HC Deb 10 December 1974 vol 883 cc450-73

2.8 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

I beg to move, That the Sheriffdoms Reorganisation Order 1974, a draft of which was laid before this House on 12th November, be approved. The order reorganises Scotland into six new sheriffdoms in place of the existing 12 sheriffdoms. The reorganisation is a consequence of the reform of local government brought about by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, and the new sheriffdoms and the timing of their creation have been designed to keep in step with the reform of local government.

The opportunity is also being taken to reduce the number of sheriffdoms from 12 to six, and to replace the existing two whole-time and 10 part-time sheriffs principal by six whole-time sheriffs principal. The House will recall that, in the course of the consideration of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Bill in 1971, there was considerable discussion on the merits of whole-time as opposed to part-time sheriffs principal. The employment of part-time sheriffs principal was continued at that time, but the then Lord Advocate stated that if experience showed that the only way in which the powers and responsibilities imposed on sheriffs principal could be properly exercised was to have full-time appointments, the Government would not hesitate to use the powers in the Bill to bring this situation about.

We have now had a period of experience of part-time sheriffs principal working under the more rigorous requirements placed upon them by the 1971 Act, and my right hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend are both satisfied that part-time sheriffs principal, visiting their sheriffdoms only periodically, cannot undertake the level of local administration that is now required to provide the modern and efficient service which the Grant Report said was so badly needed. My right hon. Friend, in consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend, has accordingly decided that it is now time to go over wholly to full-time sheriffs principal who will be resident in their sheriffdoms, and the creation of six new sheriffdoms is the consequence of this decision.

The new sheriffdoms are created by article 2 of the order. Three of the new sheriffdoms comprise entire local authority regions or island areas. These are the Grampian, Highland and Islands Sheriffdom, the Tayside, Central and Fife Sheriffdom, and the Lothian and Borders Sheriffdom. There are obvious advantages in making use of regional boundaries wherever it is practical to do so, as this avoids overlapping interests by local authority services also concerned with the courts, such as the police and social work services.

With regard to the remainder of Scotland, which comprises Strathclyde and Dumfries and Galloway, it is impractical not to breach regional boundaries. The population of Strathclyde is just under 3 million. To make Strathclyde a sheriffdom on its own would be to create an impossible work load for a sheriff principal, as the judicial duties alone would be beyond the capacity of a single individual. To isolate Glasgow alone, as recommended by the Grant Committee, would still have left a population of approximately 1.7 million for the remainder of Strathclyde and Dumfries and Galloway, and my right hon. Friend takes the view that the administration of justice would best be served by having three further sheriffdoms.

Glasgow has been associated with Strathkelvin for purely practical reasons; there is no sheriff court within the Strathkelvin district, and transport links point to the Strathkelvin business being dealt with in Glasgow rather than at any other court. North Strathclyde comprises the area to the north and west of Glasgow, down to and including Kilmarnock and Loudoun, and the remainder of Strathclyde to the east and south of Glasgow is combined with the region of Dumfries and Galloway to form a sheriffdom. In this way, Strathclyde is the only local authority region that does not fall wholly within a sheriffdom, and we understand that the division of Strathclyde which has been proposed, and which recognises local authority district boundaries, will not cause difficulty.

In devising these six sheriffdoms, care has been taken to create sheriffdoms that will be manageable for sheriffs principal and will produce a reasonable balance between judicial and administrative responsibilities. The number is one more than suggested in the Grant Report, but it has proved possible to create sheriffdoms that are broadly equivalent in certain respects. Each sheriffdom, with the exception of Glasgow and Strathkelvin, will require about 10 sheriffs to operate the courts within its boundary. Glasgow and Strathkelvin will require about 15 sheriffs, all serving in the Glasgow court. Other criteria such as the probable number of court districts and the amount of travelling that will be involved have also been taken into account, but, as I have said, our main consideration has been to produce sheriffdoms which can be effectively and efficiently administered by a sheriff principal, and this we believe we have done.

To tie in with the local authority reorganisation, it is highly desirable that sheriff courts should be ready to operate efficiently in relation to new sheriff court districts on 16th May 1975. A further order will be necessary before that time to define the new sheriff court districts, but before the order is drafted there must be local consultation with all the interested bodies. My right hon. Friend takes the view that these consultations can best be undertaken by the new sheriffs principal. They will also have responsibility for the consequential detailed arrangements for the disposal of court business within the new districts. To allow time for this the new whole-time sheriffs principal will need to be in post from 1st January 1975, and it is for this reason that the order defines the new sheriffdoms in relation to existing counties and sheriff court districts for the period from 1st January to 16th May 1975 in the second column of Schedule 1.

