HL Deb 17 May 1993 vol 545 cc1568-74

5.8 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st April be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order is made under Section 1 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1991 and makes three amendments to the High Court and County Courts Jurisdiction Order 1991. The first two amendments are very minor and require only a brief explanation. The third amendment arises out of the new regime for enforcing parking charges in London and a rather fuller explanation may therefore be of some interest.

I turn first to Article 3 of the draft order. This will amend Article 6 of the jurisdiction order to provide that appeals against decisions of auditors under Section 19(4) of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 shall be commenced only in the High Court. At present such appeals are commenced in the county courts whereas other proceedings under Sections 19 and 20 are commenced in the High Court. This anomaly may cause practical difficulties for auditors involved in such proceedings.

Although appeals against decisions of local authority auditors can concern quite small amounts of money, they may involve questions of public law and raise issues of considerable importance. Consequently the policy of the jurisdiction order was that such cases should be commenced in the High Court. At present Article 6 does not mention appeals under Section 19. The proposed amendment will put appeals under Section 19 on the same footing as other applications.

I turn now to Article 4 and the second minor amendment effected by the draft order, which is contained in that article. The provision amends Article 8 of the jurisdiction order so that a judgment or order of a county court for the payment of a sum of money which arose out of an agreement regulated by the Consumer Credit Act 1974, and which it is sought to enforce by execution against goods, may be enforced only in a county court.

At present judgments relating to agreements regulated by the Consumer Credit Act 1974 can be transferred to the High Court for enforcement where the sum for which judgment has been given is £2,000 or more. The policy behind Article 6 of the jurisdiction order was that where it is sought to enforce a judgment arising out of a consumer credit agreement by execution against goods, enforcement should only be carried out in a county court. This will implement that particular policy.

Finally I turn to the third and main amendment effected by the order, which is contained in Article 5. This provision confers sole jurisdiction on Cardiff County Court in proceedings to enforce certain road traffic debts. These arise under the new regime for the enforcement of on-street parking charges in London, established by the Road Traffic Act 1991.

Under the Act parking enforcement proceedings are removed from the jurisdiction of magistrates' courts. A parking penalty will instead be enforceable as a civil debt by way of county court proceedings. A special procedure has been established for parking charges incurred in London and the initial processing stage of applications to enforce London parking charges will be dealt with by Cardiff County Court.

This order is not concerned with any of the details of what will happen when a driver in London receives a parking ticket. However, it may seem curious that Cardiff should be involved at all with the enforcement of London parking charges. To enable your Lordships to understand the way in which Cardiff County Court will be involved, it may be helpful if I briefly explain how the new system will work.

Under the Road Traffic Act 1991, a driver who receives a parking ticket will first have the opportunity to object to the local authority which imposed the charge. This will be done by making representations to the local authority and, if necessary, by way of proceedings before a new body to be known as the parking adjudicator. If the driver still fails to pay, the local authority will be able to obtain an order that the charge may be recovered as if it were payable under a county court order. Exclusive jurisdiction to make such an order is conferred on Cardiff County Court by Article 6 of the proposed amendment to the jurisdiction order. The procedure for making the order will be relatively straightforward and will be carried out at Cardiff on receipt of the requisite information from the local authorities. Even after the order has been made, a driver will have a further chance to object on grounds specified in the Road Traffic Act. If he does so, the case will automatically be referred back to the local authority.

The other aspect of Cardiff County Court's involvement will be to authorise the issue of a warrant of execution at the request of the local authorities. Distress will then be levied by bailiffs certificated for this purpose and will, of course, take place where the debtor's goods are situated. Where distress proves to be unsuccessful, and the local authority wishes to attempt enforcement by other methods, such as by garnishee or charging order, the order will be transferred to the driver's local county court.

It is expected that over a million of these cases will be enforced through the county courts each year. The administrative nature and the large volume of the work lends itself to a high degree of streamlining and computerisation, and it was therefore decided that only one centre would be used. Cardiff was chosen primarily on logistical grounds. It was clear that the county courts in the Greater London area would not individually have had the capacity for this work, and to site the parking enforcement centre, as it will be known, in London would have been an expensive alternative.

As your Lordships will appreciate, the jurisdiction conferred on Cardiff is very much of an administrative, rather than judicial, character. If, at any stage of the proceedings, it is necessary to consider a driver's individual circumstances, this will be done either in London or in the driver's home court, and the driver will be given an opportunity to make representations.

