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"(2A) Before the Lord Chancellor specifies areas by an order under subsection (2) he shall consult the chairman and deputy chairman of lay justices in all local justice areas in England and Wales."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 7.

As I mentioned when we were discussing the previous group of amendments, the Lord Chancellor's Department has carried out a consultation on courts boards at regional meetings this year. With this group of amendments, we are looking forward to the future. We are asking the Government to clarify some of the remaining uncertainties about how they expect consultation to continue about their plans for the unified courts administration. One assumes that the Government will already be in the process of putting pen to paper to work out how they will carry forward the plans, once the Bill has passed through both Houses.

The nub of the question is quite simple: what is the system of communication—I shall say it again, now that I have the noble Baroness's attention—the system of communication that the Lord Chancellor's Department will set up between the department and magistrates to take forward the consultation process? Bearing particularly in mind the points properly made by the Minister about the previous group, what system of communication will exist between the Government—the Lord Chancellor's Department—and other parts of the judiciary to carry out the same process?

I was prompted to put down the amendments for two reasons. First, there was the letter of concern that I received from a Bench chairman on the matter of future consultation. I have received a lot of letters, but the one that struck me particularly was from Mr I. C. Clark, chairman of North Sefton Bench in Merseyside. I have

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his permission to quote from his letter, in which he summarises clearly the views that I have received from all over the country. He said:

    "Having only just begun to recover from the problems of the last reorganisation, many magistrates are feeling disillusioned and disaffected by what we fear will be a further series of remotely imposed changes, and, whilst we applaud the purposes behind them, we fear the problems we shall face in implementing them".

Mr Clark says that a statement clearly defining a process of consultation based on Bench structures over local justice areas and then over the courts board areas will go a long way towards allaying those fears. He hopes that, ideally, a document alongside the Bill will set out the means and the timetable by which the discussions will take place. That is what I am trying to get at. What are the mechanisms by which the Government will consult the Benches and the Magistrates' Association? Whom will they consult and how will they do it?

The second reason why I tabled the amendments was that I noted that the Government had already put on record their plans to consult the Justices' Clerks' Society—rightly so. It is important that they should also put on the record today their plans to consult magistrates. Noble Lords may have seen the speech by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, which is on the Home Office—I mean the Lord Chancellor's Department website. The noble and learned Lord has not yet taken over the Home Office; I tried to expand his empire in one fell swoop there. I hope that he will excuse me—at least, I hope that Mr David Blunkett will excuse me.

At the annual conference on 9th May, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that a series of regional discussion groups had taken place. He went on to look at the future and said that justices' clerks had been invited to be represented on the unified administration judicial committee, chaired by Lord Justice Judge. He went on to say:

    "I welcome this co-operation. You"—

justices' clerks—

    "are at the front; your insight into how the magistrates' courts work in practice is second to none; and your input into how they might work better in future is essential".

In that case, I invite the Minister to put on the record the role that the Government see for the magistrates and other judges in the process of consultation on the development of the unified system. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I do not know why the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, is in lonely eminence on the Marshalled List for the amendments. On these Benches, we wholly support them, for the reasons that she stipulated.

The only point that I shall add to what was so clearly said is that, in Clause 17, there is provision for the election of Bench chairs and deputy chairs. The Bill formally recognises their importance. It is worth reminding the House that, with the abolition of the magistrates' courts committees, which included a justice of the peace elected by justices in the area concerned, there will be no elected position, other than

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Bench chairs and deputy chairs. Clause 18 prescribes the only role, so far—without the amendments—namely, that of presiding at sessions where they are present.

I wholly concur with what was said about the importance of the role of the Bench chairs. Under the new aegis and given the fact that the new courts boards are—rightly—comprised of many other interested parties, it would go a long way towards assuaging the anxiety that exists among justices of the peace that, whatever the Government intend, their role is being inadvertently undermined and their status reduced. For those additional reasons, the amendments are worthy of the Government's support and would reinforce what the Government say about the Bill and the role of justices.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, have refused to consider the other parts of Clause 5. In that connection, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor is providing for proper consultation with the boards. How can that be improved? Neither speaker said anything about that.

It is important, as we approach the issue anew, that the Lord Chancellor is not bound by any rigid proposals. My noble friend the Minister is considering the issue of flexibility. That is all-important.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, for what she said on the matter. I take from the totality of her contribution that the amendment was tabled as a probing amendment, to discover what we intend. Therefore, I shall try to give a more comprehensive answer, so that the House can receive what I hope will be better information.