From 16th May 1975 the new sheriffdoms are defined in relation to the new local authority regions, islands authorities and districts in the third column of the schedule. The sheriffdom boundaries are not identical in each case, but the variations are relatively minor. As sheriffdoms created at 1st January 1975 comprise existing sheriff court districts, there will be no dislocation of business on that date so far as concerns the working of individual courts. Thus, though it is necessary to create the new sheriffdoms in this way to provide for the appointment of new whole-time sheriffs principal from 1st January 1975, there will be only one change in sheriff court districts. That change will take place on 16th May 1975 coincident with the definition of new sheriffdoms in terms of the new local authority areas.

Article 3 of the order provides that existing sheriffs principal shall cease to hold office from 1st January 1975. This provision is all-embracing and includes the existing whole-time sheriffs principal of Lanark and Lothians and Peebles. I can tell the House, however, that the sheriff principal of Lanark has intimated his intention of retiring from office on 31st December 1974. It is perhaps appropriate for me at this stage to pay tribute to Sir Alan Walker and to acknowledge the contribution which he has made to the administration of justice in his sheriffdom.

It is also the intention to recommend to Her Majesty that the sheriff principal of Lothians and Peebles should be appointed to the new sheriffdom of Lothian and Borders. Effectively, therefore, the provision applies only to the part-time sheriffs principal. There are 10 such posts, but one is at present filled on an interim basis, so that in practice nine individuals are affected, Under the powers in Section 2(3) of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act 1971 the Secretary of State may, with the concurrence of Ministers for the Civil Service, pay such amount by way of compensation for loss of office as is reasonable in all the circumstances. That will be done for those who do not want, or are unsuccessful in obtaining appointment as whole-time sheriffs principal.

The remaining provisions in the order are either consequential or transitional, Article 3(2) continues the existing appointments of sheriffs and honorary sheriffs in the new sheriffdoms and avoids the need to issue fresh commissions in every case. Article 3(3), which deals with commissariats, provides for the continuation of commissary business within the new sheriffdoms. Statutory and other references to a sheriff principal or sheriff of an existing sheriffdom are to be construed as references to the sheriff principal or sheriff of the appropriate new sheriffdom by virtue of Article 3(4). Article 3(5) continues the appointments of sheriff officers and the like until such time as fresh appointments can be issued by the new sheriffs principal. Article 4 makes provision for the continuation in the same courts of any proceedings pending on 1st January 1975 or any subsequent proceedings arising out of concluded cases. Article 5 allows criminal proceedings to be taken for an offence committed before 16th May 1975 in either the appropriate old or new sheriff court.

I commend the order to the House.

2.20 a.m.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I thank the Minister for so clearly explaining the order. I congratulate him on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as a Scottish Office Minister. He has a reputation for meticulous preparation of all his work, and I know that we shall look forward to debating many subjects with him. Perhaps unfortunately, his first debate is at this hour of the morning. It deals with such an important subject for Scottish law, but such are the facts of life and we must accept the hour.

I accept the Minister's general historical survey of the transfers on 1st January to the new sheriffdoms running in harness and the subsequent more marginal change on 16th May. This whole subject was most fully debated during the Second Reading and Committee stage of the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Bill in 1971. That became a wise Act in connection with which the present Lord Advocate played a constructive part in Committee. We welcome his presence here tonight.

It is interesting to read the contributions in Committee in 1971 by the present Lord Advocate and by other hon. Members who are in the Government now—the hon. Members for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael) and Lanarkshire, North (Mr. Smith)—and of the then Lord Advocate, now Lord Wylie. It is interesting to consider the order in relation to the detailed work of the Grant Committee, about which I have certain questions. I am sure that the Minister tonight must feel that it would have been much better had the minority report of the Grant Committee been accepted so that the Lord Advocate and not the Minister would be replying now, but that is the way things went in 1971.

I join the Minister in paying warm tribute to the work of the sheriffs principal in Scotland over many years, and to the way they have bridged the gap between existing practice at the bar and the judicial and administrative work of the Court of Session. It is the loss of that bridge which is causing heart-searching among hon. Members tonight. That is a key question, and arguments have flowed in both directions as to which way that question should be answered.

