HL Deb 07 March 2001 vol 623 cc274-6

7.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Lord Bach) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th December 2000 be approved [2nd Report front the Joint committee]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order is solely about the number of High Court judges in Northern Ireland; it is not about their method of appointment or terms of office or about any decisions that they reach when discharging their judicial office. The maximum number of High Court judges in Northern Ireland is prescribed in Section 2 of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978. That statutory maximum was originally set at six and increased to seven in 1993. The purpose of the order is to increase that figure from seven to nine.

The need for the increase arose primarily from the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has considered carefully and in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland the likely increase in the volume and length of proceedings in consequence of the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law. It is considered that the anticipated additional workload in the High Court in Northern Ireland will be such as to give rise to a need for extra judicial support.

Some noble Lords will remember that towards the end of 1999 this House approved an increase in the maximum number of High Court judges in England and Wales from 98 to 106. That also took into account anticipated workload pressures in consequence of the Human Rights Act.

At present, workloads for High Court judges in England and Wales are stable. I am sure that noble Lords will recognise that a provision to enable an increase in the High Court judicial complement is also required in Northern Ireland if the benefits of the Human Rights Act are to be given effect in that jurisdiction.

If the House gives its approval to the order, and it is made at Privy Council, it will come into force on 2nd April. At that stage, it will allow for the appointment of an additional High Court judge. There are no immediate plans to make a second appointment to the Bench up to the proposed new statutory maximum of nine. However, that will be kept under review. It is considered important that the facility should be available to allow for a second additional appointment should experience demonstrate that to be necessary.

The Human Rights Act is the fulfilment of the Government's promise to bring home the fundamental rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. We are building a culture in which citizens of this country will be aware of their rights and will have an accessible mechanism for enforcing them.

Having put that central reform in place through the Human Rights Act, it is essential that we do whatever else is necessary to ensure that the new arrangements will work efficiently. One aspect is having enough senior judges to hear the anticipated increase in the number of lengthy cases. Approval of the order will enable the High Court in Northern Ireland to meet those challenges and to ensure the efficiency and timely disposal of court business. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th December 2000 be approved [2nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bach.)

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing the order today. I have a few concerns. Obviously, the Government have done their homework and are satisfied that there is a need for more judges. On reading Hansard from the other place, there was a certain amount of toing and froing on fairly irrelevant matters. However, what concerns me relating to the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 in Northern Ireland and other places, is that for many years there has been—certainly for as long as I was in business in Northern Ireland—developing a claims culture well ahead of the remainder of the United Kingdom. The Stormont government will have to pay particular attention to that claims culture in their interpretation of the Human Rights Act.

I have personal experience of inhibition in business of all kinds of ways because of the growing claims culture. I believe that the culture is starting on this side of the water as well. But we are well ahead over there in the claims culture.

Having said that, and having made my perhaps rather negative comments on this matter, I support the movement of the order. I am sure that there will be a need for the two extra High Court judges.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, in supporting the order, I reiterate the point of the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, that frankly the claims culture in Northern Ireland is bacterial in its growth. I was glad that the Minister was able to offer the assurance that the Bench in Northern Ireland will not be increased without the evidence that it is needed.

My observation is that the island of Ireland, both north and south, rather like your Lordships' House—if I might say so—is teeming with lawyers. There are far too many of them for the good health of a civic society.

In that respect, whatever its longitudinal position, the island of Ireland is culturally much nearer to the United States than Great Britain. Increasing lawyers' professional opportunities for preferment serves, in my experience, only to encourage them. I hope that the Minister will reiterate his assurance that expanding the Bench in Northern Ireland will be dealt with in a very parsimonious manner.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord Smith. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, will know from reading Hansard for the other place of the order that the Minister there commented that there had been a 61 per cent increase in judicial review cases in the Northern Ireland courts. Whether that justifies the noble Lord's comment about a claims culture, I could not comment. However, it shows that since normalisation began to take place there has been an increase in business. That is not a bad thing at all. The courts are there to be used by citizens. Where normalisation breaks out, citizens will use the courts in a normal way. But I am very grateful for his support and also that of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton.

For a moment I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, was going to link his comment about the number of lawyers in the north and south of Ireland with this House. I took it that he did not because his noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, who is sitting in his place, would be the first to react to such a comment. I believe that this House has exactly the right number of lawyers in it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.