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Courts Bill [HL]

4.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Baroness Gould of Potternewton) in the Chair.]

Clause 41 [Power to transfer criminal cases]:

Lord Hunt of Wirral moved Amendment No. 73:

The noble Lord said: Members of the Committee will be aware that Clause 41 at present contains power to transfer criminal proceedings. Amendment No. 73 seeks to insert at the end of the provision the words, "after hearing representations"—I shall return to the rest of the amendment in a moment.

New Section 27A(1) of the 1980 Act provides for a magistrates' court to transfer the case to another magistrates' court, and new subsection (2) says that,

    "The court may transfer the matter before or after beginning the trial or inquiry".

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Amendment No. 73 seeks to ensure that there is an opportunity for representations to be made on the issue of the transfer of criminal proceedings. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance in this regard.

When decisions come to be made about venue, the needs of the parties should be taken into consideration. We will be debating at a later stage the need for greater resources, but even greater resources for the courts and magistrates will not assist efficiency if the witnesses, the families, the victim and the defendant cannot afford to travel to court, particularly if the matter is transferred to a court some distance away. I add for the sake of completeness, but not as a ground for this amendment, the fact that there will of course be increased cost implications if the professional bodies have to be funded to travel long distances.

We received a number of representations on this point, including a submission from the Law Society. The Law Society believes it is essential that proposals for court sharing contained in this Bill are considered in the light of the Court Service longer-term strategy for management of the court estate and for the provision of key services. We must ensure that these proposals assist rather than undermine those long-term plans.

The amendment continues,

    "after hearing representations from all parties, including those representing the interests of the victim, lay and professional witnesses and defendants".

I hope that I explained the reasoning behind the tabling of the amendment. I make the point also that in more remote rural areas, travelling to the nearest court could involve a long trip without the availability of public transport links. As mentioned before in the proceedings on this Bill, we on this side of your Lordships' Chamber are concerned about the closure of magistrates' courts and the distances that the parties involved in the proceedings have to travel to reach the next nearest court. This is not an amendment about closures; but they must be taken into account when considering the burden imposed if proceedings are transferred to a court far from the homes of those intrinsically involved in the case.

I remind the House that the amendment merely provides for representations to be heard, not an overall requirement that it cannot be moved. If it is moved, at least those inconvenienced the most should have the chance to be heard. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington: I cannot believe that a court would transfer a case to another court without hearing what the parties had to say or considering the inconvenience that would be caused to witnesses. I shall concentrate on the reference to victims. It does not follow that a court would necessarily consider those interests before deciding whether a case should be transferred. Therefore, the amendment is useful in prompting magistrates to pay regard also to the interests of victims. It would not be right to say that it

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is customary for a court to take into consideration the convenience of victims. Simply because it is not customary, it is surely good to prompt courts to pay regard to the effect that the transfer would have on a victim.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue and ensuring that we debate and discuss it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for his contribution. He is unique among us, because he was possibly responsible for encouraging closures when he was the Home Secretary, so he knows more about the subject than most of us.

We understand the sentiments behind the amendment. We take a different view: we do not think that the amendment is entirely necessary, nor do we necessarily agree that, as drafted, it would work practically. If a magistrates' court decides to transfer a case of its own motion, the parties have a right to be heard in any event. There might be practical difficulties if the amendment were adopted. It is not clear whether the amendment requires the relevant individuals' views to be ascertained before a case can be transferred. If so, that could lead to significant delays and make the transferring of cases less convenient for everyone, rather than more convenient, which is the Government's objective.

Nor do we want the additional cost of separate legal representation for every witness as well as the parties. However, we accept that, occasionally, difficult issues may be involved in where a case should be heard. But we do not think it desirable to impose requirements that may not be necessary in ordinary cases and may cause delay, complexity and cost. We are all keen to avoid that.

Furthermore, the court will already be required to have regard to the needs of victims, witnesses and defendants in deciding whether to transfer a matter. That is because Clause 25 empowers the Lord Chancellor, with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice, to,

    "give directions as to the distribution of the general business of magistrates' courts".

Clause 25(4) indicates that the directions will, in particular, require the courts to take account of where the offence is committed; where the witnesses, or the majority of them, reside; and where the person charged with the offence resides.

