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Clause 8 - Local justice areas

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:30 am, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in

clause 8, page 5, line 10, at end insert

'which are to be coterminous with the boundaries of the relevant local government area.'.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 118, in

clause 8, page 5, line 13, at end insert—

'( ) No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one area specified under section 4.'.

Amendment No. 119, in

clause 8, page 5, line 13, at end insert—

'( ) No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one area established under Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996 (c.16).'.

Amendment No. 12, in

clause 8, page 5, line 14, at end insert

'but may not change the coterminosity of a local justice with a local government area.'.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Thank you, Mr. Illsley. I can now welcome you, and all members of the Committee, properly. I welcome in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) and warmly congratulate them on their appointment yesterday to the shadow ministerial team. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney is now shadow Deputy Leader of the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe is a shadow Minister for the Department for Work and Pensions.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 would ensure that local justice areas were the same as local government areas. As with the argument that we had a few days ago that courts boards areas should be coterminous with police authority areas, here we need to minimise confusion and overlap. While preparing for this debate, it occurred to me that in drafting amendment No. 12 I might have inadvertently made an error. When I reread the amendment, I thought that it probably should have read ''local justice area'' rather than just ''local justice''. Before the Minister picks that up, I plead guilty that I might have left something out. The amendment would certainly be clearer with the word ''area'' added.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome will speak to the couple of Liberal Democrat amendments, Nos. 118 and 119, in this group. My reading of those is that they aim for the same thing—avoiding confusion—but we shall hear from the hon. Gentleman in a moment. Even if the Minister cannot accept the amendments as they stand, I hope that he understands what we are getting at. There is no need to change local justice areas so that they cross over local government boundaries, and I hope that he will acknowledge that ours is a genuine attempt to improve the Bill by trying to avoid confusion.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I should have said earlier that I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley; I apologise.

This group of amendments deals with the idea of keeping a degree of co-ordination and coterminosity between the local justice areas that will be established under the Bill and other areas relevant to the workings of those areas. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath has already explained the basis of his amendments. My only quarrel with him is that he has not defined whether the relevant local government area should be a shire or a district. That could cause confusion in construing his intention.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

There was, I hope, a bit of logic to that. Under clause 8(7) as drafted, the term ''local authority'' is defined in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). That is why my amendments contain no further definition; the clause already includes a definition of ''local authority''. Adding the word ''area'' would be the simplest way of improving the amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and I am not trying to pick a quarrel. I do not think that his amendment is precisely right for areas where there are both county and district authorities, but I am not arguing against his intention.

Amendment No. 118 would ensure that local justice areas were not split between the areas of more than

one courts board. That seems eminently sensible. If we are setting up a system for overseeing the administration of courts for a particular area, it does not make sense for a single local justice area to be answerable—or rather, to be of interest—to more than one courts board area.

It is a matter of good governance that local justice areas should fall entirely within a single courts board area, to allow for sensible administration.

Amendment No. 119 states that the boundary should not cross a police authority area. If we wish to make those areas accountable, and wish to have better co-ordination between the apparatus of justice in its various forms—including the police, the probation service and other bodies that will follow the police authority areas—it does not make sense for a local justice area to cross the boundaries of a police authority area.

Whether or not my amendments are accepted, local justice areas will, in practice, fall within a single police authority area and a courts board area. It would be better if that were explicit, rather than implicit. I would be concerned if there was a local justice area that straddled borders, because that would create confusion and add to the lack of local accountability and transparency in the operation of those bodies. I hope that the Minister will accept my amendment.

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

I commend the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for his characteristic modesty in commending his colleagues on their promotion in the shadow reshuffle, but failing to mention that he too has been promoted, to shadow Solicitor-General. I congratulate him.

We have four substantive amendments before us. As a consequence of clause 8, we will abolish commission areas from statute, and replace petty sessions areas with local justice areas. We will introduce a transitional provision confirming that local justice area boundaries will, in the first instance, be the same as those of existing petty sessions areas.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath tabled amendment No. 11, which would require the Lord Chancellor to make local justice areas coterminous with the boundaries of the relevant local government areas when he divides up England and Wales. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome pointed out one of the issues that had occurred to me concerning the definition of the term ''relevant local government area''.

