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Clause 30 - Places, dates and times of sittings

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:45 pm, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in

clause 30, page 14, line 17, at end insert—

'( ) Before giving any direction under subsection (1), the Lord Chancellor shall consult with—

(a) the relevant courts board;

(b) any local authorities whose area includes the relevant local justice area or a part of the local justice area.'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss the amendment No. 129, in

clause 30, page 14, line 33, after 'place', insert

'in the local justice area'.

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

Amendment No. 2 deals with the now familiar subject of locality, proximity, accessibility—call it what you will. It makes the point that directions may be given under clause 30(2)

''to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area.''

Clause 30(1) states that

''The Lord Chancellor may give directions as to the places in England and Wales at which magistrates' courts may sit.''

The amendment will ensure that, before making the direction, the Lord Chancellor will consult with the relevant courts boards, which have a duty to scrutinise and review such arrangements, and local authorities in the area, which may be said to speak for the local community at large. The amendment takes a belt-and-braces approach so that, as far as possible, the community can make sure that access to justice is maintained locally between the people who are running the courts, working in them and using them, and the general public who have a legitimate interest in the court remaining in their area.

The point at issue is to ensure that courthouses are available and accessible to the local community, which, as expressed through the local authority, has a locus in such matters. At present, the local authority is often involved in proposals to close courts—often, the primary objection comes from the local authority. For example, Mendip district council led the campaign to save Frome court in my constituency from closure. Local justice was needed. Apart from all the issues that we have raised about the workings of the court system, we must bear it in mind that, more and more, particularly in rural areas and small communities, there is a feeling that the justice apparatus is becoming more remote, that local people no longer have the police presence that they once had and the direct accountability of the forces of law and order.

The courthouse is a physical manifestation of the fact that there still is an engagement for the community in respect of law and order, and local justice. It is an important aspect. The Minister would do well to consider how local authorities are brought into the loop effectively in respect of consultation to ensure maximum local consensus about such matters.

Amendment No. 129 deals with a slightly different issue, although it might seem similar. It would introduce the words

''in the local justice area''

to subsection (5), which states:

''The places are—

(a) a place in the local justice area in which the offence is alleged to have been committed;

(b) a place in the local justice area in which the person charged with the offence resides;

(c) a place in the local justice area in which the witnesses, or the majority of the witnesses, reside''.

That is fine until paragraph (d), which states

''a place where other cases raising similar issues are being dealt with''.

That does not refer to the local justice area.

At our first sitting, the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) raised the concept of batch processing. That is a worry to magistrates, who consider that either they will be doing the same business in a repetitive way, or that business will be taken away from them, leaving them only with lesser fodder for their courts. It may be deemed extremely efficient and effective to have that done at a remote location in a centralised court for an area, but that would be inconvenient for everyone else involved. It would be extremely inconvenient for the court officials to deal in Bristol with all the parking offences in the Avon and Somerset police authority area. That would be extraordinarily inconvenient for someone who committed a driving offence and who happens to live on Exmoor or at the other end of the authority area. Such a situation is not ruled out under the present arrangements. Inserting the words

''in the local justice area''

would mean that, if we are to have batch processing of similar cases, we at least retained the sense of locality and the convenience for the local court user, as well as the convenience of the system. Reducing things to more manageable proportions will prevent some of the proposals from having the sausage-factory effect, which many people find rather repugnant. The Minister might not be able to accept my amendment, but can he explain why

''in the local justice area''

is not included in paragraph (d)? I suspect that he wants to have a single processing court for dealing with large numbers of similar offences in a place remote from where the offender, witnesses, legal representatives, police officers and everybody else are living. If so, he is advancing an argument for a rather remote and inefficient form of justice, which I personally deplore.

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

I was hoping that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath would elaborate a little, but that was not to be the case. Now that he has concurred completely with the Liberal Democrats, I shall try to answer the points raised.

The measures in clause 30 should make courts more accessible by removing restrictions on where magistrates courts can sit, and by allowing the use of non-court buildings, if that is appropriate. Moreover, giving the new unified administration control of the

entire court estate will afford greater opportunities for co-location of county courts within magistrates courts in rural areas.

