Schedule 3 — Transfer of appointment functions to her majesty

Orders of the Day — Constitutional Reform Bill [Lords] — [3rd Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 1st March 2005.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 1:30 pm, 1st March 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 644, in page 63, line 6, leave out 'Supreme Court' and insert 'Senior Courts'.

The First Deputy Chairman:

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 645 and 647 to 650.

Government new clause 44—Renaming of the Supreme Courts of England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

Government new schedule 3—Renaming of the Supreme Courts of England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

Government amendments Nos. 651 to 666.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

This group of amendments gives effect in part to the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Bill in the other place that the supreme court of England and Wales and the Supreme Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland should be renamed and, when necessary to avoid confusion, the short titles of legislation relating to these courts should also be changed.

The supreme court of England and Wales, as it is now known, is to be renamed the Senior Court of England and Wales, and the Supreme Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland will be renamed the Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland. The renaming does not affect the courts in question in any other way than changing the names by which they will be known. The new names were selected in consultation with the senior judiciary in each jurisdiction with a view to avoiding confusion not only with the creation of a new United Kingdom supreme court, but with other courts. There are also references in the Bill that will require amendments in line with the general renaming, and many of the amendments in this group are consequential on the change.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

We now come to the first bone of contention of the afternoon. It is quite a small bone, but it irritates me sufficiently to make me want to take the matter forward. Indeed, unless I can persuade the Minister to change his mind, I shall probably divide the House.

The Minister knows that we were against the setting up of a supreme court of the United Kingdom. In those circumstances, he will probably agree that there was no need to consider renaming the current Court of Appeal, which is covered by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1873. I have to accept that, for the purposes of the Bill as it now stands, we are going to have a supreme court of the United Kingdom. However, the Minister's proposal to rename the courts covered by that Act "Senior Courts" strikes me as bizarre. We do not have any junior courts, and the expression "Senior Courts" is an odd one.

I do not see the new name catching on anyway because, as the Minister well knows, nobody refers to the High Court and the Court of Appeal by anything other than those titles. Only lawyers are aware of the fact that the High Court and the Court of Appeal were created by the Supreme Court of Judicature Act in the 19th century. Those titles offer a correct description of the purpose those courts were set up to fulfil. Although we are going to have a supreme court of the United Kingdom, those courts are, in reality, the supreme court of England and Wales, and I can think of no good reason for changing their title. I am not sure that the Minister, in his very brief speech, provided me with a persuasive reason for going back on that viewpoint.

This matters because we must consider the issue in the context of the English and Welsh judicial system. The reality is that the House of Lords, in its current role, is half removed from the mainstream judicial process. Appeals to the House of Lords take place only in fairly exceptional circumstances. It spends a great deal of its time turning down applications for leave to appeal, not because the issues involved are not interesting, but because they do not raise the kind of point with which the House of Lords considers it should concern itself. The Minister has not suggested that the new supreme court should approach its work load any differently from the way in which the House of Lords has done, although I acknowledge that one or two small areas of devolution law will be transferred from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to the new supreme court.

Why not leave well alone? There is not going to be a muddle and the court does not need another name. "Senior Court" is a rather sad name. It has a sad feel to it—

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Yes, that is rather what it sounds like. It also has a slightly prissy tone because of the way in which it contrasts the senior court with other courts. As the Minister knows, judges from other courts are now invited to sit in the Court of Appeal and, sometimes, on judicial review proceedings in the Supreme Court of Judicature.

For all those reasons, I urge the Minister to drop the idea. We do not need the amendments, and if he wants to press on with them I shall vote against them unless he can provide me with an extraordinarily cogent reason for changing my mind.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I do not anticipate a day full of great controversy. Nor do I expect there to be a huge number of votes. Indeed, if there are, our colleagues could be somewhat surprised. I think that this is the only occasion on which there might be a vote, and I shall be voting not with Mr. Grieve and his colleagues but with the Minister. That is because I accept the Minister's proposition, which is consistent with the view taken by my colleagues. I understand the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, but I support the Minister's proposal, although we might view it slightly differently.

