HL Deb 27 June 1996 vol 573 cc1120-3

9.34 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this order is made under Section 13(4) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1979. That Act set the maximum number of stipendiary magistrates outside Inner London and the City of London Commission areas at 40. This draft order seeks to increase the number to 50. No one in this House is a more ardent supporter of the lay magistracy than I am. Its role is pivotal to the administration of justice, both criminal and civil, and to the fabric of society. Its continued good health depends essentially on sufficient numbers of suitable people from all walks of life being willing to put forward their names for consideration. To aid both recruitment and achieving a balance of people from all sections of the community, I need to be aware that people should not be asked to sit too many times. For about 15 per cent. of benches where sittings are too high for comfort and where other measures are not sufficient, the deployment of a full-time stipendiary magistrate may assist in my view.

I turn to another aspect of my approach to considering whether a stipendiary magistrate appointment to a bench may be made. I use as a yardstick the view of the Magistrates' Association. Once a bench reaches a situation in which it is not possible to function without the assistance of a stipendiary magistrate I have to consider the matter. Thereafter, the issues to be considered include the structure of the bench, the maintenance of effective links among the lay magistracy, the spread of experience and how often a bench is manned by two justices instead of three, as should be the general rule. It may be that a large bench can manage perfectly well. On the other hand, it may be that it cannot.

It is my duty to ensure that justice is administered effectively and efficiently. That entails cases being disposed of with reasonable promptness and there being no build up of unacceptable delays. If there are and there appears to be no other realistic prospect of overcoming the difficulty such as recruiting more justices or temporary stipendiary assistance, clearly it would be prudent to consider bringing in a stipendiary magistrate.

The responsibility for considering whether or not it is right to bid for a full-time stipendiary rests with my local advisory committee, after consultation with the Magistrates' Courts Committee and benches in the area. I have said before, and am glad to repeat it now, that I believe in and rely upon the common sense of the magistracy. They have given their service voluntarily and they will know what is in the best interests of the administration of justice in their areas. Since 1988 the number of authorised provincial stipendiary magistrate posts has grown from 17 to 40. At no time have I had to impose a stipendiary magistrate against local wishes. There is no reason why this good sense should not continue to prevail. I hope that the House will agree to this order.

There can be no doubt that the idea of stipendiary magistrates arouses apprehensions from time to time within the lay magistracy. The theory is that there is a hidden plot to replace them, or that other options have not been pursued vigorously enough. Alternatively, the idea may be based on the belief that it is wrong for one person to be both judge and jury. I shall deal briefly with those points. There is absolutely no plot to replace the lay magistracy. It is too important for that to be even a remote possibility. The whole point of local consultations is to ensure that there is a good case for a full-time stipendiary magistrate appointment. I would wish to be assured on that point as well before authorising any full-time appointment. While I understand the worries about a single person sitting, it has to be remembered that stipendiary magistrates have played a significant role in the administration of justice since the middle of the last century, and Parliament in its wisdom has endorsed that approach.

Nevertheless, it is important to establish an understanding of the respective roles of lay and stipendiary magistrates—a point recognised by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice which reported in 1993. I therefore established a working party drawn from the lay and stipendiary magistracy, the Justices' Clerks' Society and my department to examine those roles. The working party has informed me of various steps which, if not already in existence, soon will be to build on the good relationships which generally exist. Therefore, there is a sound base on which to build for the future. A copy of the report of the working party is in the Library of the House.

I have no plans to abolish the lay magistracy, and no one in my department would advise me to do so. Outside Inner London there are nearly 30,000 lay magistrates and at present 40 authorised stipendiary posts. The strength of the lay magistracy has grown year by year from 28,667 at the end of 1989 to 30,326 at the end of 1995.

In conclusion, your Lordships will, I hope, agree that the effect of the order will be to help maintain the lay magistracy and benefit the administration of justice. Without it, it would not be possible to provide full-time stipendiary support where it now appears to be needed. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, we support the order. I take this opportunity to put on record our appreciation of the lay magistracy, both in its civil and criminal jurisdictions, and for the enormous contribution that it makes to the due administration of justice throughout the country. Just as service as a juror provides education in citizenship and makes a major contribution to citizenship, so also does membership of the bench. It is a tribute to the public spiritedness of lay magistrates throughout the country that they are willing to volunteer so much of their free time, and sometimes time made free only with great difficulty, for the administration of justice in their areas.

It is important that lay justices are a microcosm of the communities they serve and so should reflect all groups and all ages in society. So, while magistrates may be retired, so also they may be in employment, which makes it the more difficult for them to offer the time required. I believe that it would be sound policy to allow those with good reason to confine their sittings to a minimum of 26 half days. But, where targets for annual average sittings have proved to be incapable of achievement, then the case for the additional deployment of a full-time stipendiary magistrate must be considered on a case by case basis.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord that the appointment of additional stipendiary magistrates in no way calls into question the high quality of local benches. On the contrary, the issue is simply this: have the demands on the magistrates' courts in particular areas become so pressing that a serious question arises as to whether a stipendiary magistrate is needed as, as it were, an additional bolt-on resource to ensure the efficient administration of justice?

I believe the opinion of the Magistrates' Association to be that that question arises once a bench attains 250 in number. That principle seems to be right. Beyond that, we do not believe that any hard and fast rules can be laid down. All depends upon local circumstances. Where any particular court or area falls materially behind the national average delay times between first listing and completion, then clearly the question acutely arises as to whether a stipendiary magistrate in addition is required.

We therefore believe it obviously right that the statutory ceiling of 40 should be increased to 50 so as to give the necessary flexibility to make further appointments when local need demands it.

I desire to associate myself and my party with the noble and learned Lord's assurances that this additional flexibility implies no lack of confidence in, still less hostility to, the lay magistracy throughout the country. The lay magistracy is, and will remain, the backbone of the delivery and administration of justice at local level.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, as a lay magistrate now on the supplemental list, I should like to query a statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine. He talked about 26 half-day sittings. When I was appointed, which I believe was in 1971, we were told that the figure was 26 half days. Some years later we were told we had to do 26 full days. I was never able to do that and I wonder what the position is now.

I remember applying to the noble and learned Lord's department to do fewer days and I would like to know what the ruling is. On the Bench on which I sat there were a number of stipendiary magistrates and there was no clash whatever. The lay members greatly valued the work done by the stipendiaries and we worked very well together.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, it may be that my information is out of date. I had certainly thought that current policy was to allow those with good reason to confine their sittings to a minimum of 26 half days. If I am wrong about that the noble and learned Lord will correct me.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, in a sense, both are right. It is not easy to see why that should be. The minimum for which we ask is 26 half days but, of course, different benches may have different requirements. Depending on where one is one may find oneself on a bench which has an average higher than the minimum. Accordingly, it may well be that my noble friend found herself in circumstances where the talent was scarce and the bench felt that it needed to require a larger number of half days than the national minimum. I believe that could be the only basis on which my noble friend was on the supplemental list.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, for his support of the Motion which I have sought to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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