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Court Proceedings

26. Annabelle Ewing (Perth): In how many court proceedings she is scheduled to appear in her capacity as Advocate-General in the next six months. [51313]

The Advocate-General: I am involved in the consideration of court proceedings on an ongoing basis. For example, I intend to appear personally as counsel, representing the Secretary of State for Defence, in the Macdonald case before the House of Lords. This case concerns questions of European law and human rights arising from the dismissal of a service man from the armed forces. I also intend to appear in the investigation, held under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, into the disappearance of the fishing vessel Trident off the north-east coast of Scotland in 1974. At present, specific dates for these hearings have not been set.

Annabelle Ewing: I thank the Advocate-General for her answer. That appears to bring the tally to a grand total of four court appearances since 6 June last year, with the dates of the two further appearances that she just mentioned still to be set. Does she not accept that there is some concern in Scotland that the number of her court appearances—far from not being routine, as she stated in an earlier reply—are rare to the point of extinction?

The Advocate-General: I do not know whether the hon. Lady has ever appeared in such a court as the House of Lords—the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council—or whether she understands the amount of preparation involved in such cases. Law Officers do not always appear personally. Since my appointment, I have made a point of doing this work in court. My last appearance was in the

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Appeal Court in Scotland a few weeks ago, when I spent a number of days in court as well as a large number of days preparing the case. Obviously, the timing of these court appearances is not under my control, and they sometimes conflict with parliamentary business. I also have to allow time for all the other advisory work that I do. I think that the hon. Lady is getting good value for money.


The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Auld Report

29. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): If he will make a statement on the Auld report and its implications for the work of the magistrates courts. [51316]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): The period of comment on Sir Robin Auld's review of the criminal courts has closed. As the Lord Chancellor has stated, the Government are now considering the recommendations—including assessments of costs and benefits—in detail, and taking into account all the comments that have been received. The Government intend to publish a White Paper announcing their conclusions before the summer recess.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister will be aware that the magistracy has been a bulwark of justice in this country since as long ago as 1195. Does he agree that, if the Government accept Lord Justice Auld's proposals, they would be pandering to their command-and-control tendency, as detailed by the central magistrates court committee in The Guardian on 19 April, and that those proposals would present a serious threat of closure to magistrates courts, which would be another severe blow to rural areas?

Mr. Wills: No, I do not agree. If the hon. Gentleman had taken the time to read Sir Robin Auld's report, he would have seen that his rhetoric bears absolutely no relation to the facts. Sir Robin Auld pays tribute to the work of the magistracy. I am happy to repeat that the Government value the work of the magistracy. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a bulwark of the criminal justice system, and it will remain so.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I commend my hon. Friend and his Department for their thorough consultation and the serious way in which they are listening to all views, but can he at least say that Auld's recommendation of a unified criminal court will go ahead? Within that, can he say that local justice delivered by magistrates will be entrenched as an important part of its role and practice?

Mr. Wills: I am not in a position to announce the outcome of the Government's deliberations on Sir Robin Auld's report. As my hon. Friend will know, we will announce our conclusions in a White Paper that will be published shortly. I can tell him that we have already indicated in our manifesto that we see the attractions of a

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unified court—that is on the record. It is absolutely clear that, whatever decisions we take, local justice will be very important.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Auld report says that much of the work of a new district division could, with advantage, be undertaken in magistrates courthouses, reducing the trend of closure. As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) said, the trend is accelerating, not least in my area, with the proposed closure of Frome magistrates court. Given that Lord Justice Auld states unequivocally that the most important factor in these closures is

will the Minister use his offices to stop the closures, expand the use of local magistrates courts and ensure that local justice stays local?

Mr. Wills: I think that the hon. Gentleman could profitably spend some time reading Sir Robin Auld's report in detail. [Interruption.] If he is suggesting he has already read it, I think he should read it again and understand what Sir Robin Auld said.

