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Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 (Powers of District and JP Courts) Order 2007

Volume 696: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 (Powers of District and JP Courts) Order 2007.

The noble Baroness said: I am delighted to move this order. I wonder whether this is the first time that I have had the opportunity to serve under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Gibson. I hope that I will be able to behave myself properly in her Committee.

The order is made under Section 104 of the Scotland Act, which allows for necessary or expedient changes in consequence of an Act of the Scottish Parliament. The order is made in consequence of the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007, an Act of the Scottish Parliament that received Royal Assent on 22 February 2007. The accompanying Explanatory Memorandum wrongly stated that Royal Assent was given on 27 February. Noble Lords will be keen to know that detail. The Act contains provisions to establish justice of the peace courts, which will gradually replace district courts in Scotland.

Under the Act, many of the cases that JPs currently deal with will not be handled in court, allowing JPs to hear more serious cases that are usually heard in sheriff courts. To make that happen, the Act includes a number of provisions to improve the training and recruitment of JPs and to introduce a system of appraisal for JPs. The Act also gives Scottish Executive Ministers the power to increase JPs’ custodial sentencing powers from two months to six months.

While the Act will make provisions within devolved competence to facilitate the transition from district courts to JP courts, provisions will also need to be made in reserved law. The order will make available powers to impose sanctions under the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. Currently, Section 10(2) of that Act prevents Scottish district courts from trying some offences involving the endorsement of driving licences unless they are fixed-penalty offences. In addition, Section 50(b) of the 1988 Act provides that district courts cannot impose disqualification from driving, except where there are 12 or more penalty points to be taken into account. Those restrictions were put in place as it was previously considered that justices of the peace were not trained to a sufficient level to deal with such cases.

In line with the changes that are being made to the lay justice system in Scotland, the Government and the Scottish Executive believe that it is right that JPs have all the appropriate powers at their disposal when hearing cases before them. This order will therefore amend the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 to ensure that justices of the peace can disqualify drivers and endorse driving licences. The same powers will also be made available to the remaining district courts to ensure that, during the phased transition of the JP courts, there are no regional disparities between the sentences that can be imposed.

Finally, the Committee will have seen the Explanatory Memorandum to this order, which details the background to this policy. In an unusual move, the Merits Committee—of which I am proud to have been a member—praised the way in which the previous Scottish Executive had developed this policy in response to public consultation. That is worth noting.

I hope that the Committee will agree that this order is a sensible use of the powers of the Scotland Act and that the practical result is to be welcomed. I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Criminal Proceedings etc. (Reform) (Scotland) Act 2007 (Powers of District and JP Courts) Order 2007. 27th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Baroness Morgan of Drefelin.)

I thank the Minister for introducing the order, which of course applies only to Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has made quite a name for itself for promoting innovation, and this is one innovation where it is good to think that Westminster can be of some assistance.

The subject of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 was one of the many areas of road transport that was not devolved to Scotland, and as such it is an important part of ensuring that drivers in the United Kingdom know that they will always be subject to the same criteria of regulation, wherever they are. The problem arises that when they contravene the regulations in Scotland they will be subject to Scottish laws. There is a proposal that the sanctions for various driving offences, for example speeding, may be dramatically increased, so there may be many more cases where the courts will have to apply obligatory endorsement of driving licences. Without today’s order, this would have required the case to be taken in a sheriff court, which would cause even more delay than is experienced in these courts already. The innovation of allowing for new JP courts to be empowered to deal with these cases, as envisaged by the Scottish Parliament, seems a useful solution, and as such we on these Benches support this measure.

One possible curiosity in this measure is that Article 2(2) must be one of the first times that the powers in the Scotland Act have been used by Westminster to amend an Act of the Scottish Parliament. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on that.