I shall address the two amendments to clause 30 separately. Amendment No. 2 relates to the requirement to consult, and its effect would be to require the Lord Chancellor, when giving directions as to the places where magistrates courts may sit under subsection (1), to consult the relevant courts board and any local authorities whose area included the relevant local justice area or part of the local justice area. That is a reasonable point to raise, and I understand some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, but that provision is not desirable.

First, under provisions in the Bill courts boards will, for the first time, give a voice to a wide section of those communities in relation to all the courts. That is a much more inclusive and genuinely consultative approach, and the courts boards will add a great deal. Under clause 5, courts boards will be involved in the development of plans for their area, which will include any proposals to open, close or relocate courthouses in the context of the area's overall business plan. To place a duty on the Lord Chancellor, when exercising his powers under subsection (1), to consult those who have already had an input into decisions regarding the court estate is a tad superfluous.

Secondly, placing a duty on the Lord Chancellor to consult any local authority whose area includes the relevant local justice area would be unduly restrictive. As we have already heard, clause 8(7) provides a definition of a local authority, but that definition includes police authorities as well as borough councils, county councils, district councils, London boroughs and police authorities. To expect the Lord Chancellor to consult all those bodies when exercising his powers under subsection (1), when it is expected that he will exercise his powers only in limited circumstances—for example when determining the days on which courts will close for civil service holidays—is over the top. Having said that, it is fair to suggest that we should think a little more thoroughly about how we might bring local government into the loop a bit more, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said.

I was not involved in the drafting of the provisions but, looking at them, I can certainly see the virtue in some of the hon. Gentleman's points. It would not be appropriate to make the amendment, but I shall certainly talk to officials about the interaction between local government and other bodies, although I am not making any promises.

Amendment No. 129 would mean that, under the directions in subsection (3) concerning

''the distribution and transfer of the general business of magistrates' courts'' ,

the places where the person who is charged with an offence is required to appear would include, under subsection (5)(d), a place

''in the local justice area''

where

''other cases raising similar issues are being dealt with''.

That is not particularly desirable.

Paragraphs (a) to (c) of subsection (5) all include a reference to

''a place in the local justice area''

because in each of the circumstances described there is a definite link to a specified locality, namely the place in the

''area in which the offence is alleged to have been committed'',

the place

''in which the person charged with the offence resides'',

and

''a place . . . in which the witnesses, or the majority of the witnesses, reside''.

There is no such local link in the ''similar issues'' categorisation.

Furthermore, the provisions in paragraph (d) allow a case to be heard at a venue more suited to a particular kind of case, for example a venue with specialist facilities such as video links or a high level of security. Those facilities might not be available in the local justice area where the offence was alleged to have taken place, and where the majority of witnesses or the person charged reside. The amendment would seriously reduce our ability to make better use of the court estate and the greater flexibility as to where cases can commence that underpins clause 30.

The hon. Gentleman's particular concern was about batch processing and taking all cases of a particular sort to a warehouse, presumably at a distance from and out of contact with those concerned. I hear what he says, but the purpose of subsection (5)(d) is not to achieve batch processing but to allow trials to be held at locations with better facilities, often more appropriate to the nature of the trial concerned. I have mentioned security issues, which can often be a consideration. On the number of ineffective trials, sometimes the nature of facilities can inhibit the swift processing of justice. That was largely the rationale behind subsection (5)(d).

There is no particular reason why we should not proceed with the measures and keep the flexibility in the Bill. As I said, provisions in the clause and elsewhere are aimed at removing current statutory restrictions on where magistrates courts can sit. For example, they are currently unable to sit on licensed premises. Removing such restrictions would introduce greater flexibility and would allow the use of non-court buildings in local areas, where that is appropriate. The amendment is not necessary, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I understand my hon. Friend the Minister resisting amendment No. 129 because it is too restrictive, but I ask him to consider some aspects of the issue.

Clearly, it is not unusual for cases that involve much local feeling, security issues, specialist information technology and communications facilities or specialist facilities for children to be moved around, and that is fine. Facilities for

dealing with children and similar cases being dealt with in a locality are explicitly encompassed under subsection (5)(d).

Batch processing—I use that phrase again—goes against good local justice. For example, a gentleman from my locality came to see me a few years ago complaining about how he was being treated after a breach of television licensing regulations. I told him that he was guilty and that, if I were him, I would pay up. However, he had a good point about the process of justice. The case was being heard in Northwich, which is not, in the absence of a motor car, the most accessible part of Cheshire, especially from Ellesmere Port. Prior to the Opposition's closing the court, that case would normally have been heard in Ellesmere Port.

