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Clause 30 - Places, dates and times of sittings

Part of Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 3:00 pm, 1st July 2003

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.