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Court Administration

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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25.

If she will make a statement on the role of the Department in court administration. [107460]

The Court Service, an executive agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department, runs county courts, Crown courts and higher courts other than the House of Lords. Magistrates courts are run by 42 independent magistrates courts committees.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that despite recent reforms, access to the civil courts in this country can still be very slow and prohibitively expensive for many of our citizens? Does she agree that that process could be immensely speeded up if it were overseen not by the arcane Lord Chancellor's Department, but by a modern Ministry of Justice that is fully accountable to the House of Commons?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Ministers from the Lord Chancellor's Department are here in the House of Commons answering questions on the business of the Court Service and the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department.

There have been significant improvements in waiting times for civil trials. Fast-track trials have seen waiting times fall by 20 per cent. in two years and by 12 per cent. in respect of small claims. There have been improvements in civil cases, but it is clearly important to tackle delays throughout the justice system in respect of both civil and criminal cases.

Under the plans of the Lord Chancellor's Department, will the Government be able to guarantee that the courts of this country will be separate from the police service, so that people can clearly see and know the difference? Will the Minister and her colleagues be answerable in future, under the new plans, for court openings and closures—answerable to Members of Parliament, local councillors and members of the public?

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the proposals for the unified administration, which would keep the courts very much separate from the police, because the latter are accountable through the Home Office, while the courts would remain accountable through the Lord Chancellor's Department. The unified administration will set up local courts administration councils and will be an executive agency that is accountable to Parliament. We envisage that the courts administration councils will take decisions or views on local court estate use, while the appeals process would be very similar to the current arrangements in respect of magistrates courts closures. Certainly, Ministers will ultimately be accountable to Parliament for decisions.