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Attorney-General

Volume 82: debated on Monday 1 July 1985

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Magistrates

37.

asked the Attorney-General what steps Her Majesty's Government take to seek to ensure that the appointment of magistrates reflects the nature of the community, particularly with reference to the appointment of working people, women and members of the ethnic minority communities.

The appointment of magistrates in England and Wales rests not with Her Majesty's Government but with the Lord Chancellor and the Chancellor of the County Palatine of Lancaster. The method of selection is fully described in a pamphlet issued by the Lord Chancellor, of which I am arranging to send a copy to the hon. Member. The policy of successive Lord Chancellors with regard to securing balance is set out in a speech by the present Lord Chancellor, of which I am also sending a copy to the hon. Member.

Why is there such a great preponderance of shire county type justices of the peace, who have no empathy with or experience of urban life and the lives of the majority of the population? How can the Attorney-General justify this bias, with no effort being made to rectify it — for example, by providing child care facilities so that more housewives could do the job, by appointing those in their 40s or 50s who are long-term unemployed and have plenty of time to do a good job, or by having more ethnic minority JPs so that there would be a proper mix for all communities? Does not the procedure of secret appointments mean that JPs have no links with communities in the cities?

The answer to the last section of the hon. Gentleman's comments is no. As for the remainder, I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is the purpose of the Lord Chancellor to secure balance on the bench, reflecting all walks of life in the petty sessional area that the bench serves. To that end, the Lord Chancellor is helped by advisory committees. Greater London has five such committees. It is and has been the policy of successive Lord Chancellors to secure balance regardless of any personal predilection that local Members of Parliament, for example, may have. Balance is essential.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it would be damaging to the excellent system of the local judiciary if people were chosen purely on the basis of ethnic origin, whether men or women? Is it not right that those appointed should be best qualified for the job? Otherwise, confidence would be lost in the judicial system.

There is only one criterion of overriding importance—personal suitability for the job of sitting in judgment on one's fellow men. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said. That must be the overriding consideration, and beyond that there must be balance reflecting all walks of life in the area.

The Solicitor-General will recall, I suspect, a range of questions from me to the Attorney-General about the composition of the bench in Newcastle upon Tyne and the written reply that I received on 17 January 1984, which said:

"The primary requirement is that those appointed should be personally suitable in character, integrity and understanding. The Lord Chancellor also bears in mind the need for each bench to reflect the community it serves in such matters as age, sex, occupation, social background, location of residence and political opinion."—[Official Report, 17 January 1984; Vol. 52, c. 155.]
Those are fair guidelines. Therefore, can the Solicitor-General say why, in cities like Newcastle upon Tyne, where previous questioning has shown that the guidelines are being ignored, the Lord Chancellor makes no effort to ensure that his guidelines are insisted upon?

I am reassured that there is a high degree of consistency between what I have just said about the proper test and what my right hon. and learned Friend said a few months ago. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the Lord Chancellor makes no effort to ensure that those guidelines are met. He makes considerable efforts and is guided in that task by the local advisory committees.

Independent Prosecution Service

38.

asked the Attorney-General if he will make a statement regarding discussions with the staff commission concerning the setting up of the independent prosecution service.

The staff commission for the independent prosecution service will not be set up until August and therefore no discussions have yet taken place.

The House welcomes the setting up of the new prosecution service. Will the Attorney-General assure us that his discussions with the staff commission will lead to a properly remunerated service which will attract talented people and offer a good career structure?

That is certainly the Government's intention. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the new service. Regular consultations about the staff commission and all aspects of the Crown prosecution service are taking place with the Civil Service, local government trade unions, representatives of local government employers and other interested parties. We have three months in which to set up the staff commission. It will clearly be done in that time.

European Commission Of Human Rights (Myra Hindley)

39.

asked the Attorney-General what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to be represented at the European Commission of Human Rights in the case being brought by Myra Hindley; and if he will make a statement.

I have seen press reports that Miss Hindley is proposing to make an application to the European Commission of Human Rights. But I have no information about whether she has done so or what the nature of her complaint might be. The Commission will not admit a case for substantive consideration without first inviting the Goverment's comments. It has not done so yet in Miss Hindley's case, and the question of representation at any subsequent hearing is therefore hypothetical. If there were to be such a hearing the Government would, of course, be represented.

Bearing in mind the unspeakably heinous nature of Miss Hindley's crime, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it would be unacceptable and repellent to the public if she were manipulated out of prison by some European back door because of unrepresentative pressure group action? If her behaviour has improved, would it not be right for the prison service to find her a different role in the prison? Would it not be dangerous both to Miss Hindley and to the public if she were released?

I cannot form any view on her application's prospect of success, because I have not seen it. Indeed, I do not know whether she has submitted an application. It is worth remembering her previous application in 1980 to the Commission complaining about the Home Secretary's refusal to consider her for parole. That application was rejected by the Commission as manifestly ill-founded. Under the convention, the Commission may not deal with any application that is substantially the same as one that has already been considered.

Conveyancing Services

40.

asked the Attorney-General what representations he has received about the likely impact on solicitors' branch offices if banks and building societies are permitted to offer conveyancing services.

The Government have received a number of representations on this matter. Most have suggested that lending institutions would provide unfair competition to independent solicitors, and that the viability of many firms would be jeopardised as a result.

There is growing concern that allowing banks and building societies to carry out conveyancing will result in many solicitors' branch offices, which provide useful services to the community, having to close. How much research did the Government carry out into this proposal?

It has always been apparent that there would have to be the widest possible consultation. That point was made absolutely clear in the written answer given in February last year by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. That consultation was carried out in the greatest possible detail. I think that my hon. Friend knows the results as well as I do.

Is it true that the Government have decided not to proceed with the provisions of the Administration of Justice Bill before the Coopers and Lybrand report is available?

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that banks and building societies do a great job in looking after financial deposits, that they have excellent solicitors working for them, and that they are a great credit to their professions? What is wrong with competition between the banks, building societies and solicitors?

The Government's position is clear. They have a commitment to permit organisations such as banks and building societies to provide conveyancing services and to do so in such a way that the consumer will not be prejudiced by conflicts of interest or anti-competitive practices. We shall honour that commitment.