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Magistrates

Volume 82: debated on Monday 1 July 1985

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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.