Can an able and senior advocate at the Bar in the High Court, or perhaps taking public inquiries or planning inquires, look after the difficult administration work in a sheriffdom? Is the breadth of experience of advocates who have been involved in such a broad spectrum of jurisdiction and legislation to be lost to Parliament House? What steps has the Minister in mind to keep the new sheriffdoms in touch with Edinburgh in the broadest sense?

It is an office of great antiquity which has maintained an exceptionally high standard of law. Sheriffs principal have given wise guidance to juries and advice to the local legal profession. We are sorry to see them go. I hope and expect that there will be fair treatment of all concerned. While we have the opportunity, we want to add a tribute to the sheriff-clerks and their staffs, who have worked so ably with their sheriffs principal.

The nub of the order is whether we should continue with the part-time sheriff principal or change to the full time. Lord Hughes said in another place on 27th November, as reported at column 442 of the House of Lords OFFICIAL REPORT, that the previous Lord Advocate had left his options open. That is confirmed by a reading of the proceedings of the Grand Committee and the Standing Committees. The conclusive evidence has made the Secretary of State decide on full-time appointments. We should like to hear that evidence, because Lord Hughes did not say how the decision had been made

Perhaps some of the present sheriffs principal will remain as whole-time sheriff principal. We have only three weeks to go. Presumably the Secretary of State has given some thought to the appointments. Will they be selected from advocates now practising at the Bar or sheriffs principal or sheriffs presently in post? Is the Secretary of State even contemplating the appointment of solicitors, under Section 5(1) of the Act?

I ask because I am anxious to know how the Minister sees the sheriff principal carrying out his duties. The sheriff principal is principally an appellate judge, with the addition of administrative and organisational duties. Will he have time to do jury work? Will he be expected to spend a great deal of his time touring the vast sheriffdoms throughout the week and at the same time be able to take cases? If so, he will be in a worse position for travelling than the average Member of Parliament, and perhaps have to work just as long hours.

I am also interested in what the position will be at General Elections. Where is the sheriff principal likely to be the returning officer? He obviously cannot turn up at every constituency, as so often happens now. I know that it is always done in Glasgow, where I believe the counts take place in one building. But it is not so good if the sheriff principal is supposed to be returning officer in South Ayrshire and Dumfries on the same night. I would be disappointed if I did not have the sheriff principal to see that I was properly returned to the House of Commons. The sheriff principal has always acted most expeditiously in carrying out the count, assisted by the sheriff's Clerk.

Can the Minister assure me that the new sheriffs principal will have the chance of going on to the Bench in due course? We do not want to feel that this important post has an air of finality about it. We want to feel that there is the possibility of movement to the Bench so that these people can continue their good work within the legal profession. This was brought out in the Grant Committee's Report. We know that the Scottish Bar is small. I see that in another place it was said that the Scottish Bar is smaller than the Liverpool Bar. But, of course, the quality is quite exceptionally different.

We do not want to see the talent of the Scottish Bar wasted or left untapped. I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell us the number of extra sheriffs that will require to be appointed to serve under the new sheriffs principal. I am not sure how many there are in post at present. How many is it expected there will be in post at the end of May?

There is one interesting point I wish to raise. It may be a metaphorical one, but in the speceh of Lord Hughes and in that by the Minister tonight, mention was made of the fact that the new full-time sheriffs principal would be resident in their sheriffdoms. I am sure that the Minister does not mean resident in the domestic sense. I presume it is in the sense that the sheriff principal would be resident permanently in the office he uses. It is not in the Act as far as I am aware that he would be resident in his sheriffdom. The possibility is mentioned in Section 17. I would be interested to have the Minister's comment because it is important when we look to the size of some of the sheriffdoms.

There will be the sheriffdoms within the Strathclyde region, where distances are small, but if we take the Highlands and Islands, which is the most enormous sheriffdom, would it be expected that the sheriff principal should live in Aberdeen, Inverness or Stornaway? There is nothing about that in the Act. I expect that the sheriff principal would be expected to reside near to the sheriff court which he chooses as his headquarters.

