HL Deb 29 October 1997 vol 582 cc1057-67

3.21 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, magistrates and magistrates' courts are critical to our criminal justice system. There are now over 30,000 lay magistrates, and 90 stipendiary or professional magistrates, divided between the metropolitan stipendiary bench serving Inner London and the provincial bench, that is, the rest of the country. The magistracy deals with about 97 per cent. of criminal offences prosecuted in England and Wales. It also has important family and local licensing jurisdictions. That is why it is vital that they are supported by policies which look to the next century—not back to the 19th century.

Arrangements for the management and funding of magistrates' courts were enacted by Parliament in 1949. The previous government brought forward proposals designed to clarify and improve the accountability of the magistrates' courts system, through Part IV of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. A statutory responsibility was put on local magistrates' courts committees (MCCs) for the efficient and effective administration of the courts in their areas. It established the role of a justices' chief executive as chief administrative officer responsible to each MCC. It also provided new powers for the Lord Chancellor, including one to initiate proposals for amalgamating MCC areas and implementing them where, after consultation, he considers that an amalgamation would be likely to lead to an overall increase in the efficiency of the administration of the courts in the area.

I am committed to making these arrangements serve modern needs in support of both lay and professional magistrates alike. The hard work and dedication to justice of the lay magistracy are undoubted. We have no plans for a replacement of the lay magistracy with stipendiary magistrates. My aim is to deploy the resources of the lay and the stipendiary magistracy to best effect.

Our objectives are: to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the magistrates' courts; and to reduce delay in the time taken for cases to be taken through those courts and so honour our manifesto commitment. My announcement today will help achieve those objectives through improved co-ordination and communication between the different agencies working in the criminal justice system, so as to improve the management of the system as a whole; better distribution and use of the public resources the Government commit to the magistrates' courts as an integral part of the processes for delivering justice; and better and more flexible deployment of professional judicial resources.

The provisions of the 1994 Act have yet to be implemented in a way which achieves significant improvement in the organisation and management of the magistrates' courts throughout England and Wales. We need to create a modern structure which provides the right local management within a national framework. We will continue to look afresh across the structures, processes and objectives of the whole criminal justice system. That process is not yet complete and it may produce still more radical options. But there is work that needs to be started now, and much that can be achieved using the powers we already have.

There are today 96 MCCs in England and Wales. They cover very different geographical areas, in many cases unrelated to the areas covered by other agencies involved in the criminal justice system, and serving widely differing numbers of magistrates, staff and court buildings. As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of the Magistrates' Courts Service states in her annual report for 1996–97, which has today been lodged in the Library of the House: In several of our 1996/97 inspection reports, we concluded that small MCC areas were managing their affairs competently within the grant allocated to them. However, without detracting from their achievement, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the existence of so many small organisational units is not in the best interest of a well-functioning Service nation-wide. In our view, overall improvement will only be achieved through a structure with fewer MCCs which arc comparable in terms of workload and resources". In the Government's view, there needs to be fewer, and larger, MCC areas, providing a more consistent basis for the administration and management of the courts, and a much greater alignment with the local government areas served by other agencies in the justice system—for example, the Crown Prosecution Service and police authorities—wherever that is appropriate. This requires a substantial programme of amalgamations of MCC areas.

Such an outcome is likely to lead to an overall increase in efficiency, both for the management of the courts themselves and for the wider criminal justice system. A greater coincidence of boundaries between the agencies should lead to administrative benefits, including the implementation of consistent and coherent policies throughout the area; for example, in fast-tracking particular types of case, which depends on effective co-operation between the various criminal justice agencies. I have been struck in government by the extent to which delivery in practice of objectives on which everyone is agreed in principle depends on effective co-operation among a large number of different agencies. Immediately after the general election, my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to work up proposals for dividing the CPS into 42 areas to match existing police authority areas. She did so and those proposals were announced in a Written Answer in another place on 21st May 1997. So 42 CPS areas; 43 police forces; and 96 separate, independent administrative units in the magistrates' courts system. I am not trying to establish administrative symmetry for its own sake. But I have to ask whether 96 separate administrative units in the magistrates' courts are really necessary.