My colleagues and I have argued for years that there should be a modern judicial system, that we should have a supreme court separate from the Judicial Committee in the House of Lords, and that we should separate the judicial system from the legislature. That is why we have supported the thrust of the Bill. We shall therefore create a supreme court of the United Kingdom, wherever it ends up sitting. That has been slightly controversial, but I understand that the preferred location is still over the road at the Middlesex guildhall.

In the light of that, the renaming of the next tiers of courts—the Court of Appeal and the High Court—as the "Senior Courts" represents an understandable and straightforward shorthand. Subject to only the supreme court being above them, they are the next in the hierarchy. "Senior" might be a slightly trite or mundane word, but at least it describes their position. They are the courts to which we look up, and they are in the hierarchy of senior courts. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield said that we have no junior courts. Well, it is a bit like "The Screwtape Letters". We do not have senior devils and junior devils. However, we do have junior courts—bluntly, the magistrates courts and the county courts are the junior courts. Colloquially, people know that. They know that cases start in a magistrates court and that, on appeal, they go up the hierarchy. People also know that if they are dissatisfied with what happens in the county court, an appeal on the civil side will go to the High Court. So I think that the shorthand is understandable. It will be more understandable if we distinguish between the supreme court and the others.

Lastly, it seems to me that, by definition, we cannot have more than one supreme something. Something is either supreme or it is not. I, like the hon. Member for Beaconsfield and others, am a lawyer, and I was brought up to be able to walk around with the white book, a great volume of all the rules of the Supreme Court of Judicature. One of the failings of the current system is that that was basically the rules of all the senior courts from, I think, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords all the way down through the Court of Appeal to the High Court. I stand to be corrected if the House of Lords is not included, but that is my recollection—I have not looked at it for a long time.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I was going to raise a separate issue with the hon. Gentleman. He will be aware that there have been at least some suggestions lurking around that there will be a new unified court structure in which the High Court and lesser courts, or junior courts, would effectively be merged. It is not clear in what direction that is going. Certainly, however, the Government seem to be quite keen, for instance, on getting rid of some of the distinctions between the divisions in the High Court. The whispers are no more than that. Were that to happen, of course, we would be back to the drawing board anyway, as the Court of Appeal would become potentially quite distinct from the High Court. Whether that is desirable is another matter, but the hon. Gentleman might feel that that reinforces the reason for just leaving it well alone. I think that the distinction is perfectly obvious.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

These are not issues that will ultimately make a fundamental difference. This Bill has been thought about and talked about for years and years. The reform of the judicial system has been thought about for a long time. My judgment is that we ought to try to get the best possible outcome and the simplest structure.

I want to deal with the two points raised by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield. There might be a further debate later about whether we structure the court system hierarchically and vertically. Ultimately, we might end up with a supreme court, with the Court of Appeal below that and the senior courts below that. The words may change eventually.

Divisions might also be considered. There are arguments for different divisions of the court system. There might well be an argument now for having an administrative division of the High Court. There is certainly an argument for reviewing where some of the boundaries come in work done. The family division is a relatively new one and is worth while. Eventually, we might amend the title of the Queen's bench division, because that is a general title relating to the famous courts of yore which used to sit Downstairs, but it does not mean much to someone who is not a lawyer and has not studied legal history. That is not an argument for changing it categorically.

I shall end where I began. This is a sensible proposal for the time being. I am sure that, in time, a Government will say that further work needs to be done and the judges might say that they want to propose further reforms. Let us have one supreme court, let it be known as the supreme court, let it be recognised as the supreme court and let us have the courts under it regarded for the time being as the senior courts. I think that most people will understand what is meant by that.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I was not proposing to speak in this debate until I heard Mr. Grieve. When we started proceedings this afternoon and I looked through the long list of proposed amendments and the important aspects of policy being changed, of all the matters on which I thought that we would divide I never believed that it would be on the question of a name.

