HL Deb 28 July 1986 vol 479 cc630-4

7.39 p.m.

Lord Lyell rose to move. That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order will introduce a miscellaneous batch of measures in the field of criminal justice and criminal law which, in the following ways, will either strengthen or clarify the existing law in Northern Ireland or bring it into line with some recent changes in England and Wales. Articles 3 and 4 together with Schedules 1 and 3 of the order alter the method of trial for some offences which, at the moment, may only be tried on indictment by the Crown Court. Related changes have already been made in England and Wales whereby the method of trial for corresponding offences was altered so that they may, in certain circumstances, be tried summarily by a magistrates' court and so relieve the Crown Court of some of the less serious cases.

If we glance at Article 5, we find that this will principally remedy a defect in the present law by ensuring that neither a suspended young ofrenders centre order nor a committal order for non-payment of a fine causes a training school order to be ineffective.

Article 6 makes some changes, in line with England and Wales, to the law which requires a convicted person to compensate his victim, enabling compensation orders to be made instead of, as against in addition to, any other penalty and also gives priority to the payment of compensation over any fine that may also be imposed.

Article 7 provides for custodial remands of up to 28 days' duration. This article simply increases from the existing maximum of 14 days to a new maximum of 28 days the period for which a person may be remanded in custody where—and I stress this—both the accused and prosecution consent to an extended remand period.

Articles 8 and 9 make minor technical changes. Article 8 clarifies that a prisoner may be removed to a hospital for medical investigation or observation as well as for medical or surgical treatment. Article 9 makes a minor, consequential repeal to the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 arising from the provisions of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981.

Article 10 contains one of the order's more important provisions. We hope that in Article 10 we shall be able to offer the prospect of a quicker and more effective remedy to injured parties in Northern Ireland who have been deprived of the use and the possession of residential premises by other persons. In normal speech these other persons are sometimes referred to as "squatters". Article 10 re-enacts with certain amendments the present Northern Ireland law (which has been in force since 1946) obviously not with the intention of exacerbating or contributing to the problem of homelessness—which we hope it will not do—but with the aim of generally strengthening the law so that the existing court process is speeded up and a more deterrent maximum penalty is available to the courts in appropriate circumstances.

Article 11, if coupled with Schedule 4, provides for amendments to certain provisions of the Northern Ireland food and drugs legislation to bring the law relating to penalties, the method of trial and time limits for prosecutions generally into line with that which now applies in England and Wales.

If I may briefly run over Article 12, this contains the customary restrictions applicable to the operation of new legislation. Article 13 makes consequential amendments to the Northern Ireland legislation arising from this order and from earlier legislation.

I indicated when I began my remarks a few moments ago, and I hope it has been illustrated by my brief journey through the provisions of this order, that it deals with a miscellany of items, any one of which may be regarded as being useful in its own right to the administration of criminal justice and criminal law in Northern Ireland. It is in that spirit that I commend the order to your Lordships this evening. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th June be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, unlike the road races order many of the articles of this order bring the criminal law of Northern Ireland into line with the provisions of the criminal law of England and Wales. I note, however, that it has taken almost nine years to the day to assimilate some of the provisions of the criminal law of England and Wales. One wonders whether such a delay is justifiable.

However, in general we welcome the order which contains, as the Minister has said, a number of miscellaneous provisions in the criminal law field. We welcome in particular the amendments which were made following consultations with interested parties to the original proposal for an order published in July last year. I must say, in fairness, that the department has listened to the objections and reservations expressed during the consultative procedure. This we very much welcome.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will convey to his honourable friend Mr. Nicholas Scott, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, our appreciation of his letter of 13th June, explaining the amendments which had been made to the original draft order. We welcome the redistribution of business between the Crown Court and magistrates' court. This should lead to a reduction of the number of cases coming before the Crown Court.

Again, the amendments to the compensation orders for any personal injury, loss or damage suffered or sustained by victims of crime are entirely to be welcomed. The compensation order is a worthwhile remedy for the victims of violence because it can be applied so quickly and so cheaply. We therefore welcome the amendments which are proposed in Article 6.

The important article, Article 10, deals with wrongful taking possession of premises. It does so by creating a new criminal offence. That is why it is so important. As the Minister has explained, we are dealing here with the old problem of squatting. Concern has been expressed that squatting has by this order been made a criminal offence. Nevertheless, we give the order our support. We would have been in much greater difficulty with this article had the original draft order not been amended to remove the retrospective application of the new offence from cases where the original entry had taken place before the operative date of the order.

Article 10 is not in substitution for civil remedy, but it should provide quick and simple machinery for repossessing a property from a squatter. We note that the word "premises" in the article is defined to mean a, building … designed or adapted for residential purposes", and, any land adjacent to such a building". The order is not therefore confined to a residential building. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the offence is committed not merely when a person occupies a piece of land such as a garden used in conjunction with a residential building, but also when he occupies a field which happens to adjoin residential premises. Perhaps the Minister can clarify that point.