I hope that the proposed new rule will enable parking charges in London to be enforced by county courts with the maximum efficiency. In no circumstances will the driver be expected or required to attend the parking enforcement centre in person, and the fact that Cardiff is given jurisdiction to deal with these proceedings should not inconvenience drivers in any way.

Before making the order I am required to consult the designated judges—that is to say, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Family Division, the Vice-Chancellor and the senior presiding judge. I have done this. They are content that the order should be made. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st April be approved [29th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, we welcome the proposed arrangements. They make modest and useful improvements to the disposal of court business. Perhaps I may first mention Article 3. It is plainly right that appeals against decisions of auditors under Section 19(4) of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 should be commenced in the High Court regardless of the amount involved. We agree with what the noble and learned Lord said on that subject. The auditor's power to call in question an item of local authority expenditure is very important. The auditor can, for example, set at nought promises made by the majority party to its electorate and the auditor's decision could eventually lead to the disqualification of councillors. Plainly, the High Court should deal with those appeals because of their significance for good government.

Next, Article 4. We do not cavil at the county court as the choice of forum. No advantage, however, will be gained for the efficient dispatch of business unless the resources allocated to the county courts are commensurate with the additional workload. The noble and learned Lord's department is well aware of the increasing strain experienced by county court staff up and down the country, striving to deal with the increased workload which these, and many other measures, impose on them.

The commendable aim of allocating court business to the appropriate court level within the system will only be achieved successfully if resources follow the case loads. I seem to recall, in the context of the health service, that resources are expected to follow the patients. It would be welcome if the noble and learned Lord could comment on that issue.

Finally, we agree with the noble and learned Lord that the most important issue is the choice of Cardiff County Court as the court centre for enforcing road traffic debts. We welcome that choice. We welcome the enhanced role for the premier county court in the Principality, but the efficiency that this measure is intended to achieve will not result, it would appear to us, unless Cardiff County Court has the extra manpower that it will need to discharge this major function.

The staff at the county court in Cardiff will have to process more than (as I understand the figure) 1.5 million charges every year. Why has Cardiff County Court been chosen? Perhaps I may make it plain that I have nothing but affection for the capital of the Principality. But the present county court building is a typical example of a public building erected nearly 100 years ago with scant interest or regard for the requirements of the public. The courts are high up in the building. They are approached by a very narrow, steep and precipitous staircase. There are no lifts. The location of the courts within that building is wholly unsuitable for the elderly. There is no provision at all for the disabled. Seven courts are able to sit; three presided over by circuit judges and four by district judges. The seven courts share only three conference rooms for litigants. Those rooms are minuscule in size. The former first-aid room has been converted to a court for a district judge and one of the robing rooms for solicitors or counsel has had to be taken over for use as a judge's retiring room. Staff are located in a dark and dismal basement where they are seriously overcrowded. That is the position on the ground.

We know that there are plans for a new court building but they have remained plans, with nothing done, for over 30 years. I understand—and the noble and learned Lord can better inform the House—that the most immediate plan is to convert the adjacent post office—derelict for a decade —into a new county court complex. Is that correct? Has building work commenced? When will it be completed? How many courts and conference rooms, and what provision for litigants, as consumers, will there be? Have the staff been informed and consulted about the large addition to their workload which will result from the implementation of the order? May I question whether the present building has the scope to accommodate the increased workload on a temporary basis? Has the noble and learned Lord satisfied himself to the contrary?

Of course the court staff will loyally make every effort to discharge every duty placed upon them. But has the noble and learned Lord any comment to make on the adequacy of the present building? Can he inform the House when the new court, if it is to happen, will be built and become operational? Does he envisage any increase in staff levels and any temporary additional staff accommodation being made available to cope with the increased workload which Article 5 will generate?

Where precisely in the new building will the new parking enforcement centre be situated, on the footing that that new building is to be the location of the new centre? Secondly, where will the new parking enforcement centre be situated on a temporary basis within the present accommodation? Thirdly, are extra staff to be engaged and, if so, how many and at what grades? Will they have the same conditions of employment as the existing staff?

