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Clause 66 - Judges having powers of District Judges - (Magistrates' Courts)

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 8th July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 9:45 am, 8th July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 70, in

clause 66, page 31, line 20, leave out from 'matters' to end of line 21.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 71, in

clause 66, page 31, line 30, leave out subsection (4).

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

We are considering an important part of the Bill that deals with the way in which family matters are considered. There is a number of further such issues to which we will return. I have detailed knowledge of them because during my years of practice at the Bar I worked in family law. The purpose of our amendments Nos. 70 and 71 is to question the Minister about whether it is wise to extend so widely the jurisdiction over family matters. These are specialised areas—too specialised to have the general extensions that are set out in clause 66(1)(b) and subsection (4).

The safeguards that we need are not sufficiently set out in the Bill. I am probing the Minister about that, and I will listen with interest to what he says in response. If every holder of a judicial office as specified in subsection (2) has the powers of a JP who is a district judge in relation to family proceedings, that will be too wide. Specific skills are involved in hearing family law cases. Therefore, the Bill should not give a general power that is very wide.

I am not suggesting that, in practice, all holders of judicial office will find themselves hearing family cases, but I am sure that the Minister is well aware from the briefings that he has had in his short time in his new position that there are great sensitivities about family proceedings. The fact that so much parliamentary time has recently been taken up with issues such as domestic violence reinforces that point.

There was a time when I found myself regularly doing a number of tragic domestic violence cases. Domestic violence injunctions are a particularly harrowing aspect of the law. Back in the days when I was in practice, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some judges were much better at hearing those harrowing matters than others.

I am sure that the Minister understands the spirit behind what we are doing. It is worth while to query the provision, to hear what the Minister has to say and for that to be on the record. These are probing amendments. We want a categoric assurance from the Minister on what is an important issue.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

I should take this opportunity to declare an interest: I am a member of the Law Society and a solicitor.

I do not have enormous experience in this area but I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. It is a specialist area and specific sensitivities are involved, and the transfer across may not always be appropriate. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how he expects the measure to work in practice. Will there be a list of specified judiciary who will be appropriate for transfer across?

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

I wish to put on the record on behalf of the Government my strong belief that the lay magistracy who deal with family matters at present are entirely capable. They do an excellent job of running things, and they stand in judgment on family

matters with confidence and the appropriate skills and judgment. We rightly have high confidence in the ability of the lay magistracy to handle complex and demanding family work.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I join my hon. Friend the Minister in paying tribute to the magistrates. However, they will sometimes recognise, often at an advanced stage in delicate family proceedings, that they are not the right people to be hearing a case because complexities have developed during the proceedings. At present, they have to transfer that case to a higher court for one of the kind of judges whom we are discussing. Would it not be better if they could bring the judges in, and thereby save a lot of delay? Is that not what the clause aims to do?

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

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Shortly, I will look at one example that illustrates why we need the provision.

We want to allocate more family work to family proceedings courts, but we must also achieve the most effective and efficient distribution of caseload by ensuring that cases are heard at the lowest tier of court commensurate to their nature and complexity. That chimes in with my hon. Friend's point.

Clause 66 deals mainly with criminal proceedings, in which it might be convenient for a circuit judge sitting in the Crown court to turn himself into a district judge at magistrates court level to deal with a summary offence. We believe that, wherever possible, there should be consistency across jurisdictions, which is why the clause also applies to family proceedings. It is not, however, expected that extensive use would be made of those powers in family cases.

I shall give a practical example of when the clause might come in useful. The Government are considering whether to introduce specialist combined family centres, comprising co-located county and family proceedings courts. If, for example, a district judge at a magistrates court with a full list of family cases were to fall ill, the clause would enable a deputy circuit judge or a circuit judge to take on the case load if no other district judge at magistrates court level were available. That would help to reduce delays when the majority of listed cases could still be heard.

Opposition Members asked for more details about the selection process and the skills that some of the senior judiciary might bring to those limited areas in which we foresee the provisions applying to family cases. Although subsection (4) makes it clear that all High Court judges could be eligible, it also requires circuit judges to be specially nominated by the president of the family division. We understand that he would only make appropriate nominations, particularly for more qualified junior judges. That is the practical way in which skills would be matched with particular cases. That would also give a measure of protection if other members of the judiciary heard family proceedings cases. I hope that my assurance allays the concerns and that amendments Nos. 70 and 71 will be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 10:00 am, 8th July 2003

It was worth while getting the Minister's assurances on the record. I, too, share the Minister's tribute, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), to those members of the lay magistracy who currently deal with family law cases. Their specialist knowledge, which they use when sitting on a family law panel of magistrates, is much appreciated by all court practitioners. In the light of Minister's reassurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 66 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 67 and 68 ordered to stand part of the Bill.