HL Deb 10 November 1999 vol 606 cc1387-9

5.5 p.m.

Lord Bach rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st November be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order is made under Section 4(1) of the Supreme Court Act 1981. The statutory ceiling for High Court judges in England and Wales was last increased from 85 to 98 by the Maximum Number of Judges Order 1993. This order will further increase that number to 106.

The High Court will face additional challenges over the coming years. Broadly speaking, they will arise from the implementation of the Human Rights Act and the Immigration and Asylum Bill, shortly to become an Act. It has become clear that, in the face of those challenges and even with the relief afforded by the implementation of the civil justice reforms in April this year, the High Court Bench will be under severe pressure unless additional judge power can be brought onstream as and when required.

The Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division and the Crown Office list will receive a significant increase in workload on implementation of the Human Rights Act. Those courts are the places for challenging, through judicial review, the actions or decision of any person or body charged with the performance of public acts and duties. The Human Rights Act will impose a duty on all public authorities to act in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Consequently, implementation of the Act will have a significant impact on the Crown Office list and the Divisional Court.

The assessment of the Lord Chancellor's Department is that applications for leave to move for judicial review in criminal cases may well double from the 300 received last year to 600 per year. It is anticipated that the vast majority will require a hearing for leave before a single judge. It is further thought that as many as one-quarter of the applications may be allowed and will then proceed to the full Divisional Court for determination.

It is estimated that 1,000 to 2,000 additional applications for leave to move may be made in immigration cases after implementation of the Human Rights Act. Even if only one-quarter receives leave to move for judicial review, that would lead to an increase of 65 per cent—about 250 cases—in the Crown Office list.

Appeals from magistrates' courts by way of cases stated may also increase by as much as 70 per cent, particularly in the early years—the first two years after implementation of the Human Rights Act. Virtually all those appeals would require to be heard by the Divisional Court, rather than a single judge. Other non-criminal applications for judicial review may also increase by up to 20 per cent. The majority of those applications for leave will be taken by a single judge and one-third may proceed to hearing before the Divisional Court.

In the Family Division it is anticipated that human rights points will be taken in anything up to 50 per cent of cases. The division has already determined that all cases raising these points should be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice, placing additional pressures upon the High Court Bench in London.

In the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal, implementation of the Human Rights Act is expected to lead to an increase of one-third in the cases coming to the court on points of law relating to the convention. In the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal, pressure on judge power is expected to arise both from the Human Rights Act and, this year, from appeals testing the civil justice reforms to which I have referred. The Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal and the Queen's Bench Divisional Court will require additional sittings both by the High Court bench and by Lords Justices in order to handle the expected influx of human rights and immigration work. The latter requirement will be met by diverting the time of some Lords Justices from the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal. That will, however, require that deficit to be made good by a commensurate increase in High Court judges.

It is essential that the courts are well prepared to meet additional pressures. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has judged that some increases to the High Court bench need to be made by the beginning of next year, leaving headroom within the new ceiling for further appointments as need arises. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 1st November be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bach.)

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation. Following the passage of the Access to Justice Act, what effect does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor expect these measures to have on the efficiency with which the High Court undertakes its daily work?

I understand that the passage of the Human Rights Act will introduce new pressures. However, at the same time the Woolf reforms are supposed to increase the efficacy of the work of the High Court bench. Can the Minister give your Lordships an estimate of what the Lord Chancellor's Department expects will be the saving in judicial time from the introduction of the Woolf reforms?

Can the noble Lord the Minister also give some estimate at this juncture of the extent to which he expects the increased pressures on the Court of Appeal, to which he referred in his remarks, will lead to an increased requirement for Court of Appeal judges?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, for his remarks. I am not in a position to be able to give any real estimate as to the number of Court of Appeal judges that may be required as a consequence of the extra work involved. However, I promise the noble Lord that I will take this back to the department. I shall ensure that research is carried out and that a letter is sent to the noble Lord, a copy of which will be placed in the Library at the same time.

As I understand it, the main effect of the Woolf reforms is on the lower courts, that is the county courts. There has already been a story of some success. As the House knows, it is only six months or so since the Woolf reforms came into operation. It is too early to say what effect that will have on the High Court. However, the department will keep a close watch on the situation.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising those two points. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.