|Draft Lay Magistrates (Eligibility) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003
Sir Teddy Taylor: I am afraid that the order does not make that clear. Such matters are subject to the European Court of Human Rights. The Minister is saying that, if there were series of offences, the panel would not want the person responsible for them. The order does not say that; it says only that people will not be considered if they are convicted of ''an offence''. Would it not be wiser to adjust the wording to make it clear that, if there were several offences, the person committing them would not be considered?
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Mr. Leslie: I set out for the hon. Gentleman the view that we take on this matter. Three or four minor offences may show disregard for the law, but it is not appropriate that we to try to set in the order the number, nature or pattern of offences. There is flexibility in the order, and we will certainly ensure that we err on the side of caution. We do not wish to give the post of lay magistrate to those who have been convicted of criminal offences punishable by imprisonment for more than one month, or to those who are perhaps perceived to have shown a persistent disregard for the law. I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are not in the business of doing that.
Sir Teddy Taylor: I am sorry to intervene again. Could not the issue be resolved by simply changing the words ''an offence'' to the word ''offences''? Thus, if someone were convicted of offences punishable by a term of imprisonment exceeding one month, they would be disregarded. Would that not achieve what the Minister wants to achieve and make the law clear? Otherwise, he might find himself in the European Court of Human Rights, and that court does the silliest nonsense that hon. Members have ever heard of. Would not the whole thing be made clearer if we simply used the words,
Mr. Leslie: I see that the hon. Gentleman wants to change where the line is drawn in the order. It is important to say that criminal convictions that might involve prison sentences of one month or more should lead to disqualification. I can envisage that there may be circumstances in which we may need to be flexible when considering driving or other offences, and further issues leading to sentences of less than one month. However, I cannot envisage many such circumstances. The important point that I should stress for the hon. Gentleman, which is significant, is that the good character test in the selection process will weed out many of the problems that he anticipates. Issues related to personal integrity, respect for the wider community, and high regard for the law are all qualifications that will be sought during the selection process.
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East asked whether the two-year rule applied to both article 2(i) and to 2(h). I confirm that it does. He also asked why education welfare officers would be excluded, as set out in the order. I was advised that, because of the nature of their work—not least their role in the process of the criminal courts where they regularly appear to give evidence—there were grounds for their exclusion.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath reiterated the point about the Irish Parliament that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. I congratulate him for spotting the words in parentheses. Nevertheless, I continue to feel that the words Irish Parliament convey the correct meaning. Perhaps, because there is a partial description in parentheses, the hon. Gentleman feels that something is missing, but the intention of the order is clear. Nevertheless, I
Column Number: 021will consider whether there is a need to make an amendment at the point at which I sign the order.
Mr. Heath: There is a legal maxim in Latin, which I cannot recall, that says that that which is not expressly excluded is included, and vice versa. If the order contained the words ''British Parliament (House of Lords)'', would the Minister expect that to cover the House or Commons?
Mr. Leslie: It does not use the words British Parliament. That is clear.
The establishment of the new judicial office of lay magistrate was a substantive recommendation to emerge from the review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. The independence of holders of judicial office is of paramount importance. The order safeguards the appointments process by screening out specified offices and occupations for which a perceived lack of independence could be construed. Concerns on
Column Number: 022the specific issue of criminal convictions that were voiced in debates in both Houses have been acted upon. The order is robust and contains the necessary checks and balances. Lay magistrates will be recruited locally and will have an important role in serving their community through the administration of justice. They will be supported through the provision of comprehensive training programmes.
The order represents an important step forward in securing the confidence of local people in the justice system in Northern Ireland. I commend it to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at twenty-two minutes to Six o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
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