I want to make it plain that this is not about losing local courts. It is about being open-minded about the best way of providing administrative support to them. I am not planning mindlessly to sweep away tradition; I am striving for a justice system at least as good as any in the world. There is much that is good about our current arrangements, not least the involvement of intelligent, committed volunteers as magistrates. What I want to do is to build on the high quality which is already there, to secure the best possible service for the British people. I am committed to local justice. Many decisions, for example about providing court-houses to match need, will properly remain to be taken at local level. But justice delivered locally is not the same as justice organised locally. Local management, in my clear view, requires a national framework.

The voluntary amalgamations which have occurred to date have shown the benefits which can be achieved. They have included: a fresh approach to the organisation of the MCC, with a reduction in the number of sub-committees, and the establishment of clear levels of delegation to officers; better strategic planning in relation to use of magistrates, staff and buildings, with an estate of sufficient size and flexibility to render the task meaningful; better performance monitoring and the networking of performance initiatives; access to specialist staff which the individual committees could not previously have supported; and the ability to review and standardise staffing policies and bring about other administrative efficiencies through rationalisation of functions previously duplicated by staff within the individual committees.

Our policy is, therefore, to promote a reduction in the number of MCC areas, involving a greater alignment of the MCC areas with those areas served by the CPS and police. This provides a model which is the starting point for our consideration of MCC areas. I shall issue consultation papers proposing amalgamation of MCC areas with a view to being in a position to make an amalgamation order under Section 32 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 where that is justified.

Our first priority is to consider the position of the metropolitan MCCs, where currently there are the largest number of small MCCs and where we believe there is the greatest scope for the largest efficiency gains through pooling their resources. We shall start the necessary consultative process with a view to having new shadow MCCs up and running on 1st April 1998, with a second phase on 1st April 1999. In the shire counties there remain some parts of the country where MCC areas do not currently align with the police and CPS boundaries and, as appropriate, we shall bring forward proposals in relation to these MCCs.

Greater London provides its own problems. This is substantially because of the effects of the abolition of the GLC and successive changes to local government in that area. I have yet to receive and consider the interim review of the Outer London Strategic Management Body. However, the service cannot afford to await until 1999 before any consideration is given to the way forward for outer London. We are looking at the appropriate ways to organise magistrates' courts across the huge area of the metropolitan constabulary. If we are to achieve our national objectives in relation to the service in London as a whole, we shall need to propose changes which tie in with those being introduced by the CPS in the area.

I turn to the appointment and deployment of stipendiary magistrates. We have also been giving careful consideration to a better and more flexible use of the professional judicial resources available in the magistrates' courts. Stipendiary magistrates are, by statute, appointed either to London or to a particular commission area. They do not have a national jurisdiction. We will shortly, therefore, be consulting on the desirability of creating a single, unified stipendiary magistracy that would enhance the efficiency with which stipendiary magistrates could respond to changes in national workload patterns. Associated with this we shall consult upon the question whether the role that stipendiary magistrates now fulfil might be more accurately reflected in a change of judicial title; they are professional judges and the word "magistrate" is most naturally associated in the public mind with the lay magistracy.

We have been persuaded by representations, among others from the Magistrates' Association, that our policy should be to encourage greater separation within the senior management of the magistrates' courts, in particular between administrative and legal functions. Justices' clerks, and all those advising magistrates in individual cases, need to be able to concentrate upon this important function. Managing a modern magistrates' courts service is an administrative function. It requires dedicated administrators fully engaged on that task. In order to improve the status of those who provide legal advice to the magistrates, we shall be consulting on the proposal that, in future, court clerks should all be professionally qualified either as a barrister or solicitor. If it would help, we are prepared to consider a change of title to recognise their proper role in a modern magistrates' courts system. It is also our policy to ensure that dual appointments, where the same individual is both the justices' chief executive and justices' clerk with substantive legal responsibilities, will become really exceptional. Amalgamations will lead to MCC areas of a sufficient size to be able to support a stand-alone justices' chief executive and the appropriate number of justices clerks for their area.