Nowadays most cases are heard in Chester, where there is a combined bench. There is a good bus service from Ellesmere Port and Neston into Chester, but it is one hell of a journey to Northwich. Some kind of guidance is needed on listing, so that magistrates courts clerks can ensure that careful consideration is given to the circumstances of the accused, even if it might be more efficient, from the point of the view of the management of the court, to deal with centralised cases.

Even though my advice to the gentleman was, ''Do not see a lawyer, you are guilty, full stop. I suggest you plead guilty and pay up,'' he had the right as a citizen to put his case—his mitigating argument. That was removed from him by virtue of how the case was listed. He would have needed to stay overnight because of the timing of the case. Certain adjustments are necessary to overcome some of the rural difficulties, notwithstanding the good reasons why subsection 5(d) should remain as it is.

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

I thank the Minister for his response, especially on matters relating to local authorities. His brief, however, protested too much. He and I have both served on local authorities and we know that there are all kinds of statutory consultations on all sorts of things. It does not take much work to ensure that the people on the list are aware of proposals and have the opportunity to make representations, if they wish to do so. He has said that he will consider that matter again, for which I am grateful.

I am also grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) on amendment No. 129. The more I listen to him, the more I think he agrees with the amendment on extending the principle of accessibility beyond the narrow view of the clause, with which we started the entire proceedings.

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

In case I do not have an opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for what he said, I draw the Committee's attention again to subsection (2), which says:

''In exercising his powers . . . the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the need to ensure that court-houses are accessible to persons resident in each local justice area.''

That gives the measure of protection that my hon. Friend was looking for.

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

The Minister is right; it does. Let us not repeat the arguments. I draw his attention to the fact that subsection (2) contains the words:

''In exercising his powers under subsection (1)''.

We are talking about matters of listing, which do not appear in subsection (1). That is precisely the point I was trying to get through to the Minister the other day. It is all very well saying that the Lord Chancellor will have regard to the places where courts will sit, but not the cases that are presented before them; accessibility is still an issue in interpreting the rest of the clause, let alone in the rest of the Bill. However, that is a matter for another day.

I hear what the Minister says about his intentions in terms of subsection (5)(d), and they are laudable. I do not disagree for one moment that where there is a need for enhanced security provision, interpretation or video linking—which the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and I had reason to discuss in the Standing Committee considering the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill only a couple of weeks ago—there are good reasons for sitting elsewhere.

However, that is not what the paragraph currently states. My reading is that

''a place where other cases raising similar issues are being dealt with''

refers to the legal issues arising from the case—in other words, the type of case it is, rather than ancillary issues such as the provision of security or interpretation facilities. That is a reasonable reading of that paragraph.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 3:15 pm, 1st July 2003

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I entirely agree with his point, and I venture to say that the way that he views paragraph (d) is the only way that it can be interpreted. It provides for what we call batch processing. The hon. Gentleman may know that, in respect of, for example, fixed penalty cases, a particular court is already used to send things out for the whole of the rest of the country. Northampton, one of the areas in which my former chambers were located, is one of the courts that is used for sending things out over the whole of England. Admittedly, they are intended to be dealt with by post, but there is a great temptation to move in the direction of administrative convenience, and both the hon. Gentleman and I are concerned that we should not allow administrative convenience to take over from the need to ensure that people can have a hearing at a place that is convenient for them.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. What he says is right. I was being generous to the Minister by suggesting that the provision could be construed in the way that he wishes. That is not its primary construction.

We know that there are efficiency savings to be gained by centralising these things. That is the call centre mentality. A call centre, or trial centre for all the same sort of cases will be much cheaper to administer. There will be a temptation to put everything up in Strathclyde, for example—eventually, it might all be moved to Bombay, and everybody will be listed for a huge court in the Indian subcontinent, which will be

very cheap to run. That is the natural extension of what is being proposed.

