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Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The new body's committee dealing with accountability will have two representatives of the local community and an additional representative and so on. I am sure that the noble Lord has read the passage dealing with those
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the noble Lord is perfectly correct. To me, however, accountability has always gone with the control of money. The control of money in the local administrative boards will be non-existent; at best, they are consultative and can make recommendations. The control of money will come from the centre. However devolved downwards the administration may be, those who know the source of funding will look to the hand that feeds them for direction on what they should do. That is one of the great realities of life.
One thing I have learned in long experience as a farmer is that there is not much point in tilling the same soil too many times as the soil will only become unproductive. The "soil" in relation to magistrates has already been well tilled today by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Seccombe, my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, the noble Lord Phillips of Sudbury, and others. I shall therefore not continue except to make one observation. We are perhaps fortunate that 1984 is behind us. Nevertheless, the juggernaut postulated for 1984 seems to be growing ever closer.
Lord Hooson: My Lords, I entirely agree that the courts' administrative provision and arrangementsfrom the High Court to the magistrates' courtsshould come under one umbrella, but only if adequate provision is made for the extremely important local dimension in relation to magistrates' courts, Crown Courts, county courts and so on. In all the briefing papers I received on this matter, the one point that really registered was in a parliamentary briefing paper from the Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees. One of its five criticisms of the Bill was that the proposal would make it easier for the Lord Chancellor to close courts irrespective of the needs of local justice and the concerns of the local community. That is the issue that I shall address.
I live in a very sparsely populated part of the country, in mid-Wales, where we are in the process of having to close almost all the courts regardless of whether they provide for the High Court, the Crown Court or the magistrates' court. Frequently, all courts share the same facilities because there has been no investment in them for many years. Although the Lord Chancellor is in the Chamber, the shadow of another Chancellorthe Chancellor of the Exchequerhangs over this debate.
The Lord Chancellor is taking great powers in the Bill. I should like briefly to explore how those powers will be exercised and interpreted in relation to my own area. The precursor of an executive agency already exists in the Lord Chancellor's Department, and that agency has already intervened quite considerably in my own area. I seek the Lord Chancellor's guidance and explanation of how the powers will be interpreted and how they are intended to be used.
I am holding a document entitled Gwent and Dyfed Powys Courts Scheme, published in October 2002. It is subtitled, "Executive Summary Outline Business Case for a Public Private Partnership", and covers courts in Gwent, in south-east Wales; in Powys, my own area in central Wales, and in Dyfed in south-west Wales. The scheme was undoubtedly put together under pressure from the Lord Chancellor's Department. I have been consulting on it. Under the heading "The Outline Business CaseKey Facts", the scheme states:
Therefore, we have this courts scheme document. It gives an indication of how the Lord Chancellor's Department is likely to act if the general thrust of the Bill is passed. I said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's shadow is over the Bill. Is he insisting that there should be private partnership arrangements? The failure of the Lord Chancellor's Department in that event is the failure of the Lord Chancellor to persuade his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to provide the money that is so badly needed to provide us with decent courts in country areas such as my own.
My fear isand it is a fear expressed by many people in my part of the worldthat we shall have to close the courts and that no proper provision will be made, because I cannot see that a private partnership will be enticed into this scheme. This paper is the preparation for it, but the money has not been provided. Is this scheme an indication of the kind of situation that will arise unless suitable safeguards are made during the passage of the Bill through the House? I am really asking the Lord Chancellor to explain his view and his interpretation of the Bill. Was there discussion with the Welsh Assemblyand with the Secretary of State for Wales, for examplebefore the Bill was introduced? How does he intend to interpret his powers under the Bill?
Lord Ackner: My Lords, I appreciate that flattery will get me nowhere, in particular with this Lord Chancellor. But I should like to express my gratitude for the great deal of preparatory work done in providing the explanatory material, which I found very time-consuming, but, on the other hand, very helpful.
At the outset perhaps I may indicate my support for the reform of the courts system with the goal of creating a more unified structure able to serve court users and the public. That is also the view of the Bar Council, to which I am indebted for some of the material that I shall place before your Lordships.