I shall be brief. My colleagues and I certainly welcome this sensible order. As I understand it, it is intended to bring some cases down from the high courts in Scotland to the sheriff court because of the backlog in the courts system. It therefore seems absolutely logical that the sheriff court should in turn be relieved of cases that it deals with, and that they will go to the new JP courts which are replacing district courts. I am in total sympathy with that general provision. It speeds up the whole process of justice in Scotland, so these changes are welcome.

Further, I particularly welcome what the Minister said about there being no regional disparities once the training sessions get under way to ensure that that does not happen, especially when dealing with road traffic offences. I have only one slight doubt; the decision to allow the new JP courts to impose disqualification from scratch, as distinct from simply as a result of totting up offences. To disqualify someone from driving is quite a serious matter. Has this been carefully considered, and can I be assured that the training that we have been promised is going to take place? I think I am right in saying that the first of these courts will be set up in the Lothian and Borders region, part of which I represented in the Commons. I am therefore naturally concerned that such a frankly draconian power should be carefully handled.

My last point picks up on what the noble Earl was saying for the Opposition. It is slightly unsatisfactory that the whole Road Traffic Act legislation as administered in Scotland is still a matter for the Westminster Parliament. I keep hoping that we will get a proper review of the Scotland Act in due course. I was active in its passage through this House and very active in the Scottish Constitutional Convention. It was always my understanding that after two Parliaments, or 10 years, we would have a thorough review of the Act. In that review, I imagine that it would be sensible to consider transferring Road Traffic Act legislation to the Scottish Parliament. The noble Earl may have referred obliquely to this, but it does not mean that we should have different penalties or standards in different parts of the UK. Although I do not know whether this is true, I am told that in years gone by you could tot up nine points on your licence in Northern Ireland and another nine points in England and still not have your licence removed because of the different jurisdictions. We do not want to reach that situation, but it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a system whereby the actual legislative process is devolved to the Scottish Parliament but the co-ordination of penalties is left in place so that they are uniform throughout the United Kingdom.

With those few comments, I repeat my welcome for this order.

I thank noble Lords for welcoming this order. I start by responding to the question put by the noble Earl. He asked whether this is the first time the Westminster Parliament has sought to amend a Scottish Parliament Act. I cannot give him the answer. My guess is that the noble Lord, Lord Steel, may well be able to provide it, but I will check the point and come back to the noble Earl. I reassure him that the order makes a minor, consequential amendment that has been agreed by the Scottish Executive. I say for the record that the schedule to the 2007 Act sets out a modification to Section 10(2) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, substituting the words,

“Justice of the Peace court”,

for “district court”. It has not yet been brought into force, and as Section 10(2) of the Road Traffic Offenders Act is repealed by this order, clearly the modification of Section 10(2) in the Act of the Scottish Parliament will be unnecessary. The order will remove it. I hope that I have explained why we are amending a Scottish Parliament Act, and stress that it is consequential and has been agreed by the Scottish Executive.

I shall respond briefly to the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I reassure him that a great deal of thought has been given to the training of justices of the peace to ensure that they have given time and consideration to taking on more serious cases. I am sure the noble Lord is well aware that residential training courses have been held at which JPs have worked through particular case studies. It is envisaged that virtually all JPs will have been through the additional training programme before taking on their new powers. Much thought is being given to the transition to the new powers.

I will comment briefly on the review of the Scotland Act. I am not sure that I am in quite the right place, as it were, or even have the right pay and rations to respond fully and knowledgeably enough to the noble Lord on that point. There are currently no plans to review the Scotland Act. The points that he makes about driving offences—we have initiated an interesting little debate about that today—will no doubt be continued in future discussions. Indeed, we have a transport Bill in the Chamber at this very moment.

We believe that the Scotland Act provides the flexibility needed for the management of Scotland’s settlement and recognises that consequential changes sometimes need to be made to the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to UK reserved law. We currently have a system that is operating effectively between the Scottish Executive and the Westminster Government, although obviously every time we have an order before us, we have the opportunity to debate these matters further.

On Question, Motion agreed to.