Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Seccombe moved Amendment No. 39:

"(1A) The Lord Chancellor shall appoint such a number of lay justices as appears to him to be appropriate for the purpose of discharging the work of the magistrates' courts.
(1B) To assist him in discharging his duties under subsections (1) and (1B), the Lord Chancellor shall publish within six months of Royal Assent a national recruitment strategy for the recruitment of lay justices."

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 41. Over the past few years, there has been much discussion about the role of lay justices. I welcome the commitment of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to the retention of the lay magistracy.

The first part of Amendment No. 39 seeks to gain clarification from the Government of the intended role of lay magistrates as distinct from district judges. What percentage of the magistrates' court load does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor anticipate should be carried by lay magistrates; or does that percentage differ according to whether the courts sit in metropolitan or other areas? What research has he undertaken to predict the number of lay and employed magistrates that will be needed over the next 10 years? We understand that he has commissioned a national strategy for the recruitment of magistrates. What stage has that work reached? When will the results be published?

The second part of the amendment would require the Lord Chancellor to publish a national recruitment strategy within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. I hope that the strategy will be published long before then. It is vital that there are sufficient lay magistrates throughout England and Wales, and that those magistrates truly reflect the communities that they serve. Although we on these Benches recognise that there is clear merit in giving magistrates a nationwide jurisdiction and having a national recruitment strategy, we firmly believe that magistrates must continue to reflect the local communities that they serve. A fundamental strength of the lay magistracy is its strong association with local communities. We are worried that there is a danger of local justice being diminished if magistrates are

4 Feb 2003 : Column 179

appointed through recruitment or transfer in a way that dilutes the links with local communities. I hope that the Minister will now be able to clarify the position and assure us that he will publish his recruitment strategy within the time limit set out in the amendment.

Amendment No. 41 would require the Lord Chancellor to produce an annual report setting out the optimum number of lay magistrates for each local justice area. That could then be used to track the success of the national recruitment strategy and to assist in its development as may prove necessary, as the demographic profile of each area may change over time. I am concerned that in the present climate it may become more difficult to attract volunteers to the magistracy. Employers, particularly small companies, are under pressure and find it difficult to release people for 26 half-days a year. Employees can suffer from loss of promotion, pension provision difficulties and, in some cases, outright denial of the opportunity to serve. It must be in all our interests to encourage employers and employees that serving as a magistrate is a useful and important voluntary community service. It would be a sad day if volunteers could be attracted only from the public sector or from those not employed. I beg to move.

Lord Borrie: I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for the speech that she has just made. The noble Baroness raised several important points about recruitment policy in the Lord Chancellor's Department with regard to the appointment of magistrates throughout the country. She also raised important points about the need to stress—to employers, in particular—the value to the community of magistrates' service. In all parts of the House, we value that service and wish to encourage and promote it into the more distant future.

The Committee is now coming to the discussion of a series of clauses dealing with the appointment and work of lay magistrates and of district judges. It would be interesting to know whether the Lord Chancellor's Department has a view on whether, over the next few years at any rate, there should be a further increase in the number of professional judges—district judges—such as there has been over the past 20 or 30 years. Or have we reached a point of balance that may survive and continue for some time?

I apologise for raising a matter that is slightly beyond the terms of this useful amendment, but, at Second Reading, I asked a question to which I did not get an answer, despite the otherwise comprehensive and lengthy responses made by my noble friend the Minister to so many questions. I did not get an answer to my query about whether there was value in having a district judge—a professional judge—sitting with, say, two lay magistrates on certain types of case, which, because of their complexity or seriousness, might justify such a combination. That would be distinct

4 Feb 2003 : Column 180

from the present position, in which, in magistrates' courts, there is either a lay magistrate or a district judge, not both.

Lord Waddington: Perhaps I may be excused for taking the opportunity offered by the amendment to raise the fact that Clause 10 means that responsibility for the appointment of magistrates in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside will be transferred from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to the Lord Chancellor. It may be worth reminding the Committee that, as recently as 2000, there was wide consultation as to whether the proposal should go forward. I have every reason to believe that the result of that process was that virtually nobody wanted any change. Yet, the Bill takes the opportunity to thrust aside all the recommendations that were made to the Government at that time. Once again, in the interests of dull uniformity, a historic system of appointment is to be done away with.

Chancellors of the Duchy have made the appointments since the 14th century. I should like to know what great public mischief is perpetrated by that system. There is none. Everybody agrees that magistrates must be appointed so that they reflect the community in which they serve, and nobody sensibly suggests that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will fail in his or her duty to follow any guidelines laid down by the Lord Chancellor. However, it seems like another example of the Government's obsession for centralising responsibility in the hands of the Lord Chancellor. Coming from the county palatine, I resent greatly the taking of that step, particularly as an attempt to railroad through Parliament a decision of the Government that got an almost unanimous thumbs-down when the matter went out to consultation a few years ago. I am horrified.

9 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, for tabling this amendment. It gives me an opportunity to say something about Dorset and to register a concern there about the loss of local knowledge. I believe this concern is shared by many people in more remote areas where court houses have been steadily closing. I apologise if I am repeating concerns already made.

The concern is that with modernisation and efficiency—something which we all generally welcome—often comes a desire for administrative neatness, a disregard for detail and, worse still, a degree of intolerance or ignorance of the complex lives of individuals and families, especially those families living on the margin in rural areas. That concern is well summarised by an experienced magistrate in Dorset, who is a neighbour of mine. He states:

    "It sometimes seems to me that the law makers fail to understand how minimal and marginal some people's lives are. What we must have in any Court organization is the ability for the local, especially rural, realities to be fully understood and for mechanisms and systems to be there to make sure that fully informed decisions can be justly made. This is where I fear that

4 Feb 2003 : Column 181

    central control is unlikely to serve the community adequately unless very clear thinking constructs the ability for all sections of the community to be properly represented".

Adequate representation is always hard to achieve, but there is no substitute for local knowledge by local people. The more we retain lay magistrates who have this knowledge, the better it will be for local people. The Magistrates' Association has made this point powerfully—so have many others in this debate. I understand what the Minister said previously about the shared intent. However, it is a concern better understood by the judiciary, who have underlined the importance of lay magistrates, than it is by the Government and those who drafted the Bill and the somewhat inadequate Explanatory Notes.

Lord Jones: As regards Amendment No. 39, very succinctly moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, I want first to emphasise that lay magistrates are volunteers. They work very hard; they give up a great deal of their time; and they work without payment. What are the Government doing to recruit younger magistrates—both male and female?

Looking at the pattern of crime—we all know what it is—it would seem to be relevant to have more younger magistrates who might, with some reason, be able to understand why so many 18 to 24 year-old men and women go hopelessly off the rails and find themselves in the courts. I emphasise the comments about employers made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe. She said that the small employers find it difficult to release employees to carry out their duties as magistrates and I know magistrates who support that view. They also tell me that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain time off for such duties from larger employers. That is now having a bearing on the recruitment of magistrates. Do the Government have any plans or policies and are they engaging in any pilot schemes?

I, too, want to refer to district judges. The Minister acknowledged that magistrates should be consulted before a district judge is appointed or assigned to a local area. Perhaps my noble friend will undertake to redouble the efforts currently under way to recruit more lay justices before going nap on the wholesale appointment of district judges. If the recruitment of lay justices were given higher priority by those involved, if the determination of the authorities were to attract and recruit more men and women to the Bench, the need to recruit many district judges would be less obvious. If that were the case, the numerous hard-working magistrates would feel that they had a better chance as the changes of the Bill are implemented.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page