I have heard in the past that the Lord Chancellor's Department manages to maintain its stranglehold on the administration of justice by providing the Lord Chancellor with such an excess of work that it can tie him down on matters that may be of some importance while it gets on, behind his back, with achieving whatever it has in mind. That was perhaps particularly indicated by the position of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who was totally unaware that behind his back an enormous amount of work was going on preparatory to the production of the Green Papers of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is of course a workaholic. It would be difficult to tie him down in particular. The same no doubt applies to his shadow, for whom I have particular affection. But, on the other hand, neither is immortal and politics being what it is they will have successors in the near future, or further in the future. Therefore, I am concerned at the extent to which matters are left entirely to the discretion of the Lord Chancellor, which in many ways means the Lord Chancellor's Department, for which I do not have quite the respect that perhaps I should have.
I shall refer to one or two clauses, but will try to avoid repetition. As to Clauses 4 and 5, we believe that it is a good idea to have area court administration councils, providing they have power to act. They should be required to publish annual reports, or the Lord Chancellor should publish them along with his own, as provided for in Clause 1(4).
Clause 4(5) speaks of guidance to the councils from the Lord Chancellor about the way the councils "discharge their functions". Where are those functions defined? Clause 4(5) would suggest that that is all to be set out in a statutory instrument. That is objectionable. Why not define those functions on the face of the Bill? They are certainly germane to the Bill.
With regard to justices of the peace, a great deal has been said in critical observations. I shall not repeat them, but I substantially agree with them. In relation to Clause 8, which concerns local justice areas, I suggest that the areas under Clause 8(2) be defined now. Clause 8(4) allows the Lord Chancellor to do as he pleases at a later stage.
Clause 23, which deals with functions, is objectionable in one respect. Why cannot the Lord Chancellor define on the face of the Bill what functions currently done by JPs he wants to be done by clerks in the future? This provision, as it now stands, would allow for civil-servant-driven justice and is undesirable.
Clause 25 deals with places, dates and times of sittings. I wish to ensure that under Clause 25(1) the courts are locally accessible by all communities in England and Wales. The Bill should provide for that as a statutory objective.
Clause 29 concerns costs in legal proceedings. I would query whether it is right that a person who brings successful proceedings against a JP for acting outside his jurisdiction cannot recover his costs. Clause 29(4) allows the court to order the Lord Chancellor to pay. That is appropriate, but Clause 29(5) allows the Lord Chancellor to define when he will or will not pay costs. That suggests that he is acting as a judge in his own cause. That measure should be removed from the Bill and substituted by something more equitable.
Clause 31 deals with fines officers. It gives the Lord Chancellor the power to activate Schedule 2 and, indeed, to modify it. In Schedule 2 a civil servantthat is, the fines officermay increase or decrease the fine. In paragraph 17 there is a power but not a duty to refer collection orders to the magistrates' court. Is the Lord Chancellor prepared to give an assurance that the "magistrates' court" referred to in paragraph 16(2) will not be only a magistrate's clerk? In paragraph 23, which does not properly define a "magistrates' court" as one presided over by JPs or a district judge, it could mean a justice's clerk. Clause 32(2) bears that out.
The next matter to which I want to refer is Clause 69, which provides for the Lord Chancellor, a government Minister, to involve himself in substantive law where the state will always be a party. Does that not run the risk of coming into conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights?
Clause 73 deals with family procedure rules and practice directions. It gives the Lord Chancellor power to rewrite Clause 72(2), which concerns who sits on the family procedure rule committee, and, indeed, the rest
In Clause 79, which concerns the civil procedure rules, the same change is proposed as in Clause 73, and that should be opposed. The Lord Chancellor cannot be given the power to act as he pleases. The rules have a major impact upon the practice and cost of litigation. It is thought that those who decide what the rules are should be defined in primary legislation.
I turn to Clause 87, which deals with the subject of fees. This is what we have often referred to as making provision for the cream for the office cat to be paid for by the unfortunate litigant. It is obviously having a thoroughly undesirable effect on litigation. The amount of litigation in county courts is decreasing and that is due not only to the very wise provisions made by my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf but also to the prohibitive cost of proceedings. There is an absence of proper financing by the Government, and the result is a degree of incompetence that, in some quarters, is quite frightening.