Concern has been expressed about Article 7 which allows a magistrates' court to remand an accused person in custody for 28 days with his consent. We can see what lies behind the article. It will lead to a saving of time of the court and the time of police and prison officers. However, there is anxiety that the extension of the remand period to 28 days could lead to a casual attitude to the needs of justice. Ideally, we would want to be assured that in practice the 28 days' extension will always be based on the genuine consent of the person held in custody; but I do not believe that this assurance can validly be given in the real world.

Article 13, which is the last article in the order—and I am not sure whether the Minister touched on this article—corrects a number of minor or textual errors in the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, and the Fines and Penalties (Northern Ireland) Order 1984. We are told that they are textual or minor errors. But one is left with this uneasy thought. Would these errors have occurred if these two orders had been subject to a clause by clause, line by line, almost word by word scrutiny which is given to Bills relating to England, Wales and Scotland? Maybe the textual correction in the last article of the order is a timely reminder of the inadequacy of Orders in Council. So, notwithstanding that worrying thought, we on these Benches give the order our blessing.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. for introducing this second order. I think we are all agreed that the order should not now, as it originally did, make squatting an offence retrospectively. At the same time, there certainly should be means of repossessing residential premises that have been wrongly occupied. I believe that the situation in the province will be brought into line with practice in England and Wales, and that that is sensible, so far as it is practicable.

I should like to ask the Minister just one question. My honourable friend Mr. Meadowcroft asked in the debate on this order in the other place whether the time spent on remand would be reduced. The reply from the Government (at col. 418 of the Official Report of 10th July) was that, the Lord Chancellor has sought both the appointment of extra judges in the High Court and in the county court in Northern Ireland, and the appointment of a substantial extra number of Queens Counsel in Northern Ireland to alleviate trial delays.'". We on these Benches have strongly expressed the view that the delays are much too long. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has been said to be seeking extra appointments—and I believe there has been comment on this in the press—but has his search met with success? With that query, we support this order.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, once again we are very grateful for the scrutiny of this order by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. I shall pass on his kind words to my honourable friend the Member for Chelsea, whose name and picture your Lordships may have seen recently in the newspapers. He has beaten the record of service of the noble Lord's honourable friend, and. indeed, my honourable friend is well into his fifth year, and very close to his sixth year, of service in the Province.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Great stuff!

Lord Lyell

My Lords, there is hope for all of us, possibly even for myself. I hope that I shall be given the time and the opportunity to continue this service. But certainly I shall pass on the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies.

The noble Lord made a considerable case over Article 10 and what I referred to as squatting. He asked me whether, in the definition, the land would include a field beside a house. I am advised that only land which is adjacent to a building—and is used in connection with the building—would be covered by the definition in Article 10(8). Fields adjacent to a house and not used in connection with the building would not be covered. I would not want to get into an argument as to whether land for cattle grazing—and I am a farmer—would be used in connection with the building. Perhaps an owner's ponies grazing would have a close connection with the house. We had better not go too far down that path this evening. If I find any further details, I shall certainly be in touch with the noble Lord again.

The noble Lord was worried about the retrospective aspect of Article 10. I am given to understand that Article 10 will not be retrospective, and that any matter under the order before us tonight will have to occur after it comes into effect. So if there are any matters that are dragging on, they will continue under the old legislation and Article 10 will only bite after this order comes into effect.

The noble Lord also raised the question of a delay of nine years in the order before us this evening. We agree with the noble Lord that a lengthy delay is regrettable, but we want to stress that we had to find a suitable vehicle for this miscellany of legal provisions, and there certainly is not always a straightforward means of correcting these little lucanae in the law in Northern Ireland. I accept the noble Lord's observations on Article 13, and the errors which were not noticed until now.

The noble Lord raised one more question about genuine consent. He hoped that consent under Article 7 would indeed be genuine. I hope the noble Lord will accept that any attempt at pressure from the prosecution to increase the period on remand from 14 to 28 days would be apparent in the open court, and we consider that any member of the judiciary would be a in a position to assess whether the defendant was subject to undue pressure, or whether it had a bearing on his agreement to extend the period of remand. We believe that this would be a suitable safeguard.

But I am advised that this would not happen very often and that only 9.5 or 10 per cent. of the remand cases have been increased from seven days to 14 days. So a fairly small proportion of the cases on remand are covered by this article, and as I stressed it requires the consent of both the prosecution and the defence. I hope that this explanation will assure the noble Lord that undue pressure would not be brought to bear upon the accused person.

I was very grateful for the welcome of the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, to this order. He asked one question about additional judges. I understand that since 1980 there have been two additional High Court judges and three additional county court judges appointed to strengthen the judiciary. I shall study what the noble Lord said and see how it ties up with what my honourable friend said to the noble Lord's honourable friend in another place. If I have missed anything 1 shall write to the noble Lord. I hope that I have given your Lordships a fair run through these two orders. I am very grateful for the attention that has been paid to them, and I take the noble Lord's point that some of these errors might not have occurred had these orders been fought line by line with the intensity with which my compatriots, the Scots, fight out their legislation.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question. Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.59 to 8 p.m.]