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News from Parliament: Conservative Peers Sentence Courts Reform to Scrutiny

Courts Bill (Second Reading)
8th December 2002

Kindly provided by the Opposition Whip's Office in the House of Lords:

When the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, will represent the Government for the Second reading of the Courts Bill this afternoon in the House of Lords, Conservative Peers will be voicing concern over clauses in the Bill which will give his office new and extensive powers.  Opposition Spokesman for Home Affairs Baroness Anelay of St. Johns, while recognising the need for reform of the court system in the cause of efficiency, warns that such reforms may lead to more centralisation not less. 

The four main points she will raise in this Reading are as follows:

Centralisation - Courts Agency

Baroness Anelay comments that "I find it intriguing that a government which waxes lyrical about the importance of devolving government to the Regions introduces a bill which centralises power so comprehensively in the hands of the Lord Chancellor."  There is also no sign of the localised 'management boards' proposed in the July 2002 White Paper Justice for All.  Baroness Anelay further states "Instead we have Court Administration Councils whose only power is that they will make recommendations to the Lord Chancellor who then 'must give due consideration to these recommendations' but has the power to do as he chooses and reject them."  Baroness Seccombe (Deputy Chief Whip, and a magistrate of 30 year's standing) comments that, far from providing genuine local management and accountability of local justice, the proposed Court Administration Councils appear to be merely consultative bodies with no real power. 

Transfer of Judicial Functions to Officials

Other key issues of concern which will be highlighted include proposed transfers of judicial functions to officials. The bill appears to extend to the Lord Chancellor the authority to transfer functions currently carried out by magistrates to Justices' Clerks, the magistrates' legal advisers. Baroness Anelay notes, "Can the Minister confirm that the Bill establishes  only the status quo with regard to the dividing line between the functions of the magistrate and the Justice Clerk and that no further transfers of function will take place?"

Fines Officers

The Bill also proposes the creation of new 'Fines Officers', appointed by the Lord Chancellor, to be responsible for collecting unpaid fines, costs and compensation orders.  Statistics reveal that in the last year 40% of fines were left unpaid, and a total of 148 million was written off.  While Baroness Anelay agrees with the Lord Chancellor that public confidence in the fine system must be maintained, she comments, "There are huge differences between areas, with only one in three people find in Merseyside paying up compared to nine out of ten in Dorset.  Will the results of these changes mean that offenders in Merseyside will be bought up to the level of Dorset?  I hope so!"  Moreover, though welcoming fair and effective measures to ensure payment of fines, Baroness Anelay warns, "I am concerned that the Fines Officers will be performing a judicial function when they increase
unpaid fines by up to 50% without reference to a court".

On the proposal that a Fines Officer should be able to clamp a car registered as belonging to a non-payer of fines, Baroness Seccombe states, "This seems like an arduous and time consuming task.  The officer would have to find the offender's car, make sure it is not co-owned with an innocent party, and presumably value it if it does have to be sold to pay the fine".

Henry VIII Clauses

The Government will face challenges over Part 9 of the Bill, giving the Lord Chancellor wider powers to make further changes in the law by order. Baroness Anelay describes these as objectionable, catch-all powers. Commenting, she said, "I was concerned about these matters when I tabled an amendment to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act, and when I tabled amendments last week to the Crime [International Co-operation] Bill, and I am concerned about them now."

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