Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 115)



  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.

Angela Watkinson

  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 to you.

  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 Act—these are the Narey reforms—indictable 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.[4] 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.[5]

  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 you?
  (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-employed—and the majority of them as far as I know want to be self-employed—amazingly 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 exploration—and this is really truncating very, very severely a very long story—and 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 of—I cannot remember the exact figure—about 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 at CAFCASS?
  (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 Executive—against whom I do not wish anything that I say to be taken in any way as a criticism either express or implied, none is intended—has 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 been responsible.

  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 meeting.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) So do I.

  Chairman: Thank you.

4   See p. 18. Back

5   See p. 19. Back

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