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The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): The purpose of the visit was to demonstrate the UK Government's continuing interest and involvement in the borders area by meeting local people involved in important borders industries such as tourism and the vibrant cashmere industry. I also accepted an invitation to attend the end of year show at Heriot-Watt university's school of textile and design in Galashiels.
In my legal advisory role, I am responsible for advising on both devolved and reserved aspects of Scots law, and it is important that I have regard to the practical implications of the devolution settlement.
The visit also enabled me to visit Abbotsford house, the home of one of Scotland's best known lawyers, Sir Walter Scott. That beautiful house is of interest to many of the international lawyers I meet.
Mr. Moore: I commend the Advocate-General for visiting the borders. Her visit was well received, not least because of her support for the cashmere industry and her attendance at the Heriot-Watt fashion show. In the past three years, it has sometimes been hard to pin down the
The AdvocateGeneral: I have no trouble pinning down my role. The hon. Gentleman might get a better idea of it if he read my article in The Scots Law Times a few weeks ago. I am pleased that he acknowledges the fact that I, as a member of the UK Government and a Scotland Office Minister, was interested enough to come to his constituency. I have every intention of returning there if I am invited again, and I hope that he will come with me next time.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark): In the past month, 23 devolution issue cases have been intimated to me. All but two concerned article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which protects the right to a fair trial. The remaining two cases concerned, respectively, the right to education and a question of European Community law.
Mr. Harris: Following the recent legal action by the Scottish Countryside Alliance to prevent the abolition of fox hunting in Scotland, does my hon. and learned Friend believe that it is an appropriate use of her time and of public money to defend in court legislation produced by the Scottish Parliament? Does she agree that the fox hunting lobby in Scotland is using the Scottish legal system to play politics?
The Advocate-General: The case to which my hon. Friend refers is an important one, but it is at first instancebefore a single judge. I have told the House on several occasions that my policy is usually not to intervene except in the higher courts, especially the Privy Council, where significant issues of principle may be decided. I intervene in the UK interest after consultation with UK Departments to ensure that their interests are taken into account.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Any citizen or pressure group can challenge actions in the courts; that is why we have a democracy and courts. However, that does not mean that I, as Advocate-General, have to deal with those challenges. There are other interested parties, such as those who passed the legislation.
The Advocate-General: Of course we meet and we sometimes discuss the legal issues involved. One reason why we have an Advocate-General as a separate Law Officer at UK level is so that he or she can consider interests that may not have been raised by other parties. As the Scottish Parliament is being challenged by the pressure group that was mentioned earlier over the introduction of unacceptable legislation, it is not inappropriate that an interested partymeshould raise in court the issue of whether the body representing the interests of the Scottish Parliament could be heard as a party. One of my roles is to make points that other parties have not considered to obtain clarification of the law.
The Advocate-General: It will not take hon. Members long to work out that 1,500 cases multiplied by lawyers' days in court is a great deal of public money. I agree that that is not a good use of public money, bearing in mind the fact that many of the cases are heard in the lower criminal courts where, even if I succeeded in resolving the issue successfully, there would be no likelihood of obtaining awards to cover expenses. There are therefore many circumstances in which I would not regard it as appropriate to intervene in the first instance, but as I have repeatedly said, I look at each individual case as it comes to me. I also look at cases as they proceed through the courts and up to the Privy Council, if that is where they go.
Mr. Burnett: Many will be disappointed by the Minister's indifference. The Government should lead, not just react. The weight of case law and opinion in recent years has been to seek a total separation of the judiciary from the Executive and legislative authorities. I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the admirable speech made by Lord Bingham of Cornhill to the Constitution Unit on 1 May 2002, in which he said:
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): My hon. Friend has just answered my question, so perhaps I can refine it. She assured the House that the Government will consider any recommendation that the Joint Committee may make. With how much energy will they consider it? The history of reform of the House of Lords is scattered with examples of people saying that they will consider something, then doing nothing. Can we have an assurance that if the Joint Committee makes a strong recommendation, that will be considered seriously and action proposed?
Ms Winterton: I certainly would not like to predict future energy levels, but I reiterate that the Government are not convinced, in any sense of the word, that there is a sufficient case for change. I repeat that the Joint Committee can make proposals, which will certainly be considered.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper): Magistrates courts committees are expected to recognise the needs of rural users in the delivery of their services, as set out in the rural White Paper. Officials and I continue to have meetings with various representatives of the lay magistracy. Although there are no particular plans to discuss rural issues, I am, of course, happy to do so, should concerns be raised.