Reference has been made to the Central London County Court. One cannot make contact with that court by telephoneit is impossible, and I speak with first-hand knowledge. I found myself a defendant in that court. I counter-claimed, which I am happy to tell your Lordships had a satisfactory conclusion. But I had to go physically to the central court to get the case transferred to Wandsworth in order to make contact with a court in circumstances that enabled the litigation to go forward.
The quality of clerks is going down because the job is not satisfying. That quality is being maintained in the country because of country connections and because many clerks in the country enjoy that job in their area. But the same is not happening in London. In many ways, the county court system there is grinding to a very unattractive conclusion. I ask your Lordships to join in emphasising that it is vitally important that any new legislation is properly funded. If it is not, then we are better off without the law being changed.
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I begin by broadly welcoming the reformist zeal of this Government in seeking to implement Sir Robin Auld's invaluable report. Of course, one would not wish to imply blanket support for all the proposals. I believe that some of the more controversial ones now beginning their journey through the less perilous waters of the other place are guaranteed a rougher ride here. But the Government's desire to think the unthinkable, open the windows of the legal establishment and let in a little fresh air are to be welcomed.
In broad terms, this Bill deserves the House's support. I suspect that some of the anxieties which have been, and will be, aired today can be ironed out during its passage. I detectI hope not too naivelya genuine desire on the part of the Government to get it right in their restructuring of the lower courts and in bringing together the court system under one roof.
I propose to talk about only three areas this evening: one of major importance; one in the middle order of concern; and one peripheral. Perhaps I may be permitted, in the time-honoured practice pioneered by the Miss World competition, to deal with the last item first; namely, the proposal to do away with the Supplemental List. Though not earth-shattering in its implication, like the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and my noble and learned friend Lord Donaldson, I am sad about this, and declare an interest as a current member of the said list.
The attraction, as it were, of having to provide one's vicar with a moral reference, to sign, say, the application of a General for a shotgun certificate or to authorise the issuing of a passport to one of the better known peripatetic foreign correspondents seems to me to be a relatively harmless diversion within the scheme of things, though no doubt anathema to the tidy minds of Whitehall, despite the fact that it costs nothing. Those of us with little to do except make nuisances of ourselves one way or another in this place will mourn the passing of one of life's little pleasures.
Next, I turn to the proposals relating to the measures aimed at improving the present abysmal rate of fines collection. The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee in another places makes sombre reading: upwards of 40 per cent of fines not collected; recipients of those awarded compensation still not in receipt of the money years after the offence; and a lack of joined-up co-operation between the various agencies years after this particular problem had been identified. Only time prevents me from carrying on this shameful list.
I therefore wholeheartedly welcome the establishment of fines officers, but I should like to tease out from the Minister, if she is able at this stage, the answer to some questions. What will be the status of such officers, and from whose ranks are they likely to be drawn? After all, despite the welcome assurance from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor today, they will be exercising quasi-judicial powers in that they will be able to vary fine orders up or down, presumably issue an attachment of earnings order or, indeed, even a clamping order, as we have heard, in respect of an offender's vehicle. I add at this juncture how pleased I am to note that the full range of penalties will now be used against the recalcitrant offenders.
I remember when I was on the Bench that there was extreme reluctance to use the range of sequestration options on the perfectly understandable view, which has been echoed today from the Liberal Democrat Benches, that innocent partiesnamely, members of the familymight suffer thereby. However, noble Lords might feel that it is about time that persistent offenders were forced to come face to face with the consequences of their actions even if they affect their nearest and dearest.
It is absolutely essential that we get right the collection of fines as the overwhelming number of disposals are by that method. As we have heard, some 75 per cent has been estimated. If non-compliance persists on a large scale two factors will result: first, the
My second question is in general terms. How many fines officers is it envisaged will be appointed: one to each court, or will they be allotted to areas? Where will the extra resources come from to fund them?
Thirdly, although there is provision for a Bench to "take back" from a fines officer a case for re-sentencing, how would that work in practice? Is it realistic to think of it as anything other than a highly unusual exception to what is the norm?