I acknowledge the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath about the definition as set out in subsection (7). His amendment does not distinguish between a county council area and a district council area—although that is a drafting point, so I will not dwell on it. It is important that we make it clear that the local level is the foundation building block of the local justice area. Will the local justice areas be coterminous with the local government unit or with one of the 43 police authority areas? All those boundary issues are important.

The amendment is undesirable, given that local justice areas will replace petty sessions areas, and at this stage we do not wish to disturb the underlying structure of existing petty sessions areas boundaries. That is why we will bring forward a transitional provision confirming that the boundaries of the new local justice areas will be the same as those of the petty sessions areas on commencement.

Amendment No. 12 would prevent the Lord Chancellor from changing the coterminosity of a local justice area and a local government area when making an order to alter local justice area boundaries under subsection (4). Unless the term ''relevant local government area'' is clearly defined, there are difficulties with the workability of the amendment, and given what I have already said about amendment No. 11, I do not believe that that would be the correct approach.

Amendment No. 118, tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, would ensure that

''No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one''

courts board

''area specified under section 4.''

There are difficulties with that approach. Although the amendment suggests that courts boards boundaries are fundamental and inalienable units that should not be tampered with, the local justice areas are the first building blocks of the system. The amendment is undesirable, because it seeks to put the cart before the horse. The petty sessions or local justice areas are fundamental to all aspects of the magistrates courts system, whereas those of the courts boards are part of an administrative structure, through which the administration of the courts—not only magistrates courts—is enhanced. In determining a courts board area, consideration should be given to ensuring that petty sessions and local justice area boundaries are not compromised, and vice versa. Many hon. Members would want to ensure that we saw that point through.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:45 am, 1st July 2003

I think that the Minister is agreeing with me that the local justice areas should be entirely within a single courts board area. All he is saying is that one is established before the other. Would he find acceptable an amendment to the definition of the courts boards areas that ensured that they covered a whole number—an integer—of local justice areas? If that were done, there would not be the problem of local justice areas straddling the borders of courts boards areas. I think that he and I would agree that that would not be conducive to good administration.

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

That may well be the effect of the final product, as we move from the transitional phase, during which we simply replicate the petty sessions areas, to the new system. However, other matters must be taken into account when considering courts boards areas, given that those do not just relate to magistrates courts issues. We must consider that in more detail, although that is not to say that there should not be widespread consultation on such matters. Subsection (6) already provides for consultation with the relevant courts board, in the event that boundary changes were

to be given further consideration after the first transitional phase.

Amendment No. 119, tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, would ensure that

''No local justice area may include areas which form part of more than one area established under Schedule 1 to the Police Act 1996''.

That is similar to amendment No. 118. The intention behind amendment No. 119 is that such an area should not straddle more than one criminal justice service area, apart from in London, where there are the classic anomalies of the City and metropolitan boundary areas. That is the current position with petty sessions area boundaries and it will also apply initially to those of local justice areas. We expect that such boundaries will be included within those of a criminal justice service area. However, we do not want to commit to ensuring that in the Bill. It is important to remember that magistrates courts also hear civil and family cases, not just criminal cases. The organisation of local justice areas is not solely reliant on the needs of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, and to tie it to the considerations of criminal justice service areas would be, in a sense, to pre-empt and negate considerations that may be necessary in respect of civil and family cases.

Given the wider responsibilities of the magistrates courts system, it would be wrong at this stage to include such restrictive amendments in the Bill. However, I assure Committee members who have raised particular points that if we can keep the boundaries structures simple and clear, that will be our intention. I understand entirely that the amendment was tabled to try to ensure as great a level of coterminosity as possible, but I hope that it will, for the time being, be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I think that the Minister understands entirely what we are aiming at. I do not want to prolong the debate, but I would have preferred it if something along the lines of my amendments and those of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome were included in the Bill. I understand that we are not really falling out on an issue of principle. We are simply talking about the mechanics of the Bill. The Minister has given some helpful reassurances, which are now on the record. In the light of those, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.