Mr. Bellingham: Is the Minister aware that Tony Martin is a constituent of mine? Is she also aware that the lay magistracy was obviously closely involved in the case during the early stages? Is she aware that one of the burglars who broke into Tony Martin's house is suing him for damages that he suffered as a result of his criminality, and that in spite of his law firm offering a contingency no win-no fee basis, he is getting legal aid to take the case to court? Should not the rules be changed so that a person cannot get legal aid when a solicitor works on a contingency no win-no fee basis?
Yvette Cooper: The rules on legal aid have been clearly established to ensure that they provide for those who do not have the means to take their cases through court. Those principles are important and we must respect
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): As a member of the Magistrates Association and of the supplemental list of the Ashby-de-la-Zouch Bench in Leicestershire, I can tell the Minister that conversations with colleagues suggest a deep unease about the medium-term future of rural magistrates courts in the light of various pronouncements by the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Home Office. Can she give them some reassurance that the continuing loss of power and the pressure for more remote and large-scale centralised courthouses will be stopped in their tracks, and that there is indeed a future for the rural courthouse, which does not seem clear at present? Are my colleagues right to be pessimistic?
Yvette Cooper: It is important that decisions about courthouses and the provision of services at the local level be taken as far as possible at the local level, by the people who have the experience and the knowledge of local circumstances. That should continue. It is part of the current system that it is a matter for magistrates courts committees in the first instance to make decisions about court venues and where services should be provided. We need to retain such local decision making. It is also important that rural decisions are taken into account. We have reflected on the proposals in the rural White Paper and magistrates courts committees are expected to use the rural proofing check list set out by the Countryside Agency.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Minister's support for the concept of local justice in rural areas is widely welcomed, but local courts are closing on an almost weekly and monthly basis, not least in my own town, Frome. There are proposals to close the court in Frome, which means that people will have to travel anything up to 30 or 35 miles to their nearest local court. The usual response from the Lord Chancellor's Department is that this is purely a matter for local magistrates courts committees, but I do not believe that every magistrates courts committee in the country is engaged in a conspiracy to close local rural courthouses. Will the Minister give new guidance to magistrates courts committees to make sure that we have local courthouses providing a service to local rural communities?
Yvette Cooper: Magistrates courts committees have been given clear guidance, particularly about the need to take account of the requirements of rural areas. It is the magistrates courts committees' responsibility to decide on the use of courthouses for magistrates services in their area. It is important that those decisions should be taken at the local level. We should consider what further partnership arrangements can be put in place to ensure better working between, for example, magistrates courts, the civil and family courts and the Crown court to promote access to justice in the local area.
Yvette Cooper: Obviously, I do not know the details of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Certainly, the proposals that have been set out as part of the civil and family courts modernisation programme are intended to increase the number of local hearings that are taking place. It is important that we do that, but we must also recognise that the decisions that are taken must take into account a series of other issues, including, for example, the need to ensure the availability of appropriate facilities and access for disabled users. I am very happy to look into the individual case that he mentioned, but I think that the record of the Government's recent proposals shows that they have been about increasing access to civil and family hearings, rather than the reverse.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the Minister accept that her trying to sound reasonable does not necessarily mean that she is being reasonable in putting across her arguments? Does she agree that there is increasing evidence that the 28,000 unpaid members of the lay magistracy, including many in rural areas, are in a deepening crisis and are getting angry? There is a vast number of unpaid fines and court closures and mergers are on the agenda, rather than the meting out of justice. As one resigning JP said yesterday in the press:
Yvette Cooper: I do not agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. Lay magistrates play a vital role in the justice process in this country and are an extremely valued part of that process. There are indeed wide variations in issues such as fine enforcement that need to be addressed and we will shortly set out measures to take that further.
I warn the hon. Gentleman against trying to make party political points about issues such as court closures. In 1996, the last year of the previous Administration, 20 magistrates courts closed and many of them were situated in rural areas. Courts were closed in places such as Llangollen, Thirsk, Ingleton, Easingwold, Howden, Market Weighton and so on; we could go on. These are important issues that need to be decided locally, but I warn him against trying to make inappropriate party political points about the matter.