Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
TUESDAY 16 OCTOBER 2001
LAIRG QC AND
100. You have answered the questions on targets
and the future of targets, when you have discussions with the
Law Society what do you say to them in general about the quality
of the service?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am going to probably say
to them that they have done better in one particular area and
worse than I certainly intended in relation to backlog, that the
jury therefore very much continues to be out on them, but depending
upon the assurances they can give me about the maintenance and
perhaps the improvement of the targets and other targets we have
been discussing, I could be persuaded to hold my hand in relation
to the statutory powers I have. This is something you have to
keep at all the time.
101. A lot done but a lot more to do.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) As some politician once said.
David Winnick: Whoever that may be.
Chairman: Can we briefly, Lord Chancellor, turn
to delays and the need to reduce delays.
102. Lord Chancellor, now your Department has
had some considerable success in achieving the target and reducing
delays from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders,
will it set a new target and, if so, what will that be?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) First of all, the fact is that
we have scored a big triumph really in relation to persistent
young offenders. The pledge was to bring the waiting time down
from 142 to 71. You can argue about the lifetime of a parliament
being five years or whatever, but nobody is going to deny that
to get it down to 69 days by June, two days below the Government's
target of 71 days, is a pretty good achievement but of course
what it is is a single important target. The new targets are currently
under discussion, and I am not in a position to reveal new targets
103. Can I ask you about the Crown Court claim
where, conversely, the number of defendants committed for trial
is decreasing, yet the average waiting time for a trial is increasing?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) There is an explanation for
this. Let me tell you what the basic facts are. Actual cases which
are indictable, that is triable on indictment only, are now sent
immediately to the crown court without an intermediate stage of
a committal in a magistrate's court. Also, however, there are
sent to the crown court, either way cases which are committed
to the crown court, so you have two categories. Because indictable
cases are now instantly, and rightly, sent to the crown court,
receipts of cases for trial in the crown court are actually increasing,
so there is an increase in the volume of business. It is pretty
stark actually. In the first quarter of this year, 19,465 cases
were received in this way, compared with 16,954 in the first quarter
of the previous year. That is the principal reason for the apparent
disparity in performance between the crown courts and the magistrates'
courts. It is because under s.51 of the 1998 Actthese are
the Narey reformsindictable only cases are sent, as I said
already, to the crown court immediately without a full-blown committal
proceeding in which the evidence is presented in the magistrate's
court. Under the old system, much of the preparation for trial
would have been completed in these cases in committal proceedings
in the magistrate's court before they ever got to the crown court,
so the truth is that the actual immediate volume of business hitting
the crown courts has gone up. I think the crown courts are performing
pretty well and in the magistrates' courts it is really going
terribly well. This is probably the contrast you are looking at.
The figures for the magistrates' courts are pretty good and the
figures for crown courts do not look so good. Waiting times have
been reduced in the magistrates' courts.
In 1997, which I happen to choose when I became Lord Chancellor,
the waiting time was 88 days, in June this year it was 63 days.
So the magistrates' courts is a good story. At first blush, the
crown court is not so good but I have given you the explanation.
104. So the crown courts are dependent on the
percentage of indictable cases?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) That is right. If you eliminate
committal proceedings in the magistrates' courts and you send
up more cases to the crown courts not pre-digested in the magistrates'
courts, there is more work for the crown courts to do.
105. We appear to be operating from different
sets of statistics. The figures we have for magistrates' courts
for the average duration of cases, from first listing to completion,
was cut from 35 days to 31 days between 1997 and 1999, and it
went back to 32 days in 2000.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Is that from charge to listing,
or from first hearing?
106. I am sure it is a matter of definition
that is the problem.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think it is definitional.
We will note this off the transcript and come back to you.
107. Will you send us a note about that?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am sure it depends how you
are defining the time.
108. I am sure it does. A discrepancy that large
must mean some factors not being taken into account. This business
of the 1998 Act accounting for most of the increase in waiting
time at crown courts, that cannot wholly be the explanation, can
it, because this trend of increasing the waiting times began before
the 1998 Act came into force? Again, I am dealing with the figures
I have in front of me.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) There may be other reasons
for that we would have to look at.