Lastly, I come to the more sensitive but critical areas of local justice and the relationship between local justice areas and the to-be-appointed courts administration councils. As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has shot my bird, I shall not use the acronym. If I were to make a plea for maintaining the status quo in one respect, I think it would be with regard to the 42 geographical areas currently served by magistrates' courts committees. Those have been recast comparatively recently and there is evidence to show that the various agencies within themthe CPS, probation, police, local authorities and so onare working together effectively. So, please, no change just for change's sake.
Pursuing that theme, what will happen, as a result of the Bill, to the justices' chief executives? The current system has been up and running for only a few years, and another upheaval among experienced staff may have really serious consequences from both an administrative and morale point of view. I know that there is much disquiet at the abolition of magistrates' courts committees and whether local input will be diminished as a result, but we shall just have to see how effective the consultation process, and particularly the so-called "red card" system, will be between the new councils and the local chief officers, particularly in relation to court closures, on the subject of which so many noble Lordsone particularly thinks of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, in that contextare rightly concerned.
It is fatal to say this, but it may be that I am the only Member of this House who, as chairman, has presided over the amalgamation of two old and well-established courts: not a bundle of laughs, to put it mildly, but I think it is fair to saysubsequent experience bears this outthat the world did not come to an abrupt stop because of it.
We are all conscious of the fundamental importance of local justice, but I have to say that to take a stand now on court closures, however reprehensible some may be, brings to mind a stable door and a bolting horse, especially when one recalls that some 90 courtsI think it is 90have closed in the past three
What one can surely legitimately call for is an investigation into the hardship involved in defendants getting to court, where the distances involved are high and the public transport system inadequate. In that context one invariably thinks of Suffolk and even more so of Powys. I would beg that suitable resources be allocated to alleviate the worst examples.
Surely, the whole point about bringing all courts under one roof nationally would be to improve inter-agency co-operation dramatically and to use the estateno one has mentioned this todayas fully as possible. Indeed, in one small area I would be tempted to go further. At present, only each way and indictable offences can be moved to a more appropriate court; one, perhaps, with better video links or facilities for the disabled. Why should not that elasticity and freedom be accorded to summary cases as well? I should be grateful if the Minister could indicate whether that would be sympathetically considered.
It seems to me that one of the fundamental weaknesses of the law at presentthis is true of the lower courts as much as the othersis the confusion which has been allowed to build up in the minds of the public about who does what. I think that the Bill, with its unified national structure, will help to put that right. It is simply not good enough blindly hanging on to the past. Indeed, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor might even consider calling them justice boards instead of local justice boards, but perhaps that is a step too far. I do not think I shall try my luck on that.
There are those who see in all these and other proposals the demise of the lay magistracy. I do not agree. To begin with, in a way Auld has provided a firm framework for the continuation of the lay magistracy and a magistracy with an even bigger role to play. Successive Lord Chancellors have endorsed that view, none more so than the present noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who, if I may say so, is not given to going back on undertakings freely given on a number of occasions.
It is up to all of us to ensure that we have as efficient a system of justice as possible, and one that enjoys the confidence and understanding of the people it seeks to serve. I believe that the Bill, appropriately amended, will provide a suitable launching pad for this essential objective.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long. I hope to better even my usual minimal standard of length of Second Reading speech. I do not intend, nor am I qualified, to make a Second Reading speech as such. I shall try to put down a marker of some areas where the Green Party is unhappy with the Bill and wants to try to amend it in Committee. Judging by the speeches we have heard, there will be plenty of opportunity for that.
We have two areas of particular concern. The first is the whole business of centralisation, to which we are opposed in general principle unless a real case can be made for it. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor told us that it is not a centralising Bill. But nothing that I have heard since has supported that. The speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, was an important piece of evidence in arguing the case that we should be careful before over-centralising.
The second area that I, and, I think, your Lordships House, will want to consider is Schedule 2 and the powers given to the enforcement officer. It is obvious from what has been said that the non-payment of fines and various other moneys decided on by the courts is a real and utter scandal that should not be tolerated in a civilised country. Some of the Bill's provisions will help. I was interested in the remarks made about the increasing use of distraint of property. However, we must be careful about the powers we give to enforcement officers to make judgments that are almost semi-judicial. There is much detailed work to be done on Schedule 2.
