HC Deb 19 December 1991 vol 201 cc249-50W
Mr. Trotter

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what are his proposals for the future organisation of the magistrates courts in the light of the Le Vay review.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

The Government have now completed their review of the organisation of the magistrates courts service in England and Wales. In addition, because that review made it timely to do so, they have also considered how responsibility for the service should be allocated within government.

As to organisation, the Government have concluded that, in the light of extensive consultations following the scrutiny of the magistrates courts service and of a study of costs undertaken by independent consultants, it would not be right to bring forward legislative proposals to reconstitute the service as an executive agency. However, there has been a widespread acceptance of the need to modernise the management structure of the service with a view to improving its performance and strengthening lines of accountability while at the same time maintaining the independence of the judicial process and the valuable contribution of local magistrates in the local management of the service.

Some useful first steps have already been taken since the scrutiny. But in order to achieve these aims and to take forward the application to this service of the principles of the citizens charter we propose to work with the service to introduce a range of improvements, upon some of which an early start can be made while others will require legislation. They include progress towards the establishment of an inspectorate, to provide an effective management audit and to promote the spread of best practice; a strengthening and clarification of the management role of magistrates courts committees; the introduction of systematic performance review and planning throughout the service; and a more coherent geographical structure, taking account as necessary of the review of the structure of local government as a whole which has now begun. On the other hand, no immediate change is envisaged in the balance between central and local financing of the service.

It will be important to ensure that the new arrangements are strong and flexible, enabling the service to adapt to changing circumstances while at the same time guaranteeing a satisfactory career structure for court staff, high standards of performance, and effective working relations with other parts of the criminal justice system throughout England and Wales.

As to responsibility, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has concluded that, in the light of the proposals outlined in this answer, it will be appropriate for the responsibilities in relation to the finance, organisation and management of the magistrates courts which are now assigned to the Home Secretary under the Justices of the Peace Act 1979 and related legislation to be exercised from 1 April 1992 by the Lord Chancellor in the same way as he holds those responsibilities for the Crown court. This brings to an end the divided responsibility for the magistracy. My right hon. Friend has also decided that, in these circumstances, it would be appropriate for him to appoint a junior Minister in the Commons in the Lord Chancellor's Department. The appointment will be announced in due course.

The necessary instruments will be brought before Parliament as soon as possible. I shall continue to answer to Parliament for the criminal and procedural law of the magistrates courts in the same way as for the Crown courts. The Government intend to set out these proposals in more detail in a White Paper and to continue to consult interested bodies as necessary.