On reflection, we have looked again at Clause 25 and acknowledge that the wording could be clarified to refer to "the transfer" as well as "the distribution" of the business of magistrates' courts. The two elements are different. We will, therefore, consider tabling an amendment to rectify that at a later stage. In the light of that, I doubt whether Amendment No. 73 is necessary. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw it.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I was full of opposition to the Minister when he sought to rely on arguments that it would be contrary to the bureaucracy of the justice

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system to allow such representations to be made over the range that I suggested. But towards the conclusion of his remarks he offered an olive branch. I wish to go away and consider it. It stayed me in my seat from pressing the amendment and testing the opinion of your Lordships' House. But, in the circumstances, I would be discourteous to the Minister if I took that view. I wish to reflect on the points that he raised and to consider with my noble friend Lord Waddington the implications of what he said on victims. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 41 agreed to.

Clauses 42 and 43 agreed to.

Clause 44 [Family proceedings courts]:

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 74:

    Page 21, leave out lines 15 and 16 and insert—

    "(6) The Lord Chancellor may make rules under subsection (4) provided that he has—

(a) published the draft rules;
(b) consulted the Family Procedure Rule Committee; and
(c) had regard to their recommendations."

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 75, 76 and 77, which are in the same group. They are probing amendments, which I tabled only to seek answers to questions that I asked at Second Reading and were not answered in the helpful letter that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, sent noble Lords before Committee stage. It was one of the few items that slipped through the net. When I mentioned the matter during an earlier Committee debate, the Minister said that she was willing to answer my questions. I also notified her officials of the reason why I tabled this large group. There is no sinister reason; it is just to make it convenient for the Committee.

My basic question is: why are the Government giving the higher judiciary the power to do work currently done by lay magistrates? As I mentioned at Second Reading, I can understand why they may wish to do so in criminal proceedings, where at present there are circumstances in which cases must be remitted by the Crown Court to the magistrates' court. The Government's changes very sensibly make it possible for all the charges faced by a defendant to be dealt with at the same time in the Crown Court. I fully support that.

But, on reading the Bill, I was puzzled as to why the Government wish to hand over the work to the higher judiciary. Perhaps they plan to phase out the lay magistracy in family proceedings courts and youth courts. I am sure that that is not the case. But one could interpret the Bill as giving that power to subsequent Lord Chancellors. This is an opportunity for the Government to put on the record their precise reason for this provision. Answer finds one none in the Explanatory Notes. Paragraph 134 of the Explanatory

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Notes states that Clause 44 provides for the higher judiciary to do the work of the family proceedings courts,

    "as under this Bill they will have the ability to exercise the justices' jurisdiction, although there is no current expectation that there will be widespread use of these powers in family proceedings".

If there is no expectation that there will be widespread use, obviously it is expected that it might be convenient on occasion for the provision to be used. My simple question is: what is that convenience? What rules, if any, will be laid down? How do the Government envisage that magistrates will be expected to work under the provision?

Clause 45, similarly, gives circuit judges and recorders the power to hear cases in youth courts without particular authorisation. Why would they be given this work? Is it in respect of cases in which a youth is charged with an adult? I do not know, but that point occurred to me.

I shall briefly explain the effect of my amendments. Yesterday, in trying to be brief, I was taken to task by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for being too brief and not giving a full explanation.

Clauses 44 and 45 set out the framework by which lay magistrates and district judges are to be authorised to hear family proceedings and youth cases. Amendments Nos. 75 and 77 require the Lord Chancellor to provide enough training for lay magistrates to ensure that there is a sufficient number of them to do the work of the family proceedings and youth courts. Therefore, there would be no excuse that there are not enough lay magistrates and that the work needs to be given to judges. Amendments Nos. 74 and 76 propose that rules giving the right to carry out the work to higher judiciary can be made only if the Lord Chancellor has first published the draft rules. I also require the Lord Chancellor to have regard to the recommendations of those committees which are consulted—the Family Procedure Rule Committee and the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee.

The Lord Chancellor has made clear that he sees a long-term future for the lay magistracy. The amendments were not tabled with any hostile intent, but to give the Government the opportunity to explain how this particular change in the Bill will operate. I beg to move.

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