I now turn to a matter consequential to my Statement thus far. I have today lodged in the Library of the House a copy of the Magistrates Courts Services Inspectorate's report on the review of the proposal to amalgamate Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull MCC. The chief inspector identifies the efficiency gains which could accrue from the rationalisation of the senior management structures in the area. She refers to the potential for new strategic thinking, reduced management overheads, sharing of initiatives, greater staff specialisation and better use of staff generally. She recommends that Ministers should actively pursue a reduction in the number of MCC areas and that a new national strategy be developed to contribute to the better functioning of the criminal justice system as a whole. She does not recommend that Ministers proceed with the particular compulsory amalgamation of these three MCCs at this time. I have broadly accepted her conclusions. I do not propose to proceed with the proposal to amalgamate the three MCCs of Birmingham, Coventry and Solihull, as this proposal is not wholly consistent with the strategy I have outlined.

Associated with these changes we shall be bringing forward other measures to improve the national framework. The department is currently reviewing the grant allocation formula. It is our intention to introduce a new formula for 1999–2000 which will be better able to meet needs while recognising performance, and will distribute the available resources more fairly. We shall be introducing a requirement upon MCCs in relation to the reports and plans they are to produce and the performance standards they are to maintain. Their operations will be supported by new information technology services currently being negotiated with suppliers. These will enable a more effective means of delivering information across the criminal justice system.

I shall shortly be issuing consultation papers proposing the amalgamation of the seven MCCs in the West Midlands area, and also the five MCCs in Merseyside. If these proposals are implemented, it will result in MCCs in those two areas with common boundaries with the police authorities and new CPS areas. I shall follow this up with further consultation papers as and when appropriate proposing further amalgamations where this might achieve the benefits I have described. I shall be writing to the chairmen of the relevant MCCs inviting them to submit proposals and indicating when, in the absence of their own proposals, we intend to launch our own consultation under Section 32(5) of the Act. I shall also shortly be issuing a consultation paper as I have described on unifying the metropolitan and provincial stipendiary benches.

With this announcement today, the Government are embarking upon a plan of action to improve the operation of the magistrates' courts. We are determined to create a modern structure, which will provide the right local management within a national framework. This will enable the courts to play their part in a properly co-ordinated criminal justice system, better able to deliver our promise to reduce delay throughout the system.

3.39 p.m.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for sharing with us in such a comprehensive and detailed way his future intentions towards the organisation of the magistracy. He will not mind my saying that many of the ideas that he has expressed today are ideas that the previous government had already developed or were in an advanced stage of developing. I hope that he will also forgive me for, at this stage, expressing my views on a preliminary basis because I have not had a great deal of time to consider in detail what the noble and learned Lord said.

I am particularly struck by his remarks about the distinction between justice locally delivered and justice locally organised. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that as far as the organisation of justice is concerned there is much to be said for larger areas of management. I cannot say that the reduction from 96 to 42 or 43 is necessarily the right figure, but as an order of magnitude it seems to me the sensible course.

However, it would not be true to say that there is no link between the organisation of justice on the one hand and the delivery of justice locally on the other because MCCs are responsible for providing finance for local benches; for providing training for local JPs; and for administering local courts. There are nearly 500 magistrates' courts. How can we be sure that in 10 years' time there will still be 500 such courts? One can only deliver justice locally if one has the buildings in which to deliver it locally. How can we be sure that those buildings are properly staffed and have a lay magistracy there to deliver justice?

I would like to be reassured by the noble and learned Lord that in exercising their discretion the MCCs will make sure that the principle of locally delivered justice is very high on their agenda; otherwise it will be an inevitable inclination of those who manage the MCCs to centralise the delivery of justice below. Locally delivered justice is one of the finest principles of our constitution. It must be guaranteed. As the Lord Chancellor organises the new MCCs under Section 32 of the 1997 Act, I hope that he will consider providing the necessary safeguards.

Lord Meston

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord for his Statement which properly begins by recognising the importance of the lay and stipendiary magistracy. Between them they deal with the vast bulk of criminal cases and are likely to have yet more responsibilities and powers regarding young offenders in the future. Inescapably, the Government's proposals for young offenders will require greater efficiency and more resources. The lay magistracy also has a family jurisdiction under statute which already requires timetabling to avoid delay, a responsibility it takes seriously and tries to meet.