I come to the new sheriffdoms. Lord Grant reported on five sheriffdoms and now the Government have come forward with six. I feel that they are on the large side. I would like them to be tied much closer to the new regions we have accepted in Scotland. I would have advocated something of the order of 10 sheriffdoms—Grampian, Highlands and Islands, Tay, Central, Fife, Lothian and Border together, Dumfries and Galloway alone, with three sheriffs principal for Strathclyde. I would let that region sort out how the three sheriffdoms should be divided. I should have thought that 10 sheriffdoms would have provided a fairer geographical distribution and a better career prospect for all concerned. I ask these questions because the Government were somewhat inconsistent during the passage of the legislation, and I should be interested to know why they have settled for six sheriffdoms rather than the five they advocated then.

Now I come to the Grant Report, and particularly to the Note of Dissent by Mr. David Brand—now Lord Brand—Sir Arthur Duncan, one of the wisest administrators in the South-West of Scotland, and Sheriff Watt, all men of great standing. They based their dissent on failures past and present in St. Andrew's House. There was the failure in 1967 particularly to keep the Sheriff Court Rules up to date. There had been no regular meetings of the rules committee, and there was a general failure in organisational and court procedures as directed from St. Andrew's House. The Secretary of State for Scotland then, as now, not surprisingly, was the right hon. and immortal Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) himself.

Can the Minister tell me tonight his views on whether this reorganisation of the sheriffdoms will, first, step up the efficiency of the courts, which we all want to see, and, secondly, improve the contact and co-ordination that should be expected between the Secretary of State and the law? I know that Lord Wylie made substantial progress towards this end. Can the Minister say what his plans are for the future, and how the order will be beneficial to justice in Scotland? If little preparatory work has been done this order will be a waste of time, but I am sure that it has been prepared most carefully.

If the hon. Gentleman gives us helpful replies to our many questions we shall help him to expedite the approval of the order, particularly as the Conservative Party was instrumental in paving the way for it through the 1971 Act. We shall want to know the reasons for the changes in direction and the changes in boundaries before we can pass the order, but I am sure that after he has heard other speakers the Minister will be able to answer the debate fully to our satisfaction.

2.38 a.m.

Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)

I thought this would be an exciting debate. When I first got the order I thought that it was the usual dull kind of order that we get, but when I looked at Article 3(3) on page 2 the word "commissariot" hit me between the eyes. I said to myself "Hullo. Harry"—Harry being the culloquial name for my lion. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—"has done it this time." I thought that Conservative Members would be on to that word like a shot, imagining that it had come from a meeting of the Tribune Group instructing the Government to take another leftward turn to the Communist State towards which we are always being accused of urging the Government.

I got hold of the Little Oxford dictionary and found that the word commissariat has no unusual political connotation but is defined as a food and store department of the Army. All that I can read into that paragraph is that somewhere, somehow, some of our sheriffs are heads of food departments. I wonder whether my hon. Friend can enlighten us on the exact meaning of Article 3(3). I am sure that Tory Members share my disappointment that there is no deep political meaning behind this word. The thought that we might have been socialising even for a moment with a part of the judiciary in Scotland which could be so described made my heart beat even faster.

I want to raise also the question of the allocation of some parts of Scottish local government districts into North Strathclyde. I do so rather diffidently because I shall mention the word "Cunningham". That place lies in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie). I never venture into my hon. Friend's territory if I can possibly avoid it, although I allow him to enter mine as frequently as he likes. My hon. Friend is at present abroad on a parliamentary delegation and I am sure that he will not mind my raising a question which has been raised with me by the Ayr Faculty of Solicitors. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) will want to say a few words on this subject.

The Ayr Faculty of Solicitors has written to the hon. Member and myself. I sent a letter to the Under-Secretary drawing attention to the faculty's comments in respect of some parts of the district of Cunningham which are being allocated to Kilmarnock court, whereas they go at present to Ayrshire court. I think I have that right.

I repeat that I am rather diffident about raising this matter, because it does not affect constituents of mine. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire will be quite happy with the order defining that all the people inside Cunningham should go into the North Strathclyde area for this purpose, but, having had the Ayr Faculty of Solicitors write to me, I thought it was only right to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.

2.42 a.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

I wish to take up the point which was raised by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars). I am not happy about the way the lines for the future division of areas are drawn in the order.

If I understand the order aright, its effect as regards my part of Ayrshire is to transfer Irvine and Kilwinning from the jurisdiction of Ayr Sheriff Court to the jurisdiction of Kilmarnock Sheriff Court.

The division of Ayrshire into sheriff courts is, and has been, a fairly arbitrary one, but as a result of this long-standing division facilities have grown up as regards the location of solicitors and the form of practice they have to match. They are divisions of use and wont in that part of the country.

