northern Ireland legislation, some of which are closely interrelated and others of which are independent of the rest. All the amendments have, however, an important factor in common, for all are designed to ensure the efficient and expeditious administration of justice in Northern Ireland. As such, I commend them to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Administration of Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 1975, laid before the Mouse on 8th May, be approved.—(Lord Donaldson of Kings-bridge.)


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his explanation of this comparatively complicated Order. I have no questions to ask the noble Lord, but may I take the opportunity of the introduction of this Order to pay tribute from this side of the House to those who are involved in the administration of justice in Northern Ireland, whether it be in petty sessions, the county court, or the High Court or Court of Appeal. Their work is difficult and sometimes dangerous, and they are owed a debt by those who believe that the administration of justice in Northern Ireland is well carried out. May I also echo what the noble Lord said: the very best of good fortune to Sir Robert Lowry in the responsibilities which now lie ahead of him.


My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's reception of the Order.