I fully understand the proposal that there should be greater alignment between the police, the CPS, local government and magistrates' courts committee areas. I wonder if a simple mechanism can be introduced to keep those areas aligned because local government areas are prone to change from time to time. In the same context I wonder whether there can be some mechanism for greater liaison between magistrates' courts and county courts in the family jurisdiction and between magistrates' courts and Crown Courts in the criminal jurisdiction. Sitting at a humble level in the Crown Court it is sometimes very frustrating to realise that the same defendant is due to appear in front of different courts on different days charged with similar offences and often with different lawyers representing him or her in different places.

I welcome the clear statement that these proposals are not about losing local courts. In some areas where courts have already closed, accessibility has diminished. A system cannot run efficiently if staff, litigants and witnesses have difficulty reaching court or have to worry about getting there and back home again. Ultimately, justice suffers. At a more mundane level the collection of fines, fees and compensation orders can also suffer if the courts are not accessible.

I welcome the proposal for greater separation of the legal and administrative functions of court staff. Justices' clerks have a pivotal role serving both the bench and the public. It is surely right that they should concentrate on giving advice and support to the justices and that attention should be given to the increasingly important area of case management. Indeed, it is essential that magistrates have quick access to authoritative legal advice. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has recently spoken elsewhere about the likely impact of the European Convention on Human Rights even on the magistrates' courts' jurisdiction. I ask about the Government's thinking on the future recruitment and retention of justices' clerks. A balance should be struck between open advertisement and keeping the expertise of existing clerks through an attractive career structure.

Finally, there is much force in the proposal for a single stipendiary bench with a national rather than a local jurisdiction. I am tempted to remind your Lordships that there is a good fictional precedent in P.G. Wodehouse where his character, Sir Watkyn Basset felt able to exercise his powers with equal ferocity both in London and at home.

I am intrigued by the idea of a possible new title for stipendiary magistrates. Having spent many long hours in Bow Street and Marlborough Street courts representing shoplifters and drunken drivers, I have heard stipendiary magistrates called a variety of names, none of which would seem suitable. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord should consider offering a prize. Can he confirm that the proposed changes for justices' clerks and stipendiary magistrates will involve primary legislation? It seems to me likely that that is so. I welcome the intention to consult, and the long-term commitment to the magistracy.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome from both noble Lords to these proposals. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Meston, that I have an open mind in relation to many of the positive suggestions that he brings forward. I am ready to acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, invites me to do, that some of these ideas were indeed developed under our predecessors. We intend to press ahead with vigour with what really has to be done.

The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked me to say that I am committed to the principle of locally delivered justice. I am. The point that I desire to emphasise is that the amalgamation of magistrates' courts committees should not lead to a loss of local accountability or increased remoteness. It is not the court or the benches that amalgamate—that is the distinction that we have to keep in mind—but the administrative and financial structures which support those courts and benches. Membership of an amalgamated committee will still overwhelmingly comprise local magistrates selected by their local colleagues. Decisions about the administrative needs and structures of the MCC will be taken locally. There is no necessary connection between the amalgamation of MCCs and court closures. On the contrary, the increased flexibility in staffing and in caseload terms offered by amalgamation could provide a lifeline for more marginal courts.

The issue of courthouse closures and the reorganisation of the petty sessional divisions is not what we are discussing today. That is a separate issue, but I entirely appreciate that some will think that there are connections. The position in relation to courthouse closures is that the decision on whether or not to close a courthouse is a local issue, subject to statutory rights of appeal. Under Section 56 of the 1997 Act I have responsibility for deciding whether a courthouse should be closed where the paying authority has disputed the MCC's proposal to do so. I have no other responsibilities in relation to magistrates' courthouses because they are not Crown property. I repeat that the closure of a courthouse is not a necessary consequence of amalgamation and that the decision to close a courthouse rests with the MCC although the paying authority can disagree and I then have to decide the appeal.

3.50 p.m.

Baroness Flather

My Lords, perhaps I may make a plea on behalf of lay justices. It has been said that the administration of justice is greatly dependent on the work of the lay justices. Indeed, wherever I go, I find that lay justices are congratulated on all their work but, speaking as a lay justice for 19 years, I should point out that as a result of the way in which things are now developing, less value is being placed on the time of the lay justices. The Crown Prosecution Service and the clerks often leave the lay justices sitting in the retiring room because their cases are not ready or somebody has not arrived. After all, the lay justices are free whereas every other person in the court is being paid. Unfortunately, instead of valuing the service which is given voluntarily and which is therefore free and without cost, the reverse happens and because lay justices do not represent a cost on the balance sheet, they come last in the court's considerations.

