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Clause 10 - Appointment of lay justices etc.

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:45 am, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in

clause 10, page 6, line 13, at end insert

', and the rules and the contents of the training courses shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament.'.

I hope either that the Government will not resist this amendment on such an important matter, or, even if they feel that they must, that they might table a similar Government amendment. We on the Conservative Benches think that it is important that

there be some scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament of how lay justices are to be trained.

Earlier in our proceedings reference was made to the fact that in this country we are tremendously fortunate to have about 96 or 97 per cent. of criminal cases dealt with by amateur volunteers—people who devote their lives to public service as justices of the peace. Without their dedication, we would not have such a highly regarded legal system. When I talk to people in other countries, they are amazed that we are fortunate enough to have a system that relies so heavily on volunteers, which of course can save Governments of any party a huge amount of money—it would be much more expensive for the taxpayer to transfer to an entirely professional judiciary.

Although we have volunteers who do all that work as justices of the peace, Parliament needs to have sight of the content of their training courses. I cannot see why there should be any opposition to that. We are saying not that Parliament should interfere, but simply that it should see what is on the syllabus.

I used to have great concerns about a completely different matter many years ago, which was how teachers were trained. I was suspicious about some of the things that were in the teacher training college syllabuses, but, fortunately, when we were in government my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), then Secretary of State for Education, looked at what was in the syllabuses and got a lot of the political correctness taken out. However, that is a different matter and we are not talking about that here. We are talking about Parliament having a view about what is going to be in the syllabus, as I have called it, for training lay justices. The point is shortly stated, but it is nevertheless an important one and I hope that the Government will not seek to resist the amendment.

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

Subsection (4), as the hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out, enables the Lord Chancellor to make rules about lay justice training. The amendment seeks to impose an unnecessary restriction on the potential ability of the Lord Chancellor to train lay justices. I am concerned about the amendment. Although I can understand the natural curiosity of the hon. Gentleman, he is insisting that the contents as well as the rules of the training courses should be laid before both Houses of Parliament, which is a slightly worrying suggestion to make. Doing so would be a little excessive and perhaps an unprecedented level of parliamentary scrutiny. We obviously want to see training for lay justices up and down the country, but we also feel that the basis of that training should have a degree of independence.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I wonder whether I could press the Minister on the eligibility of those who are trained. The high cost of training magistrates must be borne in mind, and there needs to be an assurance that a significant number of years of service could be had from a trained magistrate to justify the cost of that training. However, I have heard of cases where older people have been refused on the ground of age, and it

would be a pity if their experience and wisdom, which come with age, were lost to the magistracy.

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

As I get older and wiser about these matters, I realise and appreciate the benefits that can come from age and experience. I have had about 15 or 16 days' experience in the field of courts and the wonderful world of the Lord Chancellor, and I feel that great experience should never be thrown away lightly. I will look at whether there are any bars to training that unnecessarily discard experience. I am sure that the system does not do that, but I hear what the hon. Lady says.

There needs to be a degree of independence in the training process. The Judicial Studies Board manages the training of lay justices on behalf of the Lord Chancellor, and it does so well. It is an important aspect of the magistracy's judicial independence that such training should be seen to be free from outside—and particularly political—interference.

Certain training courses need to be prepared quickly—perhaps in response to legislative change—and the amendment would delay or fetter the process of changing or preparing them: their content would need to be laid before Parliament on every such occasion. I am not aware of the contents of training courses in any other field of public life needing to be laid before Parliament.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath says that he does not wish to interfere with the content of such courses, but if we were to have a provision stating that their contents should be laid before Parliament, that would implicitly suggest that Parliament may wish to debate the contents, or even to give approval of them, and that would be the wrong avenue to go down. Because of those concerns, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

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

I am disappointed with the Minister's response because having the contents of the training laid before Parliament is an important matter. We might need to return to the matter on Report. The Minister helpfully suggested that he will look at the important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), and I hope that he will also continue to keep this matter in mind, so that at the same time that he is exploring my hon. Friend's concerns about older people being considered as magistrates, he will look again at whether it would do any harm for the Bill to state that the contents of the training should be laid before Parliament. That is not an excessive request, but as I do not wish to prolong the debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I welcome the capacity to allow greater flexibility in the use of lay magistrates between local justice areas—as those areas are to be called—but what is the process for the arrangements under subsection (3) that allow a lay justice to preside over or act in an area to which he or she is not assigned? Will the Lord Chancellor simply write a letter to that

effect, or is there a more complicated process? In clause 16, there is a requirement to notify the Keeper of the Rolls for the local justice area of a permanent assignment, but is that the case for a temporary assignment? What are the procedures that the Lord Chancellor would expect to have in place to make these assignments—to license a lay justice to act in an area to which he or she is not assigned?

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

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting and important point about the process by which lay justices will be assigned to particular areas. Clearly, there will be a change, in that there will be greater flexibility of assignment, given the abolition of particular local commission of the peace areas and the fact that lay justices will be able to act in any local justice area. However, certainly under subsection (3), and not least in conjunction with clauses 43 and 44, we intend to exercise the arrangements in accordance with many of the current procedures used by the Lord Chancellor.

Magistrates would generally continue to sit in their local area, and the wider jurisdiction would only be used on proper conditions, including the magistrates' agreement and the business needs driving the courts system. If there are technical paperwork aspects that I am neglecting, it is simply because I am not intimately familiar with the processology of how magistrates would be assigned. I have given the principle that will continue to be used. Obviously, we do not wish to cause disruption in where a magistrate sits, particularly if the change is against their will.

The clause re-enacts several provisions in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997, and puts on to a statutory footing for the first time the requirement on the Lord Chancellor to assign magistrates to a local area. The clause is a step forward. It is intended to preserve, and perhaps even strengthen, the statutory position of the bench in relation to the community and magistrates working in local justice areas. Putting the provisions in the Bill gives strength to the foundations of the appointment process. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, he can raise points—or I could follow up on his points, if he has any more to make—in correspondence with me.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:00 am, 1st July 2003

I was not trying to be clever and catch the Minister on the hop with my question; it simply seems that there is a lacuna in the Bill in relation to setting out the exact procedures. That may not need to be done in primary legislation, but clear procedures need to be involved, because nothing would be more certain to cause upset and difficulties in a local government area than some magistrate from outside suddenly appearing to hear a choice case, or something like that.

I just want to be reassured that procedures for the new way of doing things have been envisaged, and that they will ensure that the local bench know about, and are party to, what is going on. Those procedures should perhaps allow for consultation along the way, and ensure that there are no sudden lurches in personnel that would disrupt the principles of the lay magistracy as we know them. I am perfectly satisfied

that the Minister will address the issue, but he might also like to consider whether it would be appropriate to publish clear rules of procedure on the subject at an early stage so that everyone knows what is entailed, because I do not think that it is absolutely clear.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.