Perhaps the Minister will confirm that Ayrshire is the only county as to which the order proposes to remove part of one court district into another. If that is so, I claim that we are to some extent a special case, and I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at my plea.

The Minister said that the real reason for the two dates in the order—1st January and 16th May—was to enable consultations to take place under the aegis of the new sheriffs between those two dates. It is vital that we be given an assurance that the fact that the order is before us tonight does not preclude those consultations from being fruitful. In other words, if the order is approved tonight, I hope that the consultations which will be held between 1st January and May will lead, if sufficiently strong representations are made and if the Minister is convinced of the rightness of the representations, to some alterations in the boundaries. The order being what it is, this seems to be very difficult to achieve. If so, I must point out that in the event I do not think that "consultation" is consultation within the meaning of the word.

I draw the attention of the House to the words used by the previous Lord Advocate, Lord Wylie—Mr. Wylie, as he was there—in Standing Committee discussing this matter. I refer to the OFFICIAL REPORT of the First Scottish Standing Committee on 20th April 1971, when Lord Wylie said: In the exercise of his powers under Clause 3 the Secretary of State would be bound to carry out the most far-reaching and wideranging consultations. I take this opportunity of making a positive commitment. Where it may be contemplated that, for administrative reasons, it is necessary to close a sheriff court —the closure of a court is the high water mark of the problem—before any such proposal were implemented under Clause 3, the Secretary of State would consult all those bodies and persons likely to be affected. He would be bound to consult the sheriff principal, the sheriff and the sheriff's clerk. Sometimes when one talks about consulting the sheriff it is important to remember that the sheriff's clerk is as important in this organisational sphere as the sheriff himself. Not only is the Secretary of State bound to consult those persons and the procurator fiscal, and, no doubt, local faculties, but in particular he would be bound to consult the local authorities. I make the firm commitment that, before exercising his powers under Clause 3, the Secretary of State will consult the local authorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, First Scottish Standing Committee, 20th April 1971, c. 52–3.] The present Lord Advocate intervened to ask about consultations with Members of Parliament. I shall not weary the House by reading that, but I hope the House will take it that Lord Wylie went on to make it clear that he would regard it as unthinkable—I think he used that word—that the local Member of Parliament would not be included in the consultations, through the fact that the local authority would have been informed.

It seems to me that that makes it clear that the intention at the time when the Standing Committee agreed to this provision was that real and meaningful consultations would take place, in such a way that those being consulted could influence the final result.

I therefore ask the Minister to confirm to me that by some means, which are not plain to me at the moment, consultations will take place after January. I am not saying that those consultations should necessarily result in change, but if they are sufficiently effective they could result in some change. That is a very important principle. We cannot regard consultations as having taken place if that is not so.

Finally, I want to say a word about the reasons why I think there should be a careful rethinking of what is being done. Ayr Sheriff Court gets about 40 per cent. of its business from the Irvine and Kilwinning areas—areas which are proposed to be changed in this order. As a result, Ayr Sheriff Court is organised to deal with this business expeditiously and efficiently. There is an active Bar of approximately 20 solicitors practising daily in court, and it is generally agreed that the premises and accommodation are adequate for the public, the prisoners and the staff. I believe that the sheriff's clerk's office is about to expand into premises at present occupied by the procurator fiscal's office, and the fiscal himself is to move to large new premises recently acquired. This sort of expansion and the expenses attendant upon it seem odd when taken in conjunction with a move to restrict the busines of the court by potentially as much as 40 per cent.

I am on not nearly such good ground in commenting upon the facilities at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, because I have no direct experience. According to my information, however, the facilities there are nothing like so good, even for the business the court does now. There is only one court room, and there is another small and rather inadequate room which is also used as a temporary court. A second court is in the course of construcstruction, but plans to build an entirely new court, which has been under discussion for some years, have been abandoned.

There is a chronic lack of space for the public, agents and accused persons, and the new extension of the work of the court will make these conditions even more difficult. The court organisation is so overburdened that delays—delays which have been described to me as "intolerable"—occur, with inconvenience to those involved. This may be caused by the fewer number of Kilmarnock solicitors who practise in court. I understand that 13 of them so practise, but my information is second-hand and I have no personal experience of the situation. I hope that the Minister will check the facts carefully. There appears to be a prima facie case for saying that this extra burden will fall on an organisation which at present is struggling to carry on its business. This implies no criticism of those who are doing a very good job in Kilmarnock.

