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Lord Chancellor

Volume 403: debated on Tuesday 8 April 2003

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The Parliamentary Secretary was asked—

Magistrates Courts

21.

If she will make a statement on the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority consultation on court closures. [107456]

The GLMCA is the magistrates court committee responsible for the running of magistrates courts in London and for the opening and closing of court buildings in the capital. Ministers are involved only where there are appeals from local authorities. I can today announce that I have accepted the appeal against the closure of Kingston magistrates court.

I thank the Minister on behalf of others for her decision. I look forward to the possibility of further appeals in the process of court closure reviews by the GLMCA. I ask her to consider the accountability arrangements for the GLMCA, not least the fact that it is not clear how it is held to account for decisions that it takes in private, it refuses to release information to Members about the basis for its decisions, and it thus makes the consultation process a mockery. Will she explain how I, as a Member, can gain access to this organisation, can hold it to account and can ensure that the public can be confident that its decisions are based on sound grounds?

I am happy to look into the hon. Gentleman's specific concerns if he wants to write to me. It is right that the GLMCA should take a strategic view in respect of court buildings throughout London. He will know that because appeals come to Ministers it would be inappropriate for me to comment on individual cases before the appeals are heard. I agree that we need to improve the accountability of local decision making. That is one of the reasons why we want, as part of the unified administration, the courts' administration councils not simply to have local magistrates on them but a wider range of members from the local community.

I thank the Minister most warmly for her statement, especially the excellent news that Kingston magistrates court is not to close. The hon. Lady knows the strength of feeling on this matter in my constituency, not least because of our correspondence and our meetings. I am delighted that she listened to the strong arguments that were so skilfully marshalled by the chairman of the bench, Ian Rathjen. Will she accept our thanks for this welcome decision and accept my open invitation to her to visit the local courthouse whenever she has the opportunity to do so? Will she say a little more about the future options for building on Kingston's growing reputation as a regional centre of excellence for the bench?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He has made representations to me, as have some of my hon. Friends. We had serious concerns that Wimbledon court would not have the capacity to take all the additional cases if Kingston court closed. We also took into account the convenient location of Kingston court, which is so close to the Crown court and the police station, as well as the convenience for local people. Of course, every individual decision must be taken on its merits. I shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's invitation to visit Kingston.

Sheriffs Courts

22.

If she will make a statement on the Lord Chancellor's review of under-high sheriffs', under-sheriffs' and sheriffs' High Court enforcement functions. [107457]

The Courts Bill, which is currently progressing through the other place, includes proposals to relieve sheriffs of their legal obligations in connection with High Court writs for the enforcement of judgment debts by the seizure and sale of debtors' goods and High Court writs for the possession of land. The Bill also introduces a new regime under which individuals will be authorised by the Lord Chancellor to act as enforcement officers for the purpose of executing those writs.

The Lord Chancellor's review of under-high sheriffs, under-sheriffs and sheriffs proposes that a writ may be addressed only to a member of the Sheriffs Officers Association. If, for any reason, an under-sheriff is unwilling or unable to become a member of that body and is therefore disqualified from receiving a writ, will there be compensation for that individual?

In the system that we are adopting, under-sheriffs and sheriff officers will be authorised by the Lord Chancellor or the person to whom he delegates responsibility for that authorisation, to carry out creditors' wishes to have a debt enforced. I therefore think that the problem that the hon. Lady has highlighted will not arise, because there will be an authorisation process, so sheriffs officers or enforcement officers, as they will now be called, will be able to carry out the process.

The removal of high sheriffs from any rolling High Court enforcement will, as the Minister said, break the link between the high sheriff and the under-sheriff. In the past, the under-sheriff has offered the incoming high sheriff an indemnity against any litigation that might be brought by aggrieved debtors. Will the Lord Chancellor's Department indemnify high sheriffs in any outstanding period between Royal Assent and the point when the statutory limitation becomes legally effective?

The issue that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted is one of the reasons for the change, because it was felt that it was unfair for a volunteer to be under certain legal obligations and carry such a responsibility. As for the time between Royal Assent and the continuation of the indemnity, that is certainly something that we shall look at and consult on.