I stress that I am speaking from personal experience. When the changes are made, I hope that some recognition will be given to the amount of work and time now required from our lay justices. When I first started as a lay justice in 1971, the training was perfunctory. It has become more and more stringent and more and more time is now required to be devoted to continuous training. However, no real consideration is paid to what is required of lay justices. After all, 93 per cent. of all cases are dealt with by lay justices.

I take the point that the word "magistrate" could lead to confusion between stipendiary magistrates and lay magistrates. We always used to be called Justices of the Peace or lay justices, so perhaps we could revert to our traditional title rather than being known as "magistrates".

I should like to dwell for a moment on the subject of clerks. When we were trying to introduce training on ethnic minority issues for justices, the clerks' societies were the least keen group. It was only when the Lord Chancellor's Department insisted that justices should have some training in dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds that such training was organised. I hope that that point will be kept in mind because justices' clerks do not tend to be very keen on change. They should not have too much power in the courts. The justices should still have some say in these matters.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, first, I should say that I am much on the public record as regards my support for, and the high value that I attach to, the voluntary services of the lay magistracy. I undertake today to ensure that copies of the speeches that I have made to that effect to public audiences are sent to the noble Baroness.

A month or two ago a story appeared in the press, the source of which I know not, that I was about to abolish the lay magistracy and to replace it with an enormous increase in the stipendiary bench. There was not a shred of truth in it then—nor now. As the noble Baroness rightly says, 97 per cent. of criminal cases begin and end in the magistrates' courts. Not only do we value lay magistrates for the quality of their work but the financial cost of replacing lay magistrates with stipendiaries would require the appointment of at least one thousand additional stipendiary magistrates and would add at least £60 million to the national cost of summary justice. I do not think that it is too great a leap of the financial imagination to say that that sum (which is avoided) is the value of the services provided free by the lay magistrates.

I agree also with the noble Baroness when she says that it is wrong to lay fault exclusively upon the lay justices when delays occur, as happens in magistrates' courts. I have been at pains to say time and again that co-operation between the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the social welfare services, prosecuting lawyers and defending lawyers, the Probation Service and the courts is required to reduce delays. It is facile simply to lay the responsibility for the delays at the door of any of those agencies.

I have shown my support for the lay magistracy, and the social value that I attach to the civic commitment that is involved in serving on the lay magistracy, to try to encourage many more people to come forward and to offer themselves as magistrates so that the social balance of our magistrates' benches throughout the country is improved. Magistrates' courts should be microcosms of the communities that they serve. In too many parts of the country, the social balance is wrong.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord for his Statement and even more for having given me the opportunity to see him yesterday on this subject when he reassured me to a great extent. I was speaking on behalf of the Isle of Wight, which is unique in being a county of England but also and more importantly an island. With a population of 126,000, it has a larger population than many of the islands of the Commonwealth which recently in Edinburgh, so I am told by a magistrate from the Isle of Wight, were told that they were equal with other members of the Commonwealth. Therefore, our importance needs to be seen in proportion.

Having said all that, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for what he said and how he said it. Without his making a firm commitment, I got the impression—I should be grateful if the noble and learned Lord could confirm this—that there will be no rush to change for anybody, including the Isle of Wight, if it is seen that the more efficient way of handling things is to have an independent magistrates' courts committee as at present.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised if I say that I have an instinctive sympathy for islands. I am conscious that every part of the country is individual, not least the Isle of Wight precisely because it is an island. I do not see the position of the Isle of Wight as my first priority. I see no need to bring forward a proposal in the first phase, which I have described. However, in fairness to the noble Lord I must tell him that the second phase may be another matter, but that entails my accepting what has come from the noble Lord—that there should be no precipitate change. Consultations could therefore begin next year. But an amalgamation could not occur until 2000 at the earliest if —I emphasise "if"—I concluded that that was the right way forward for the Isle of Wight.