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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I wish to address the general debate on this large group of amendments and also specifically to address Amendment No. 22, on which mine is the lead name.

Lord Justice Auld's report recommended that the administration of the magistrates' courts should be merged with the administration of the other courts in England and Wales and that the staff now employed by the magistrates' courts committees should therefore be merged with the staff of the courts agency. We on these Benches accepted that principle. We acknowledge that it is difficult to justify having a single authority for the management of the county courts, the Crown Court and the High Court for the whole of England and Wales in the form of a courts agency but at the same time retaining 42 separate authorities for the management of the magistrates' courts.

The problem thrown up by this proposed merger was how a single national agency could combine sufficient local input into decisions about the administration of the courts. The Bill as it stands and, indeed, as it has stood ever since it was published, gives what are called the court administration councils powers only to make general recommendations.

In Committee amendments were put down in the joint names of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to turn the court administration councils into corporate bodies which had management powers over the administration of the courts in their areas. It was recognised that that was a holding operation. We recognised that those amendments would in effect have retained most of the powers of the magistrates' courts committees and, indeed, extended them to the other courts, and thereby the objectives of the Bill would have been defeated.

We have therefore come back on Report with a more limited group of amendments. I draw particular attention to Amendment No. 2, which provides for what can be described as codetermination. Under it, the Lord Chancellor must produce both national and

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local strategic plans for the work of the courts agency nationally and in each area. It suggests that the national plan must be approved by Parliament, and the local plans by what we called area justice boards, which I think will now be called courts boards.

The amendment deliberately created a potential deadlock. In order to get the local strategic plan, the Lord Chancellor and the boards would have to reach an agreement. Along with other reasons, that stimulated a response from the Government, who produced their own amendments to Clauses 4 and 5 and a substantial new schedule before Schedule 1. Those government amendments come some way towards what we and the magistrates wanted to achieve. They strengthen the role of the courts boards in the Bill.

One important feature is that the amendments have proved acceptable to the Magistrates' Association. That is something that we have to take into account as an important consideration. However, the proposals are not acceptable to all members of the Magistrates' Association. In particular, they seem to have caused problems with the chairs of the various benches.

Even if we limit ourselves to the government amendments, we can see that they plainly still need strengthening. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, the Magistrates' Association has approved four amendments to the government amendments. The lead name on one of those is hers, that on another is mine, and that of my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury is on the other two. Those are Amendments Nos. 19, 21, 22 and 25.

We certainly support Amendment No. 19, spoken to by the noble Baroness, on the importance of the coterminosity of the areas to be created under the Bill with the existing 42 areas. Most magistrates are anxious that there should not be major interference with the existing boundaries, which have themselves been introduced only fairly recently.

I understand that a merger might be welcome in some areas. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, who is unable to be here, has indicated that there is some pressure for a single courts board to cover the whole of Wales—it is currently split into four areas—and perhaps to include Cheshire as well, to maintain an area based on the old Wales and Chester circuit. Amendment No. 19 is not prescriptive. It would not prevent a merger where that was the wish of the people involved in the area, and we are happy to support it.

My noble friend Lord Phillips explained Amendment No. 21, so I shall turn to Amendment No. 22. The Government's Amendment No. 20 proposes a new Clause 5, the first subsection of which states:

    "Each courts board is under a duty, in accordance with guidance under this section . . . to scrutinise, review and make recommendations about the way in which the Lord Chancellor is discharging his general duty in relation to the courts with which the board is concerned, and . . . for the purposes mentioned . . . to consider draft and final business plans relating to those courts".

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Subsection (2) then states:

    "In discharging his general duty in relation to the courts, the Lord Chancellor must give due consideration to recommendations provided by the boards under subsection (1)".

We believe that that needs strengthening. As an alternative to the original suggestion of deadlock we propose that, if the Lord Chancellor rejects a recommendation as to the final version of a business plan, he must give the board whose recommendations he has rejected written reasons for doing so. I can understand his reluctance to accept the possibility of deadlock, but it is at the very least essential that he give serious consideration to the recommendations of boards about the business plans that affect them.

The need to give reasons concentrates the mind very considerably. The courts agency officer responsible will have to say in writing, "Is this recommendation really unacceptable? If so, why?". He will have to say to himself, "Can I explain the reasons in words that can be understood and accepted by members of the boards?". Ultimately, those reasons would have to stand up to judicial review, so they would have to be serious. I believe that Amendment No. 22 would significantly strengthen the position of the courts boards. Without it, their position is still plainly too weak.

There are two further amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Phillips. Amendment No. 21 has already been mentioned, but we also strongly support Amendment No. 25. The existing magistrates' courts committees are entirely in the hands of the magistrates. Replacing them with courts boards will require only one magistrate. Of course, the remit of the courts boards is wider than that of the magistrates' courts committees, because it includes the other courts. However, the magistrates' courts are plainly the backbone of our criminal justice system. They deal with the great majority of criminal cases that come to trial in this country.

If there were only one magistrate on the board, he might be ill or have some unavoidable other commitment. There could therefore be a meeting of the courts board at which no magistrate would be present. That would be absolutely wrong. The Bill would say that at least one magistrate must be a member of the board, which does not prevent there being more than one. However, we believe that there should be a guarantee of at least two magistrates.

On these Benches, we are very much in agreement with the line taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. We hope that the Government will be willing to accept the amendments proposed to their amendments.