I fully support the Government on their proposal, which is a sensible and clear enactment of the modernisation process. I am really puzzled, however, about why the hon. Member for Beaconsfield chooses to get cross about this name. It is quite obvious for all those who practise in the courts what these courts are called. All that this seeks to do is to clarify the situation.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the last thing that I can be described as on this matter is cross. If the vote goes against me, I shall not lose hours of sleep as I toss and turn in my bed and consider gnashing my teeth about the infamy that the Government have perpetrated. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just happen to think that the Government are wrong. Seeing that these are matters on which the House's opinion is sought, and must be sought, I stand by my view that it is a silly idea.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I did not expect the hon. Gentleman to be cross as he is very friendly, even though he is a member of the Opposition. I remember how cross he was at the Dispatch Box last night when dealing with the Bill that we were considering then. He read out from Mr. Speaker's provisional selection all the aspects of that Bill that could not be discussed. He put the case eloquently. Of all the elements in the current provisional selection, however, the renaming of the supreme courts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland is hardly of earth-shattering importance. I wonder why we must waste 15 minutes on a Division if he is not going to stay up all night worrying about it.

I have a simple suggestion for my hon. Friend the Minister, who has conducted these proceedings in an absolutely brilliant way, despite all the opposition of the Conservative party, which said that it would oppose everything that he did, root and branch. It has come down to this. Let us have a competition called, "Name that court". Let us use the Conservative party website and let Opposition Front-Bench Members text their views on what this court should be called. If he is prepared to allow that to happen, perhaps the hon. Member for Beaconsfield will not force the issue to a vote.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Shadow Secretary of State for Deregulation 1:45 pm, 1st March 2005

I support my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve, who has been maligned in this short but interesting debate. What is in a name? It is tradition, history and continuity, which established who we are and where we come from. With the Government's hectic modernising reforms, particularly in the constitutional area, we worry that they have no sense of history or tradition, and no understanding of why things are as they or have been named as they were. They seem to want to root out everything that was not created after 1997.

By defending some names, and the larger institutions that they represent in many cases, we are saying that all is not wrong because it was thought up a long time ago, because it has evolved and served us well over many centuries or because it has some idiosyncrasies or quirks that do not seem rational or logical to the modernising mind of Labour and new Labour. We are saying to the Government that they should pause. Do they really need to dream up this ghastly name today and shove it through so that we will be cursed for the weeks and months ahead, if not years, with having to call our courts "Senior"? I believe that is a word that the Americans use to describe pensioners, which creates an unfortunate impression for the important bodies that the Government are trying to transmute.

I often feel that this Government are in the alchemy business, but they take gold and transmute it into base metal rather than the other way around. What is in the name is what we stand for, who we are and how these great institutions have come about. If we destroy the name and the institution at the same time, something magic has gone.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I am going to accuse Mr. Grieve of being a Conservative. I know that the Leader of the Opposition might be considering changing their party's name, possibly to move to a new era, but the hon. Gentleman exemplifies that they remain Conservatives. Despite the eloquence of my argument, he has almost resolutely said that he will not be persuaded, whatever I say.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield says that it is bizarre to change the title of this cluster of courts now known as the supreme courts of England and Wales to the senior courts, not the superior courts—we chose not to go for superior as there are other superior courts of record elsewhere. One of the justifications for calling them senior courts was that we wanted to avoid the word superior. We did that in consultation with the judiciary, who now agree that the concept of senior courts is right, and not least that it should be courts—plural—as we are talking about a cluster of courts. That is not reflected in the current name of the supreme court for England and Wales.

If, in the bigger picture, we are creating a new United Kingdom supreme court, for those in the wider country who are not immersed in the world of the law as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield might be we need to avoid confusion and have wider understanding and comprehension of how our courts work in this country, right up to the UK supreme court. That is why we think that it makes good sense, as do the judiciary, to change the title to "Senior Courts of England and Wales".

I was sorry that the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members seemed to say that there was something sad in the term "Senior". I think that seniors are happy and wonderful people. He seems to have a sense that they are somehow miserable and not to be favoured. I am all in favour of seniors, and I want to put that on the record, too. I do not see the logic of his conservatism.

Simon Hughes and my hon. Friend Keith Vaz adequately explained why now is the time to move to the title of "Senior Courts of England and Wales". I commend the amendments to the House.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 278, Noes 93.

Division number 105

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Schedule 3, as amended, agreed to