I am not suggesting that that is in the Minister's mind at present. However, the fact is that that is what he is providing for in subsection (5). I ask him to look at that again. If it is genuinely his intention not to facilitate batch processing, as we call it, but to deal with the exceptional cases that need facilities beyond those that are provided in the local justice area, there is a better way of phrasing the clause, perhaps by referring to an exception, so that it states that the above will not apply where specific facilities are required in the interests of justice. Something along those lines would ensure that the Minister could do what he wants to do, without encouraging the use of remote courthouses to deal with a large number of cases of a similar type, which is most people's interpretation of the provision as it currently stands.

I ask the Minister to think about whether the clause can be worded better so as to achieve what he wants to achieve—let me not accuse him of bad faith. If he does not give attention to the matter, I will want to come back to it on Report, and perhaps at a later stage. In the meantime, 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 Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I rise to speak on clause stand part, because I am not sure whether I shall have a further opportunity to make these points. They are directly connected with the question of places, dates and times of sittings. I speak in favour of a particular group that I believe should have access to courts—''persons resident'' in the local area, to whom reference is made in subsection (2). I am talking about members of the press, a group with which I have some familiarity in my capacity as a columnist on the Henley Standard, a post for which I receive no payment whatsoever.

It is a shame that amendment No. 46 was not selected for debate, because it perfectly expresses how the clause should be drawn up. It would be worrying if members of the press did not have ready access to the courts. The Minister may be unfamiliar with the Henley Standard's open justice campaign, but I can fill him in.

There are two problems. First, as we discussed earlier, the Henley court was closed, followed by the Thame court. Secondly, once everything is moved to Oxford, no lists will be sent to groups of residents in the ''local justice area'', including newspaper journalists, of what cases are to be heard. It will therefore be impossible for newspapers to provide the vital service of telling the local community who is being tried and for what. They will not be able to play their part in the administering of justice by providing the vital utensil of public shame. It is an important part of local justice that cases should be reported in local newspapers.

Without wishing to try your patience, Mr. O'Brien, I ask for an assurance that the Government will

include newspapers in their thinking about who should have access to the courts in the local justice area. Not only should they have access to the courts but they should know what cases are coming up and should be able to report them freely. I think that the Minister will agree that that is an important part of administering justice locally.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

May I say how much I agree with the hon. Gentleman that part of the local administration of justice is the reporting of cases to the public in the local area?

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. Amendment No. 46 was not selected. I allowed the hon. Member for Henley to make his point, but I am not prepared to allow a discussion on it.

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

After that admonishment, Mr. O'Brien, I am not sure how to respond. However, I understand the legitimate point raised by the hon. Member for Henley. He spoke of the role of the press as a utensil of justice, and he wants to ensure that the press know what cases are listed for the various courts. I have not seen the vehicle by which the lists are transmitted to the local press, although I am becoming increasingly familiar as inspiration comes to me.

I understand that lists are available from the justices' clerks, wherever they are located, and I am told that they can be obtained over the telephone. Other methods of publicising the lists may be used in different justice areas. One of the benefits of the new courts agency, with its unified administration, is that we could consider taking a national approach. Some magistrates courts areas may follow a traditional approach but we could look at best practice in order to ensure that lists are made available to the press and the media. I would be happy to consider that.

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

I suggest that this may be a way for the Minister to make his mark in the first few days and weeks in his new role. If he were to adopt a crusade to ensure that every magistrates court gave lists, with details of all cases, to all local newspapers in their areas, it would please not only my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. I have had approaches from a number of organisations representing the media; the problem affects not only the Henley area. The degree of helpfulness of justices' clerks to parts of the local media differs widely. I realise that the Minister will take time to look into the matter and I hope that when he goes back to his Department he will think about issuing a ministerial fiat that says that all justices' clerks should smarten up their act in order to please my hon. Friend the Member for Henley. If they do not, he has his column in his local newspaper—

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. We are straying from the fact that amendment No. 46 was not selected, so we should not discuss it any further.

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

Except that I entirely agree. The clause deals with places, dates and times of sittings. As technology develops, we might well have an e-enabled shadow Solicitor-General and the hon. Member for Henley might well be wired up to the internet. Crown court listings are available electronically on the

internet. Under unified administration, there is no reason why we should not consider making magistrates courts listings available electronically. I am not able to promise to do it immediately, but it might be desirable and it is important for us to investigate it further. I hope that the virtues of clause 30 are apparent and that it will stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 31 to 35 ordered to stand part of the Bill.