Draft Maximum Number of Judges (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

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Mr. Lock: I shall attempt to respond briefly to the points raised.

The cost allegations are a red herring. I am disappointed that the Conservatives value rights so cheaply. The truth is that the work load in England and Wales is stable following the introduction of the Human Rights Act. It has not mushroomed, as it was confidently predicted to do. There is adequate provision in the budgets should it do so, but, like so many predictions that have come from the Conservative Benches, such growth has failed to materialise. The predictions of chaos were, as always, somewhat overblown.

In recent years, there has been a 61 per cent. increase in business in the Northern Ireland courts. That has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act; it is part of the normalisation process, and I would have hoped that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) would welcome that. The effects of the order will be to increase the complement of High Court judges, who are already busy because of normalisation and the increase in business in Northern Ireland courts.

Mr. Hawkins: Of course I welcome the process of normalisation, as, I am sure, does every hon. Member. However, when the Minister opened the debate, he suggested that the need for extra puisne judges was precisely because of the Human Rights Act. If he had said at the outset that judges are busy and the work load has increased because of normalisation, we would not be having this short debate. However, he did not say that. He referred specifically to the implications of the Human Rights Act. He is changing his story under challenge.

Mr. Lock: Taking one bad point has been aggravated by taking a second bad point. The 61 per cent. increase has meant that judges are busy. As a result of the judges being busy, and the anticipated work loads that may result from the Human Rights Act, it is prudent and appropriate to apply to appoint more High Court judges. That does not mean that the Human Rights Act is not the reason for this order. Equally, it does not mean that judges are not working. The 61 per cent. increase to which I referred is in judicial review cases, which is the area in which we anticipate challenges.

On the paranoid point about whether judges from the Irish Republic will sit in Northern Ireland, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). The problems are woefully overstated. Judges in Northern Ireland are appointed by the Lord Chancellor and have jurisdiction only in Northern Ireland. It is they who will determine cases in Northern Ireland. Only people appointed by the Lord Chancellor under laws made by Parliament may sit as judges in Northern Ireland. Were the circumstances to be any different, Parliament would have to make that decision unless and until the matter becomes the responsibility of the Assembly, which at present it is not. I hope that that answers the point made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath.

I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), who asked about cost. The cost of appointing a High Court judge is, in salary, £127,872 a year. I look forward to receiving his application. The additional costs associated with an appointment, which relate to the support that a High Court judge must have, such as staff, would be an estimated £50,000 a year. The total cost of a High Court judge plus accessories, if I may put it that way, is approximately £180,000 a year.

The hon. Gentleman asked who may become a High Court judge. Only barristers with 10 years' experience at the Bar of Northern Ireland may be appointed as judges in Northern Ireland under section 9 of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes to ask whether I agree with that, let me say that the Government's view is that there is as little justification for limiting appointments to the High Court bench to barristers in Northern Ireland as there was in England and Wales. The matter will be dealt with in the detailed response—which will include a draft Bill—which the Government are due to publish in April as implementation plans for responding to the criminal justice review, which, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, was set up as part of the Good Friday agreement. We anticipate as part of those plans that the present restriction that limits to barristers appointment at the High Court bench will be removed.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the judicial appointments commission. That is also part of the criminal justice review that was published, which the Government have accepted in principle. I anticipate that detailed information about the implementation of the judicial appointments commission will be available from April. Many issues need to be resolved relating to how such a commission can and should work, what authority it should have and how its appointments should be structured, and detailed work needs to be done on those matters. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman more detail today, but I assure him that work is progressing, and we anticipate being able, in about April, to give him details of the process.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Maximum Number of Judges (Northern Ireland) Order 2001.

        Committee rose at twelve minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Olner, Mr. (Chairman)
Atkinson, Mr. David
Bermingham, Mr.
Burnett, Mr.
Clark, Mr. Paul
Dobbin, Mr.
Hawkins, Mr.
Lock, Mr.
Mahon, Mrs.
Pound, Mr.
Touhig, Mr.

 
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Prepared 1 February 2001