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Clause 96 - Register of judgments and orders etc.

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 10th July 2003.

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

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

Opposition Members hoped for an opportunity to debate what should precede the clause that comes next if the Bill is taken in strict numerical order. Clause 97(2) has caused concerns on the part of the Association of High Sheriffs of England and Wales, which is known as the Shrievalty Association.

I sought to table a new clause to deal with the concerns that were raised with me and that were raised by the shadow Attorney-General, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), on Second Reading and by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on behalf of high sheriffs in Lord Chancellor's Department questions, as they used to be. Unfortunately, the new clause was ruled to be beyond the scope of the Bill, and the amendment that I tabled

is starred today, so my only opportunity to raise the matter is on clause stand part.

Will the Minister be so kind as to say that he will consider the amendment, even though it is starred, to see whether the Government can take account of it between now and Report, and whether he might be prepared to meet Mr. Roger Bramble of the Association of High Sheriffs of England and Wales?

The issue is that in the past there has been an arrangement between high sheriffs and under-sheriffs. This relates to clause 97(2) as it now is; I think that it was clause 91(2) when the Bill was before another place. In the past, each high sheriff has mandated the function of enforcing writs to his under-sheriff, who is traditionally a solicitor. In return, the under-sheriff has indemnified the high sheriff against litigation costs and awards, usually through the medium of an insurance policy.

High sheriffs are concerned that, because of clause 97(2), litigants might be able to proceed against high sheriffs who have been in office in any of the past six years—that is, until the normal statutory limitation would cut in. The high sheriff might have to pay costs and awards out of his or her own pocket. My hon. Friends have raised that concern. High sheriffs are particularly concerned that underwriters are reluctant to provide an effective insurance-based solution.

I would be enormously grateful if the Minister would say that he will consider the issue—I realise that it is new to him personally—and that, if it cannot be resolved between now and Report, he might agree to meet Mr. Bramble of the Association of High Sheriffs of England and Wales.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:45 am, 10th July 2003

I did not intend to speak on the shrievalty, although I could do so at great length. If there were an opportunity to discuss the future of that particular self-appointed oligarchy, a number of hon. Members could make worthwhile contributions.

I simply want to discuss the register of judgments and orders, which I thought that we were addressing. Will the register automatically be available to credit checking agencies, which is a point that has been raised before in several other contexts? The register includes county court judgments, and it would be to everybody's advantage if defaults from courts showed up in credit reference agency checks. That would be a further way to pressurise those who default on their obligations to lower courts, and I hope that it will become normal practice.

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

We are discussing clause 96 and the register of judgments and orders. In respect of the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, the provision of a single piece of legislation on the registration and judgment fines will make a positive difference. He asked whether the register will be automatically available to credit checking agencies. I can assure him that it will be, so there will be greater unity among registers.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I am sorry that we did not have the opportunity to discuss high sheriffs and under-

sheriffs in greater detail. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome described them as a ''self-appointed oligarchy'', but that is not fair.

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

I want to place on the record that I do not agree with the views of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. In Surrey, we have benefited enormously from some of the recent high sheriffs, who include the well-known actress Penelope Keith, who is a wonderfully popular charity fund-raiser in Surrey, and in the past we have also had Mr. Richard Stilgoe. If the hon. Gentleman had my experience of working with the high sheriffs in Surrey, he would not take such a pejorative view.

Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Assistant Whip

Not very long ago then?

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

No, not very long ago.

I am sure that all members of the Committee would agree that insurance arrangements should be implemented to cover high sheriffs against claims relating to High Court enforcement being made against them after their year in office. We have already taken steps to ensure that such insurance is in place. The Bill has no effect on appointments made under the Sheriffs Act 1887, but instead creates a new regime of authorisation for High Court enforcement. The office of sheriff has existed since the middle ages and the Bill does not affect it—perhaps to the chagrin of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

I will examine the specific issue in more detail and will consider any representations for meetings and so forth. Should I want to elaborate on the matter in correspondence with the Committee, I will do so in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 96 ordered to stand part of the Bill.