109. I have figures here for 1997 which say
there were 110,722 cases then and the average waiting time was
12 weeks. Then if you go to 2000, the number of cases had fallen
to 89,252 but the average waiting time had gone up to 14 weeks.
The trend is inexorably in the wrong direction, for whatever reason.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) These are statistics.
110. I understand that.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Let me give what I think may
be the answer. Another factor affecting the crown courts is the
reduction in the plea rate. Apparently it has reduced from 51.4
per cent in the first quarter of 2000 to 49 per cent in 2001.
What this means is that a higher proportion of cases are actually
going to trial and, as the number of trials has also increased
by 3 per cent, it means more cases in absolute terms. So there
are two elements in it, not merely one. One is cases going directly
to the crown court without an intervening committal proceeding,
two, the reduction in the plea rate. But may we take a copy of
your piece of paper away and write to you on it?
111. I just want to end up all singing from
the same hymn sheet, as it were.
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) I suspect it depends on what
is being measured; the definition of the measurement.
112. I am sure you are right. Thank you for
that. Finally, can I ask you about the organisation called CAFCASS,
the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service. People
keep telling me there is a bit of a crisis there, has word reached
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes. There are problems in
CAFCASS and there are undoubtedly serious problems which I can
assure you I am very, very familiar with. It depends really upon
how much time I have in order to explain. The real history of
it is that the GALROs, the Guardians ad Litem, were employed by
local authorities in different capacities, they were employed
either as self-employed or employed, and at about the same time
as CAFCASS was being formed a number of GALROs, who were self-employedand
the majority of them as far as I know want to be self-employedamazingly
wanted to become employed in relation to their particular local
authority. They were concerned that their particular self-employment
contracts were flawed legally and they asked the Inland Revenue
and the Inland Revenue gave them a dusty answer. The result really
then was that the cat was among the pigeons and there was an explorationand
this is really truncating very, very severely a very long storyand
negotiations took place between CAFCASS and the GALROs around
two possible contracts, the employed contract and the self-employed
contract. I hasten to say that money or cost savings did not come
into it because it was all on the basis ofI cannot remember
the exact figureabout 3 or 4 per cent more than the bill
had been cumulatively with all the local authorities before. It
emerged, as CAFCASS and, indeed, as I understood it, that the
Inland Revenue would not regard people as self employed unless
they were in business on their own account, unless they were running
risks, unless they were putting up their own plant and equipment
and everything else, and if they were integrated into an organisation
deeply as if they were employees, then employees they were in
law. Then a stage in the negotiations arose at which CAFCASS took
the view that the only basis on which the GALROs could be offered
self employment was if they were paid under a graduated fee system
which would be acceptable to the Inland Revenue. The view was
taken that the GALROs would never accept that. I do not want to
comment upon a case which is outstanding. When I say "outstanding",
it has come to a decision thus far. The view was come to that
the knot had to be broken and they were offered employment contracts
only. The judge in the judicial review has held that there was
material to suggest that the GALROs had not absolutely closed
the door on a self-employed contract, and there is now going to
be a period of consultation to explore that. The truth is that
the CAFCASS, which is a very important body serving the interests
of children in courts, has been stricken in its inception with
an industrial relations dispute, and it has had problems, but
I would not, of course, begin to conceal from the Committee that
thus far I am confident that the services which are required are
being provided and are being provided properly. I can also assure
you that the problems are getting a very high level of my own
attention and my senior officials' attention.
113. Are you satisfied with the quality of management
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) There are problems with the
quality of management, and I do not want anything that I say to
worsen a situation that exists. The Chief Executiveagainst
whom I do not wish anything that I say to be taken in any way
as a criticism either express or implied, none is intendedhas
gone off ill for a period of time, probably because of the stress
arising out of the events which I am describing. I am allocating
no blame whatsoever, because this is a very, very fraught situation
for which none of us around this table would have liked to have
114. You are on the case anyway?
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) Very much so, yes.
115. That concludes the business, Lord Chancellor.
Can I thank you for answering our questions with great courtesy
and good humour for 2½ hours. We look forward to our next
(Lord Irvine of Lairg) So do I.
Chairman: Thank you.
4 See p. 18. Back
See p. 19. Back