Magistrates Courts

23.

What recent representations she has received on the distances witnesses have to travel to reach magistrates courts in north Yorkshire. [107458]

None recently, but I know that North Yorkshire county council has lodged an appeal against recent decisions by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee. I have not yet received all the representations and have not yet considered the appeal.

Is the hon. Lady aware that since her Government have been in power more than 200 magistrates courts have closed, which has led, particularly in north Yorkshire, to witnesses having to travel long distances in a sparsely populated area with limited public transport between villages and the places where magistrates courts meet? Could members of her Department turn their attention to facilitating travel arrangements for witnesses, enabling them to get to court, and to do so on time?

The hon. Lady's figures are incorrect. It is certainly the case that there were magistrates courts closures under the previous Administration as well as this one. Those closures vary from year to year—last year, there were seven magistrates courts closures, but in 1996, the last year of the Conservative Government, there were 21 court closures, including rural court closures in Hornsea, Howden, Market Weighton, Cheadle, Biddulph, Kidsgrove, Bedale, Easingwold, Leyburn, Ingleton, Thursk, Colwyn Bay, Llangollen, another Welsh place that I cannot pronounce, East Dereham and elsewhere. I could go on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"]

The hon. Lady ought to check her facts before making such points. However, she is right that there is a serious issue about ensuring that victims and witnesses can travel to court. Magistrates courts committees need to take account both of other facilities for victims and witnesses, including facilities available in the courthouse, and resources. This year, north Yorkshire will get 23 per cent. more in cash terms for magistrates courts committees compared with last year. Under Conservative plans, they would receive a 20 per cent. cut.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the private finance initiative bid by the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to build six new courts to serve the people of the York and Selby area? In view of the large travelling distances between parts of Selby and York, will she take due account of the strong local feeling that, if the bid is approved, at least one of the courts should be based in Selby?

I know that my hon. Friend has strong views on that issue, which he has raised with me before. He will be aware that it is the responsibility of the North Yorkshire magistrates courts committee to determine the location of the proposed new court houses. Clearly, if any appeal is made to Ministers, I will certainly meet my hon. Friend and consider all the issues that he wants to raise.

Fathers' Rights

24.

What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received concerning the rights of fathers in family law cases. [107459]

My officials and I have regular meetings with groups representing the interests of fathers. As part of the Department's work to ensure safe contact for children and their families after relationship breakdowns, members of fathers and mothers organisations contribute to policy development.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but would she consider reviewing the law in this area? An increasing number of articles and reports demonstrate that fathers are concerned about what they view as an inequality in the decisions made. They are also concerned about anomalies in the law, such as the differing treatment of older children in further and higher education, in respect of maintenance and the common law. In view of the sensitivity surrounding such cases, might it not be worth reviewing the law on the respective rights of fathers and mothers, to establish whether the complaints are fair and accurate and to settle the concerns that have been expressed so publicly?

We are well aware that emotions run deep in such cases. It is almost impossible to please every party. Inevitably, the cases that come before the courts are high conflict cases. I believe that we should examine other methods of reducing the conflict. We must remember that the courts will always take a decision that it is in the best interests of the child: that is at the heart of the process of decision-making. However, we could develop parenting plans, in-court conciliation and mediation. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but many children are in a difficult position and it is important to take the best decisions for them rather than focus on the point of view of one parent.

Will the Minister reflect carefully on the evidence provided this morning by the president of the family division of the High Court to the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)? Concern is widespread that fathers are not being treated fairly in family law cases, particularly in respect of the operation of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, because social worker reports do not put forward a balanced view between fathers and mothers. Does my hon. Friend know about those concerns, and will she seek to deal with them when she looks at the problem carefully?

I will not only look at, but listen to, the evidence. When the problem was raised this morning, the judges before the Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department acknowledged the perception, but felt that it did not conform to reality. As to the role of CAFCASS, it can provide alternative means of help. The judges also said this morning that the CAFCASS reports were of high quality and that they did provide fair assessments of the position. The other ways in which it could help include in-court conciliation, and a greater role in mediation and support for contact centres, which can help to ease the difficult problems that families face.

Court Administration

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.