Meanwhile, I congratulate the Government on trying to pull together a disparate system into something that makes rather more sense, but that must not be done at the expense of either individual liberty or local responsibility. It is in local responsibility that the help or otherwise of the judicial system will best be seen.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Seccombe I begin by declaring my interests as a layman. I sat as a magistrate for 13 years before entering your Lordships' House. Indeed, I was grateful to receive from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor a polite letter explaining why, because I had not sat for 15 years, I therefore could not join the Supplemental List, to which my noble friend Lady Seccombe referred.
I have been married to a practising barrister for 30 years and I have been both the victim of crime and a witness in court. On other occasions I am also spokesman for these Benches on home affairs. All those experiences have taught me that the Bill is certainly necessary and important, and I welcome it. But it must not only improve the efficiency by which the courts work but do so in such a way that we do not lose the system's fairness to all involved.
I welcome the Bill, but I have concerns about its detail. That is where the real problems begin. As noble Lords have asked: where do we find the Bill's detail? So often it is missing. The measure relies heavily on order-making powers. Some important matters are simply not written into the Bill at all.
I find it intriguing that a government who so often wax lyrical about the importance of devolving government to the regions have introduced a Bill that so comprehensively centralises power in the hands of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. We are told that a new courts agency will replace
My noble friend Lady Seccombe referred to the fact that magistrates' courts committees are to be abolished. Many noble Lords have taken up that theme, concerned about the Government's apparent U-turn in changing management councils into something that will be within the remit of the Lord Chancellor. I do not propose to go into detail. The issue has been covered admirably by other noble Lords. But it should not be assumed that I do not feel as strongly as they do on the matter.
I am also concerned about what appears to be the transfer of judicial functions to officialsor the potential for that to happen. The Government assure us that no such thing will occur. However, in two respects, the Bill allows for a transfer of judicial functions to officials. I refer to justices' clerks and fines. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, mentioned Clause 23(1), which appears to give the green light for the Lord Chancellor to transfer functions currently carried out by magistrates to justices' clerks. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said that that is not the case, perhaps the noble Baroness can confirm that the Bill as drafted maintains the status quo with regard to the dividing line between the functions of the magistrate and of the justices' clerk and that no further transfer of functions will take place. I bear the scars of a previous fight over Section 40 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997.
I turn to fines. Again, other noble Lords have dealt with the matter in great detail, so I shall just mention one or two issues they did not raise. I endorse all of the concerns that have been expresssed. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was reported as saying on BBC Online on the 29th of last month that,
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, referred to the drafting of Schedule 2. I am concerned that as drafted it appears to give fines officials the right to increase fines without reference back to the court. The noble and learned Lord the
I remind your Lordships that when the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor gave his press conference on the provisions, he was challenged by members of the fourth estate about whether the provisions would be in breach of the human rights convention, which requires punishments to be imposed by an independent and impartial tribunal after a fair and public hearing. Your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that the noble and learned Lord gave the sort of robust response for which he is somewhat famed. He is reported as saying:
One noble Lord has already referred to the fact that Crown Court fines are not included in the system. However, I notice that the Public Accounts Committee, in its report, recommended that the enforcement of civil penalties should be combined with the system for enforcing criminal penalties. Did the Government consider that recommendation? What were their reasons for not taking the opportunity to implement those recommendations in the Bill, which does not, as I understand it, cover county court fines? Do the Government have plans to do that?
I was pleased to see the report of the speech given by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to the magistrates' annual general meeting, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, referred. The noble and learned Lord stated that the White Paper,
The matters to which I refer are in Clause 61, which proposes that High Court judges, circuit judges and recorders should be able to sit as magistrates when exercising their criminal, youth and family jurisdictions. The reasons given in paragraphs 179 and 180 of the Explanatory Notes are admirably practical. I agree with them. However, I have sat as a chairman of a family proceedings court. I have a little experience of its role. I am puzzled as to why the Government want to provide for High Court judges and other judges, including county court judges, to sit in a family proceedings court. I wonder whether it is so that county courts can take over disputes about maintenance payments when they are considering disputes about contact. It is puzzling. Overall, the provisions of Clause 61 could, in the hands of a future Lord Chancellor, provide an opportunity to transfer action and authority away from lay magistrates to the judiciary.