11.45 a.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I want to say straightaway how grateful I am to noble Lords who have spoken, and to single out the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for their very constructive contributions to the development of the clauses. As the noble Baroness rightly said, we had a very productive meeting following from Committee, and I am very grateful to all those who participated in it.

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The Government have listened carefully to the concerns raised in Committee. As a number of noble Lords have said, we have tabled a very substantial package of amendments, which we hope will satisfy those concerned. I am pleased to acknowledge the satisfaction that the noble Baroness indicated to many of the amendments. I will seek to concentrate on those issues that still cause concern. For the sake of completeness, and to make sure that there is clarity on the issue because all the amendments have been lumped together, I shall take a little time to go through where we are.

These amendments rename the court administration councils as courts boards. I know that the noble Baroness and others have found that old name lacking in felicity. But the change to courts boards is not a mere change of name; it is a much more robust statutory definition of their function. The amendments make clear that the boards will have an ongoing role in relation to the courts in their area—scrutinising local plans and reviewing their implementation, and contributing their own ideas. The amendments guarantee that boards will have that role.

The amendments make provision for much more detail to be provided in secondary legislation, through regulations. Our intention is that those regulations will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so that Parliament has the opportunity to examine the detail of the new organisation.

I turn to Amendment No. 18—the proposed new Clause 4. The new clause clarifies the procedure for setting and altering the courts boards' areas; requires that each courts board will be known by a name specified in an order; and provides that a new schedule, setting out the constitution and procedure of courts boards, is to have effect. Provisions about the membership of the boards which are currently found in Clause 4 are set out in this schedule.

The amendment deals with a concern raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, that boards should have a say in what their boundaries are to be. Before making any order altering the boards' areas, the Lord Chancellor must consult those affected; and the original order which establishes the areas will be subject to affirmative resolution, so that Parliament is able to ensure that the area structure is appropriate.

Amendment No. 19, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, proposes an amendment to the new Clause 4. It would require the Lord Chancellor to,

    "have regard to the desirability",

of coterminosity with the police areas in specifying the courts boards' boundaries under Clause 4(2).

I understand that there remains a desire to create an express "link" to the criminal justice areas. We do not object to the idea that the Lord Chancellor must bear in mind the structure of other criminal justice agencies in specifying the areas for the courts boards—indeed, as the noble Baroness rightly said, we have already said that the 42 criminal justice areas will be the building blocks of the courts boards' areas. But there are a great many other factors which must also be taken into account—the effective fit with other agencies in the

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civil and family jurisdictions; the needs and nature of local communities; the volume of workload in each area; and the distribution of court houses.

Participants in discussion groups emphasised the need to take into account the needs of different parts of the country—Wales and London in particular. I am also aware that on the Wales and Chester circuits there is particularly strong feeling because of the historical links between Wales and Chester, and that they may wish to have a joint board. Those are issues that we must take seriously and listen to, because they may affect how matters will be managed.

The implication of this amendment is that the link to the 42 areas is the single most important factor and an end in itself. With the greatest respect, it is not. The single most important factor is that the structure chosen must support the effective and efficient administration of the courts—it must enable us to deliver a better service across England and Wales. That must be the overriding criterion. In order to do so, we must take into account the sensitivities and needs of those in different areas of the country and try, if we can, to give effect to the voices that we are hearing in regard to those issues.

Our amendment provides that the order specifying the areas will be by affirmative resolution, so that Parliament can ensure that the structure selected is appropriate—bearing in mind all the criteria I have mentioned—and so that Members of this House and another place will have an opportunity to have their say.

I gently suggest that the amendment suffers from the same defect as one tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, in Committee: it refers to the police areas, implying that the courts boards should share the same boundaries as the police. I know that the noble Baroness's intention is that courts boards should share the same boundaries as most of the criminal justice agencies—that is to say, the 43 police authority areas, but with the Metropolitan and City of London police areas treated as one.

New Clause 5, proposed in government Amendment No. 20, sets out a more robust statutory definition of the role of the courts boards—to,

    "scrutinise, review and make recommendations",

about the way in which the Lord Chancellor is discharging his duty, and in particular to scrutinise draft and final business plans. This puts into statute what we had set out in a published statement; namely, that the boards will contribute to the development of local strategy and keep the delivery of that strategy under review. So I am happy to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that his analysis of that point is correct.

The amendment makes clearer how guidance issued to the boards will be used: to explain how they should carry out their functions, in particular their role in relation to local business plans. That aspect of the role is fundamental. It enables the boards to influence priorities and the way in which resources—staff, estates and financial resources—are used to deliver services in their area.

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The new clause does not include the limitation of courts boards' remit to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, objected in Committee. This clarifies our intention that courts boards will have a local focus, but that they should be able to influence the national framework within which they work.

Amendment No. 21, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, seeks to amend proposed new Clause 5. It would require courts boards to scrutinise draft and final "strategy" and business plans. As I have said, our intention is that final business plans will set out how resources will be used to run the courts in the area to improve performance and to deliver services which meet local needs—in other words, the strategy for the area. They will include the area's estate strategy; its staffing structures, and its recruitment and retention strategy; spending priorities for the year; and any local projects.

In the light of that clarification, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment. I note, if I may respectfully say so, a thumbs up from the noble Lord, so I have taken that as his assent.

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