Perhaps I should make it plain from these Benches that we support the principle of a parking enforcement centre for processing purposes, as distinct from disputed cases. We support Cardiff as that centre. But the reason that I have invited the noble and learned Lord to address the questions that I have sought to put in some detail, if he will be good enough, is that we are concerned that sufficient thought may not have been given to practical implementation on the ground.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, for his reception of the order in its three branches. Undoubtedly, the most important is that which refers to the parking enforcement centre. The reason that we thought, after considering the matter carefully, that Cardiff was suitable was the likelihood of the new building in Cardiff being able to accommodate the centre—that is, assuming that the order is passed.

The intention is that the new county court building in Cardiff should be ready in about 16 months' time. I stress that this particular enforcement centre is for administrative work. As I explained, there is no question of court accommodation being required for this purpose. We have been able to secure temporary accommodation outside the present court building for the work of the parking enforcement centre in the meantime. I expect that up to 24 staff will be employed in the centre although the precise number will depend on the work generated. Needless to say, we shall watch that as operations begin.

I believe that the earliest date on which work will come into the parking enforcement centre will be September 1993. So it is proposed that it should be accommodated in a reasonably near building (not absolutely adjacent) on an interim basis. I believe that it will be possible to make arrangements for the work to he located within the new county court building when it is ready in about 16 months' time. As I said, up to 24 staff will be required for that and they will be employed on the same basis as other members of the court staff.

I am satisfied that the correct arrangements are in place to accommodate the new work. Your Lordships will see from the order that I am left with the date on which the order shall come into force once your Lordships have approved the draft.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, before he sits down will the noble and learned Lord be good enough to specify what the temporary accommodation for the parking enforcement centre will be within the Cardiff County Court before the new building becomes available?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I thought that I had made it plain that it is not within the existing county court building but in a separate building which is available for temporary purposes on an interim basis until a new building is ready.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, I followed that, but can the noble and learned Lord state where that accommodation is?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord details of the accommodation if he wishes, but if he is prepared to accept it I shall do so in writing. I do not have the precise details with me although I have looked into the circumstances. I have been to the existing Cardiff County Court and know a little about its present facilities, as the noble Lord described them. Therefore, before I was prepared to accept Cardiff as the location, I needed to know that proper accommodation would be available. I am assured that proper accommodation is available on an interim basis to house the up-to-24 staff who will be required.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord again attempts to resume his seat, may I ask whether he can assure the House that the example of the city fathers of Limerick will not be followed in this case? He will recall that the city fathers of Limerick decreed that there should be a new gaol in Limerick, that it should be built from the stones of the old gaol, and that the old gaol should stay in use until the new gaol was completed.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I hope that I have explained my proposal in sufficient detail for the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, to see that I am not proposing to follow the city fathers of Limerick. It would be particularly inappropriate to follow that example in the Principality of Wales. The Question is, that this Motion—

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, may I briefly—

Noble Lords


Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I understand that I am out of order, but what I wanted—

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, before I resumed discussion and after the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, had finished I gave the House some time to respond. However, I am very loath to exclude the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, altogether, and it may well be that the noble Lord will be able to ask me some questions before I sit down and that I may be able to answer his points.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, the first question that I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, is whether he can give the House an indication of when he believes that the order will be applied. Secondly, is it envisaged that all the administrative functions will be transferred on a given date to the Cardiff County Court, or will that be phased in over a period?

Having said that, I very much welcome the decision to centralise this function at Cardiff County Court. Drawing on my own experience of that court over very many years, I can speak of the excellence of the administration there and of the sense of fairness of its staff. On the other hand, I, like most Members of the House, am conscious that parking charges are unpopular. I hope that Cardiff County Court will not attract to itself any unpopularity. I am sure that if it is given the accommodation and the staffing resources its history will stand it in good stead.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am delighted to answer those serious questions. First, I accept entirely the view that the administration in the Cardiff County Court, notwithstanding the physical difficulties to which the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, referred, is good. I believe that it will be especially good at doing the work required. It is a new system to be set up in respect of London, the administration of which will start in Cardiff.

We shall seek to make as plain as we can that Cardiff bears no responsibility other than for the implementation of the order and that all the authority has come from elsewhere. In that way, we shall do our best to deflect from Cardiff County Court any suggestion that the unpopularity attracted by parking tickets should go to that court. It will be seen as merely carrying out the necessary administration so that parking charges, once properly incurred, are processed fairly. It is an extra operation for Cardiff which will help by employing additional staff there. No consequent obloquy of any sort will fall on Cardiff County Court.

On Question, Motion agreed to.