The Government must have decided already that the Bill is less than perfect. They have presented us with yet another objectionable catch-all clause. Clause 98 is entitled, "Minor and consequential amendments, repeals etc.". The Secretary of State can do just about anything he likes to amend other enactments and can do so by order subject only to negative resolution. That is not good enough. I was concerned about such matters when I tabled an amendment to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Initially, noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches were not particularly concerned. However, having had the opportunity to consider the matter more carefully, they joined me in my deep concern. I welcome the remarks made today by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on that issue.
I am grateful for the fact that the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform will shortly put to the House a report on its experience of the clauses. Last week, I tabled amendments to a similar clause of the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill. I give notice that I shall table amendments to Clause 98 of this Bill.
I look forward to the Committee stage when I hope we can ensure that the objectives and outcomes of the Bill are made plain and that necessary improvements will be made. There is no doubt that the court system is ripe for reform and improvement, but we must always remember that efficiency must never be sought at the expense of the most vulnerable in the justice system.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the major theme of the speech made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellorincidentally, unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, I do not see why we should not have a Lady Chancellor, and soon, under the terms of Clause 59was that modern, efficient courts should be provided and that they should be free from avoidable delay and more in touch with the communities that they serve. That is the benchmark by which the provisions are to be judged.
According to the Explanatory Notes, the provisions are cost neutral. On these Benches, we will need some persuading that that is so. We could take for an example the pension provisions. The Explanatory Notes tell us that 10,100 instant civil servants will be made, when the magistrates' courts staff are transferred to the Lord Chancellor's Department. Presumably, that means a transfer from the local government pension scheme to the Civil Service pension scheme. That happened in Greater London not so long ago. Some 800 magistrates' court staff transferred from one scheme to the other at a cost of £8 million. If 10,000 staff are to be transferred, the pensions alone will cost us about £80 million. When one considers that and the crying need for money in other areas of the justice system, one wonders where the priorities are.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, referred to the cost of maintaining buildings, which has been thrust upon litigants. My noble friend Lord Hooson referred to the fact that a new magistrates' court cannot be opened in mid-Wales because the money is not available. In Chester Crown Court, which was recently refurbished at a cost of millions, the water comes through the roof of two of the five courts. In the Mold Crown Court, built in the 1970s, there are buckets in the foyer and in the corridors. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, talked about using the estate as much as possible. In Knutsford, it is impossible to use the major court because the roof is liable to fall in. One wonders where the priorities are, when other costs are hidden in the provisions.
Delay and efficiency were recurrent themes for the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. He did not refernor does the Billto what I and many others regard as the present scandal of delay caused by the failure of the privatised Prison Service to provide enough staff and vehicles to get prisoners to court on time. The problem has been studied in north Wales and Chester. In the past six months, in the three courts covered, there were 21 occasions on which the Prison Service completely failed to deliver the prisoner, never mind any delay. I was present recently when the court was told that the arrival of the prison van at eleven o'clock was due to a blockage on the motorway. The defendant said that he had been to Birkenhead magistrates' court, Birkenhead police station and Neston magistrates' court. The Crown Court was the last place of call. One of the judges in that area is keeping a file and demands an explanation for each delay. He has a thick file, which he hopes to present to the Lord Chancellor's Department, when the question of the renewal of those services comes up.
