HL Deb 17 January 2001 vol 620 cc1122-4

2.58 p.m.

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

What they propose to do to ensure the safety of HM's circuit and district judges and their deputies in the light of the recent attack on Judge Ann Goddard at the Central Criminal Court.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, I spoke to Judge Goddard at her home on the evening of the deplorable attack on her. She is much admired. After only a day off, she was back sitting as a judge.

In all courts the security of the prisoner in the dock is the responsibility of the Prison Service, not the Court Service, for which I am responsible. Although there were three professional security guards in the dock, still the defendant escaped and attacked the judge. It was a court clerk who pulled him away, closely followed by a detective constable in court, both of whose conduct was exemplary. I have commissioned a departmental security inquiry which, among other things, will have to consider why the three security guards did not react effectively to the emergency. The lessons to be learnt from this failure will be explored with the Prison Service.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I have to confess to the House an interest in this Question. I have a daughter who is attractive and clever—qualities that she derives entirely from her mother. That fact was fully recognised by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when he recently appointed her as a district judge. My interest is in her safety and the safety of her colleagues. Does the noble and learned Lord accept that district judges, sitting without a clerk or even ushers in small, non-purpose-built rooms to which the public can have direct access and which have only one door for ingress and egress, have absolutely no means of escape if there is an attack and are, therefore, highly vulnerable?

Does the noble and learned Lord also accept that these judges have to hear and decide potentially explosive cases, particularly on the civil side, with the parties nearly always appearing in person, often with little or no respect for authority, and involving such cases as domestic violence, possession actions by housing authorities due to nuisance and annoyance caused by drug abuse, and applications to commit to prison for breaches of court orders? Can the noble and learned Lord tell the House what he has in mind to stop the already serious decline in the back-up services of judges, dictated by the Treasury?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I can confirm that the daughter of the noble and learned Lord was appointed by me to be a district judge on her strong merits and without any regard to her parentage. There are 420 guards in courts across the country: 160 in the Crown Courts, 200 in the combined courts, and 60 in the county courts, including most family hearing centres. Most are provided through contractors. At present, £8 million a year is spent on security contracts. Recently an additional £3 million for three years—that is, £1 million per year—was allocated both to secure better services and to extend guarding facilities in family hearing centres, with the object of putting 176 new guards into these centres over the next three years.

I have observed for myself the difficulties that affect district judges, as described by the noble and learned Lord. I have asked the Court Service to consider the want, as it were, of any line of retreat for a district judge in the district judge's court in the event of an incident.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor consider the installation of alarm bells, or something of that kind, so that a district judge sitting alone in his or her room who is extremely vulnerable could summon help urgently if it is needed?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I believe that that facility is available in some, but not all, cases. I shall certainly consider the possibility and request a report on the matter.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that an expensive glass security screen has recently been installed at Cardiff Crown Court and that, according to a report in The Times this morning, it is not proving entirely satisfactory because, apparently, the defendants can no longer hear a word of the evidence?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there is no satisfying everyone, including defendants. However, a balance must be struck between enclosing all court rooms so that escape from them is impossible and providing an acceptable environment for defendants who have not yet been convicted of crime. Enclosed docks are provided at certain courts where high-risk trials frequently take place. It is obviously essential that the security facility should not prevent defendants hearing the proceedings.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, although the safety and protection of judges is clearly of the greatest importance, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor resist any further centralisation of courts, especially criminal courts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I would not necessarily give an affirmative answer to that question. I believe that most people expect uniform standards of security in our courts.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, is not the trouble with alarm bells the fact that that pre-supposes that someone is available to answer them? In the courts served by many district judges, the usher, a lady, is there only on part-time duties. In the afternoon, when things usually get most heated, she is not there.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there are many fundamental proposals available; for example, either the former routine uniformed police presence should be reinstated or a new uniformed service should be established by the Court Service to provide security in courts. I have asked my officials to report to me within three months on the adequacy of existing arrangements, on the options for their improvement, and on the feasibility of more fundamental proposals.