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Clause 41 - Disqualification of lay justices who

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:30 pm, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 21, in

clause 41, page 20, line 27, at end insert—

'( ) No act is invalidated merely because of the disqualification under this section of the person by whom it is done.'.

I should like at the outset to put this amendment in context. Clause 41 deals with the disqualification of lay justices who are members of local authorities—in other words, councillors. It provides that a magistrate who is a member of a local authority may not sit in cases where that authority has an interest. It replicates

section 66 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997, which included a provision which meant that no Act was to be invalidated merely because a justice was disqualified. That provision was removed in the other place because of concerns about ''fair tribunals'', arising from article 6 of the European convention on human rights.

The Government remain satisfied that the inclusion of that provision does not infringe article 6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights published its agreement with that view in its fourth report for the 2002–03 session. Its members are satisfied that the clause, as originally drafted, did not infringe article 6 of the ECHR. The Government pay considerable attention to the views of that Committee, and we do not believe that we should disagree with it on this occasion. We consider that it would be inappropriate for the amendment that was tabled in the other place to stand, and that is why we are seeking to move the amendment to correct it at this stage.

Article 6 of the ECHR refers to the determination of a party's civil rights and obligations, or of any criminal charge against him. Where the justices act in circumstances that do not engage the article, or where the participation of the individual does not violate it—as may be the case at an interlocutory hearing on uncontentious matters—the subsection would provide that the action would not be invalidated merely because of the disqualification. If it is felt that article 6 applies in a particular case, it is always possible for a party to appeal. Where no prejudice is caused by the magistrate's disqualification, it would be unreasonable and burdensome to invalidate those decisions.

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

As the Minister says, there was a lot of debate about that issue in another place, and it will not be helpful to repeat it all this afternoon. We took the view—it may be that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, whose noble Friends are also involved in debating the matter, does so too—that it would have been better if the judgment taken by another place had been allowed to rest. We are disappointed that the Government have chosen to reverse it, but we understand where the Minister is coming from. He says that the Joint Committee is content and that the Government do not want to second guess, or undermine, the judgment of the Joint Committee.

Having said we are disappointed that the Government have chosen to reverse the decision of another place, it would not be helpful to go over that ground again. I will restrict my remarks to saying that I suspect that we may have to go back to the matter on Report, if we still feel that that would achieve something positive. At this stage, I leave my remarks at that.

Amendment agreed to.

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

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

Is there a satisfactory definition of ''local authority'' anywhere in statute that does not require the whole lot to be repeated in future definitions? I refer particularly to the inclusion of

separate clauses for the Corporation of the City of London and the Common Council of the City of London. It is such a waste of paper and statute time. There should surely be a definition of ''local authority'' that clarifies the expression under the wording of a particular Act.

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

I am tempted to pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments to the Common Council of the City of London, but I suspect that its members would not be particularly grateful to receive them. We should make similar provision under the clause as that set out in section 66 of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997, which provided for the various disqualifications of magistrates who were members of the local authorities. Definitions of ''local authority'' differ in different parts of the Bill, so we have to make sure that we are thorough in our explanation and description; it is better to be thorough than to miss things.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 41, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.