There is also the question of court provision. I was in Wolverhampton recently. There were 28 prisoners in custody and three interview rooms. For half an hour, I queued with other counsel and solicitors to see a client charged with homicide, because the rooms were not available. In Birmingham, there are nine interview rooms, but only five are manned by the Prison Service. I am told that, in the past fortnight, queues have formed at the Old Bailey. Now that the problem has got to London, it may get through to the
The Lord Chancellor's Department is in the grip of the insurance companies of those privatised services. One of the problems is that in order to see someone in an interview room in the enclosed cell area, that person must be handcuffed by a member of staff and brought to the cell. Recently, both prosecution and defence wanted to demonstrate to the jury an alleged stabbing in the enclosed cell area. The privatised Prison Service refused to allow that unless the defendant was not merely handcuffed, but shackled by the legs. Consequently, the demonstration was not held. Applications are made to judges day in, day out, for defendants to be handcuffed in the dock, and that is always refused. That is where the delay is happening at present. The Lord Chancellor's Department has no grip on it.
I follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, in his consideration of the delay in civil cases. Perhaps I may make a short point. The crucial issue in civil cases is the listing. The most important person in the court is the listing officer who, in the provinces, is paid between £16,000 and £18,000 per yearsignificantly less than, for example, a fireman. Yet, the whole efficiency of the civil courts rests on that particular person. Delay in family matters can be crucial. It can make the difference between whether a person has custody or access to his children. Delay is hitting at the heart of the civil justice system and I do not know that the Bill does anything to tackle that.
The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor also said that the purpose of the Bill is to decentralise management and bring about local accountability in a strong national framework. Perhaps we may consider the question of local accountability. At present, under magistrates' courts committees, the local magistrates and councillors have a contact with the community from which they spring. It is they who set the policy for the locality. The magistrates' courts committees are open to direct input from local authorities, interested bodies in the locality and individual people. They are concerned with the appointment of justices' clerks and their staff. They set the terms and conditions and directly supervise the way in which duties are carried out. That is what I would call "local accountability". They are also concerned, of course, with which courts stay open and which courts are closed. They are deeply concerned in decisions of that sort.
What of the court administration councils that are being set up? According to Clause 4(3) of the Bill the Lord Chancellor will appoint the members of the council. He will give them guidance on their functions which, as many noble Lords have said, are completely undefined and can be added to or removed as the Lord or Lady Chancellor of the day thinks fit. He will receive recommendations from the court administration councils to which he has to give due consideration.
Where is the local accountability there? We look further. We look for the principles in the document that has been produced and placed in the Libraryagain not part of the Bill and again reversible, as my noble friend Lord Goodhart said. It appears that the court administration councils have no voice in the appointment of chief officers. Indeed, the chief officers will not be implementing local policy; they will implement national policy. That is why they are there; they are part of the structure; the strong national framework.
The chief officers must seek agreement of the court administration councils. It does not say in the Bill that they must obtain the agreement of those councils, but just that they must seek it. If there is a difference, it is to be referred to the chief executive and, in important matters, to the Lord Chancellor. Therefore, we go all the way round in a circle. I ask your Lordships to consider where on that circle there is any local input whatever. Local accountability does not exist under the Bill.
Therefore, in whose hands are the provision of services for victims, witnesses, defendants, and those who use the courts to be placed? Are they to be placed in the hands of those who know something about local conditions or back in London in the Lord Chancellor's Department? I was most amused to hear my noble friend Lord Hooson refer to the Welsh Assembly. I am pleased to see that by a side wind we are to have increased devolution. I hope that that is conveyed to the appropriate commission which is sitting at the moment.
Using the benchmark of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that the Bill sets up modern, efficient courts free from avoidable delay and which are more in touch with the communities from which they come, in my respectful submission to your Lordships, it fails on every count.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, this has been a comprehensive and good natured debate. We have had 16 speeches of the highest quality about a Bill which has 101 clauses, seven schedules and 113 pages. Many of the speeches have raised important questions. I extend my warm support to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, because I counted altogether 34 questions that she was invited to answer. Many of the points are ones which will be taken further in Committee. I do not believe that we are anticipating a full and comprehensive answer to each point.
First, perhaps I may say that although I am not in agreement with some of the statistics that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor used, I pay tribute to his work as a reforming and progressive Lord Chancellor. We have seen evidence of that in civil justice; we now see evidence of it in criminal justice.
As regards his statistics, the one overlaying the whole debate was that used by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildfordthe fact that 72,000 people are in prison. There must be a better way than that to proceed. I know that "modernisation" may not
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