The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned with local justice. Of course, we are all concerned with that. If he is asking me to guarantee that a magistrates court will never be closed again, I have to say that, no, I cannot guarantee that. He must recognise that it is important not only that justice is done locally, but that it is done efficiently and effectively, and is available to all. That means having courtrooms that are modern, are accessible to people who are disabled, have the right segregation of facilities between victims and witnesses and have all the other modern facilities that people expect of their courts. We will continue to implement a programme of modernisation to achieve that.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I know that my hon. Friend is aware that the Auld report makes no specific recommendations on specialist courts for domestic violence, but does he agree that such courts would be an important step forward?

Mr. Wills: I certainly recognise the strength of the arguments. We have been looking at that matter carefully in the Department and we will continue to do so. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in this important area. She will have to await the publication of the White Paper to see what decisions we take in relation to Lord Justice Auld's report.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): May I, first, congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, on the Address to Her Majesty, which has received great approbation throughout the country?

As I am sure the Minister knows, much concern has been expressed by local communities, by magistrates and by hon. Members from all parties—including, for example, in a debate in which I took part on the Greater London magistracy—about the proposal in Lord Justice Auld's criminal courts review that local management of magistrates courts should be subsumed into a national executive agency. The Minister will know what I am driving at. I am sure that he agrees—at least I hope he agrees—that such a step would lead to a serious reduction

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in local justice and, in the regrettable words of the Lord Chancellor, who also made an admirable Address this morning, create

I am sure that neither development would be welcome in the House. Can the Minister therefore give an assurance that, when the White Paper is published, it will contain proposals that maintain a locally managed and locally accountable structure for magistrates courts throughout England and Wales?

Mr. Wills: Of course I recognise those concerns—they have been expressed frequently over the past few months. We have held wide-ranging consultation and had a large number of roadshows. Those views surface regularly, and of course we take them seriously. However, the hon. Gentleman is going to have to be patient and wait just a little longer for the publication of the White Paper to see what we propose.

Grays Courts

30. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): If he will make a statement on the future of the courts in Grays. [51318]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Michael Wills): Decisions on the future of the magistrates court at Grays are for the Essex magistrates courts committee to determine, in consultation with its three paying authorities: Essex county council, Southend borough council and Thurrock borough council.

Earlier this month, Essex magistrates courts committee determined its accommodation needs, and its plans do include the eventual closure of Grays magistrates court. At the moment, none of the three paying authorities has exercised its right to appeal against the determination.

Andrew Mackinlay: May I tell the Minister that we in Grays are not happy about this? In fact, I lie to the House—we are very angry. One reason is that, in a letter to the council, the chairman of Essex magistrates courts committee blames the Minister's Department for insisting that it include the existing Basildon courthouse in its private finance initiative. I want the Minister to give an undertaking today that, when we appeal—as we will—he will get his Department to rethink that requirement. It is grossly unfair to the people of Thurrock, an ancient town with good communication links on the Thames gateway. Nor is it in the interests of efficient, local and accessible justice—the criteria that he repeatedly referred to in response to earlier questions. A Basildon courthouse is not accessible to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This is not an Adjournment debate; it is Lord Chancellor's questions.

Mr. Wills: I can assure my hon. Friend that I will take back to the Department the force of his feelings. More than that, I should remind him that, although there is a deadline of 10 May, we have still not received an appeal from any of the paying authorities. Should they decide to appeal, as he says they will, I am happy to repeat the offer

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that I made in correspondence to meet him and any other parties involved, so that we can discuss all the questions arising from this inevitably rather complex matter.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): May I tell the Minister that, regardless of what might happen in Grays, the people of Chelmsford are delighted with the proposal—which forms part of the review and the changes to the magistrates court system in Essex—for a brand new, purpose-built courthouse in Chelmsford, the county town, for the provision of justice at the magistrates level?

Mr. Wills: Of course the hon. Gentleman may tell me that, and I am happy to hear it.

I have repeated my offer to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). These are complex matters and we are happy to discuss them in a meeting, but I should again remind my hon. Friend that we must first receive an appeal. To date, we have yet to receive one.

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