The amendment to Clause 4 would require the Lord Chancellor to consult all chairmen of local justice areas and their deputies before making an order specifying the courts boards areas under subsection (2). The noble Baroness has tabled an amendment to Clause 5 that would require the Lord Chancellor to consult all Bench chairmen and their deputies, in preparing the guidance for the courts boards.

Clause 21, which was the result of an amendment tabled by the Government and accepted by the House on Report, already provides that the Lord Chancellor will,

    "take all reasonable and practicable steps"

to ascertain the views of magistrates about matters that affect them in the performance of their duties in the local justice area. That would include taking steps to ascertain the views of magistrates about proposals to change their local courts board area. We have said that we will draw up draft guidance in consultation with all of our stakeholders. We will do so, not favouring one group over another, but listening to all of their concerns, taking into account all of their knowledge and experience, to develop something that will meet our objectives. There is no reason for Bench

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chairmen to have a particular status above judges, court staff, community representatives or professional court users, all of whom have a stake in the courts.

The 10 regional discussion groups, the last of which will be held tomorrow, Tuesday 20th May, in Bath, have been very productive. There has been consensus around a number of issues, some of which have already been touched on in that a unified administration is the way forward; that customer service is paramount; that one size will not fit all in designing the courts boards and area structure; and that there must be flexibility to move resources and work to respond to fluctuations in demand. There is also a clear message emerging, as we have already said as regards the other groups, that 42 criminal justice areas should be the building block for the new organisation and that, at least initially, the number of boards should follow suit, although the particular needs of London and Wales need to be looked at closely.

There has also been recognition from all stakeholders that the organisational design needs to support all of the courts' business, civil, family and criminal. The discussion groups have provided us with a vast amount of information about the needs of different areas and different jurisdictions. They have given us an opportunity to hear from our customers what they expect from the unified administration. All of this information is invaluable to us as the design process continues.

The groups have also provided a useful forum for staff and stakeholders in the Court Service and the magistrates' courts service to learn more about each other's organisations and to discuss their expectations and concerns about the unified administration.

The noble Baroness asked specifically about the system of communication between the department and magistrates on the development process. Following the discussion groups, we are holding meetings with national bodies like the AJCE and the CCMCC, the senior judges and the Magistrates' Association. We are holding a conference for Bench chairmen on 4th June. We have issued three editions of a news bulletin, which is made available to all magistrates and staff. The CCMCC, the senior presiding judge and the AJCE continue to sit on the programme board, which oversees all work on this programme. We hope that that will be an effective way forward. We will also hold further meetings around the country to work out the detail and the structure. We have already touched on the particular issue of North Wales, Chester and London. We shall have to do a little more work on that. We shall obviously seek to bring magistrates and the Court Service staff together again so that they have an opportunity to give added value to that work.

A total of 302 delegates have attended the first nine events. Of the attendees 40 per cent represented the magistrates' courts community. We invited the magistrates' court committee chair and one Bench chairman to each event, and invited the Magistrates' Association to nominate a local representative. Twenty-one per cent were from the Court Service, 14 per cent from the professional judiciary and 25 per stakeholders.

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Overall, this provided a sample of the main players from the key organisations that will be affected by unifying the courts administration. Participants have included local representatives of the judiciary and the magistracy, justices' chief executives, Court Service managers, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Probation Service, police, victim and witness support organisations, the Law Society, the Bar, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, the Civil Court Users Association and Citizens Advice. All the participants are being encouraged to pass information to their colleagues and to feed back their views to us so that we can reach as many people as possible.

Your Lordships also know that the Auld review itself received over 500 written responses during the period for public comment, including comments from 69 individual magistrates, 44 Benches and 29 magistrates' courts committees. There was a formal period of public consultation after the Auld report. In addition, the report was discussed at a series of regional events which I have already mentioned. The noble Baroness will remember that in November last year we held a large conference to discuss the unified administration and established the structure for work.

We are developing options for the structure of the new agency taking into account the views from regional discussion groups and the views of others. We shall continue to do that. We are beginning to develop work on the role, membership, selection and operation of the courts boards, which will enable us to prepare the regulations, again drawing on the views expressed at the discussion groups and the import from the outcome of the further consultation, including the Government's arrangements for the new agency such as the inspection arrangements and how the agency should run during the proposed period of shadow running prior to full establishment. We shall continue to develop our plan in partnership with all of our stakeholders in the magistrates' courts community, the judiciary, professional and lay court users and consult them where necessary. For example, we would certainly not bring the guidance or regulations to Parliament without having involved our stakeholders. I hope that I have given a comprehensive answer as to how we are going to do that.

There is a small drafting point, but I do not believe that I need trouble the House with it because this was a probing amendment. I hope that the probe has been satisfactory and that the noble Baroness has drawn from the well that which she desires.

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