Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Lady Hermon: I regret to find myself in disagreement once again with the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon). First, on the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland, these are recommendations to the Government. They are not set in stone. A recommendation does not have to be accepted unless the arguments for it carry weight. Change for change's sake, as a cosmetic exercise, should not be welcomed by the Committee. If the provision changed the substance of the work of resident magistrates, I might agree with it, but just to change their title, in what appears to be a cosmetic exercise, should not be countenanced. The resident magistrates are in favour of continuing with their current title, and I wonder to what extent the Minister consulted them before making this proposal.

5.15 pm

Mr. Browne: I have not read the books referred to, nor indeed, to my recollection, have I seen any of the television programmes. I may have done, but if I did, they did not impress themselves on me. I prefer, for obvious reasons, which I will come to, the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) on whether I fit the character of Flurry Knox, because she tells me that Flurry Knox—

Mr. Blunt: Perhaps I can help the Minister.

Mr. Browne: Perhaps I can help myself, first; then we will see whether I need any further help.

I am told that Flurry Knox is a rogue and is always up to some mischief or other, constantly in trouble and always has a scam—I can live with that. I am told that he is also a master of foxhounds—I cannot live with that. I would not like it to go uncontradicted that I would allow myself to be compared to a master of foxhounds. Further, I am told that he is married to a beautiful woman—I can live with that. I am told that

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he gets his friend, the hapless English magistrate, into all sorts of bother, so that the locals can take advantage of him. If the hon. Member for Reigate wishes to live with the description of the hapless English gentleman, I am quite happy to live with the bulk of the description of Flurry Knox, although I may have to defend myself against some elements of it.

I am grateful for the support given to the amendments by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh. I feel slightly embarrassed about what I am going to say about both of them. The amendments concern the Bill's provisions to rename resident magistrates as district judges (magistrates courts). All hon. Members have, to some degree, understood the reasons for this recommendation from the review.

My hon. Friend arrived at his view of the history of the position of resident magistrate from his knowledge of the matter, but shares that view with the review. I do not think that anybody has any objection to the continued use of the name, although both the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and my hon. Friend expressed views on the importance of change, which I will come to in a moment.

Essentially, although we are discussing several amendments, there is only one substantive amendment in the group—No. 44, which deletes clause 9, thereby retaining the title of resident magistrate. The rest of the group are consequential on that amendment.

The Bill's provisions follow the review recommendation, which was intended to demonstrate publicly that the magistracy is an integral part of the judiciary. I have said, and no doubt will say on several occasions in this Committee, that it is my intention, where possible, to follow the recommendations of the review. However, the content of this debate has made it clear that some of the recommendations are more important and symbolic than others.

I do not get the sense that this issue will divide the community of Northern Ireland, but the reasons why the review recommended it are set out. The review concluded that the term ''resident'' had no meaning or relevance in a modern context, as there was no particular reason for wanting officeholders to live in the district in which they held office. Its recommendation was also designed to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales, where the title of stipendiary magistrate has also been phased out. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough made the important point that stipendiary magistrates in England and Wales were keen to embrace the change for whatever reason, which was important for the acceptance of that recommendation. Whether others regret it or not is of little importance.

In my experience, the adjective ''resident'' is often attached to judges. It does not necessarily mean in the modern context that the judge lives in the jurisdiction, but that he or she is the regular judge in that court. It differentiates that judge from a circuit judge or temporary judge. People often use the term more

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loosely and not as accurately as this as an adjective for judges. I am not certain that it has the same meaning for ordinary people that it may have had when it was attached to magistrates, when resident magistrates were introduced.

The arguments that I rehearsed in short from the review and those put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh have considerable merit. However, as the hon. Member for North Down said, the recommendations are not written in stone, and once the Government have considered them, they must take responsibility for deciding whether they should be translated into legislation and implemented. The Government therefore listened to the views that were raised during the two consultation periods on the review. They presented a mixed message. Although some agreed with the recommendation, some, not least members of the Resident Magistrates' Association, expressed their opposition to it. The Resident Magistrates' Association opposed the name change, pointing to the long history of the resident magistrate in Northern Ireland and his longer history in Ireland more generally. We accept that there is a growing strength of feeling that the name should be retained, not least as expressed in the submission from the Resident Magistrates' Association that was received on 10 January after the Bill was introduced. Neither we nor anyone else who supports the Government's settled view intend to cause any offence to resident magistrates. There was never any intention to cause such offence or to remove a name that has been synonymous with effective justice that has been applied evenly over many years.

It may be appropriate at this point to say a few words about the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh about the importance of change and symbols of change when change takes place. I agree with him that, for there to be a fresh start, it is sometimes important to show that it is a fresh start and that people can leave baggage from the past behind.

A significant number of judges are listed in the schedule and in clause 2, but interestingly, the only change is in relation to resident magistrates. It is not as if the change is one among several; it is the only change that the review proposed. Members of the review panel may have argued this had they chosen to, but the change was not proposed to benefit the modernisation of the justice system, but to clarify the status in the judicial pecking order of resident magistrates by calling them judges, and doing away with an adjective that has lost any current sense or relevance.

Given that there appears to be growing support for the retention of the name, the Government are prepared to reconsider the amendment. We are not prepared to accept it today, because several technical amendments not included in the group might need to be made. The Government want to go back to consultees, especially those who have taken an interest in the matter and have supported the change, to clarify our interpretation of their views and to engage with them about the process. That is good manners, apart from anything else. I turn to look at

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my hon. Friend the Member for Newry and Armagh as I say that, given his contribution to the debate.

Mr. Mallon: I should be interested if the Minister would inform us from where the weight of opinion in favour of the term ''resident magistrate'' has come. I suspect that it has not come from the populace at large, but I do not know. The Minister is obviously aware of where the pressure has come from. In the past two or three years I have discussed the subject, pending legislation, with many people, and the change did not keep anyone awake at night to the extent that would suggest a Government change of position.

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend's point has been made in another guise in Committee. The provisions of the criminal justice review may not have captured the imagination of the man on the Newry omnibus, but it does not alter the fact that our consultees have expressed a view on the subject. I made special reference to the Resident Magistrates' Association and the importance of the stipendiary magistrates position in England and Wales in relation to the proposed change of name. Some consultees have expressed no view one way or another.

Off the top of my head, I cannot remember the position in consultation of the party represented by my hon. Friend. I would not be surprised, and it would probably not surprise him, if its submission made no reference to the name change at all. I am not entitled to interpret from that that it was supportive or neutral about it. There is growing pressure from a number of discrete sources on the issue, but a number of discrete sources have contributed to the consultation in any event. The Resident Magistrates' Association made its submission, in which it set out the clear argument for the retention, after the Bill was tabled.

The amendments give me the opportunity to suggest that the Government are prepared to reconsider the issue, go back to people in the time available and give them an opportunity to engage with us on the issue in the changed circumstances. I accept that the issue is not exactly earth shattering, but if it will not be to the detriment of the administration of justice to do so, it is appropriate for the Government to take into account the position of those who hold the title and discuss their views with others. I understand that several consultees expressed support for the change. We should return and engage with them. If issues additional to those raised by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh are relevant to the Committee, we should hear about them.

On the understanding that we will look further into the issues again later, I ask the hon. Member for Reigate to withdraw the amendment.

5.30 pm

 
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Prepared 29 January 2002