Mr. Sillars

In his calculations the hon. Gentleman appears to have missed out the people who travel from the urban area to Ayr and who may find it easier to travel to Kilmarnock.

Mr. Younger

I am coming to that point. The transport service to Ayr from Kilwinning and Irvine can be said to be superior to that from those towns to Kilmarnock. There is a direct half-hourly rail service between Kilwinning and Irvine and Ayr, a service which is fast and good when running on time, and there is a good road link, which shortly will be considerably improved by the construction of the bypass between the existing Prestwick bypass and Irvine. Work on that construction is well-advanced. I maintain that it is easier and faster for the public, and for the police in conveying prisoners, to travel the slightly longer distance to Ayr than to Kilmarnock.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. Ronald King Murray)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems which would arise if alterations were made in the boundaries covered by sheriff courts. Will he apply his mind to the fact that the reference to the 1971 Act relates to Section 3 of the Act, which provides for alteration of the sheriff court districts. He will recall that that was exactly the matter which was covered by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State in opening the debate. My hon. Friend said that it was at that stage that consultation of the kind adumbrated by the hon. Gentleman took place.

Mr. Younger

I think I took that point, but I wanted to be sure that the consultations were not too late. If a powerful case is presented to the Minister, I want to know whether it will be possible for a district to be altered. There is no reason why the sheriff court area should coincide absolutely with the district boundaries. There is no direct connection between them, although undoubtedly it looks neater on the map. I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Minister on this point.

2.54 a.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I wish to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. He acquitted himself well.

With regard to the size of the sheriff court proposed in the order, my first reaction was that the area concerned, particularly the Grampians and the Highlands, is far too large. I confess that I have no knowledge of the work load which the new sheriffs principal will have to undertake in that kind of region. It may be that their duties will allow them to handle the work efficiently.

It is unfortunate that there should be a reduction in the opportunities for members of the Scottish Bar to go on the Bench. I have no personal interest in this matter. I have been an honorary sheriff since 1960. I am glad that the order states that honorary sheriffs will continue in that status.

The areas seem extraordinarily large, particularly since it is desirable that the sheriffs principal will appear in and take the various sheriffs courts in the sheriffdoms from time to time.

I welcome the suggestion that the sheriffs principal should reside in the sheriffdoms. This is essential. In some instances this provision has hardly been honoured in the past.

The Minister said that the sheriff courts should operate efficiently. I want to draw attention to my constituency. For 150 years we were represented on the ground by a Western sheriff. About 10 years ago we had to share a sheriff with Paisley, Stornoway and Lochmaddy courts, because the Stornoway sheriff has always covered the Lochmaddy court. Accordingly, the administration of justice suffered.

All that the Lord Advocate at that time could say in justification was that it was an economy measure. I thought that it was an extremely short-sighted attitude to attempt to save about £4,500 in that way.

The Lord Advocate who was appointed in 1970, now Lord Wylie, improved the position by sharing the sheriff between the Stornoway, the Loch-maddy and the Inverness courts. But there is still a great need in the area.

The Stornoway town council has pressed me strongly on this matter. I know from experience as a member of that council how deeply the want was felt for a resident sheriff. I know of one particular case that took nine to 11 months to come before the court. By that time the witnesses had scattered all over the world. The solicitors were brought from Inverness, the case was adjourned, and the solicitors had to be brought back a second time at great cost to the people concerned, and so on.

I know that the present Lord Advocate is keen that the administration of justice should be efficient and cheaply available to the public, but he should recognise the geographical and cultural differences of the Islands. After all, they have been recognised in local government terms now with the new Islands authority. I do not expect an answer tonight, but I think that this matter should be looked into. I press the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider the plea made by the local authority that a local resident judge should again be brought to the Stornoway and Lochmaddy courts.

2.59 a.m.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

I view the order with the greatest of suspicion. I must congratulate the Under-Secretary on his introduction of the order. I think that but for the intervention of the business of the House, he and I would have been enjoying dinner tonight with a mutual friend. I congratulate him on forgoing that.

One wants to look at the motive for the order. The Under-Secretary said that what we are interested in is efficiency. I am not convinced about that. What we are interested in is the administration of justice.

Mr. Harry Ewing

The efficient administration of justice.

Mr. Fairbairn

The efficient administration of justice. But the administration of justice. We are not interested in administrative neatness. The order replaces a long tradition. That long tradition is that the most senior, distinguished and excellent members of the Scottish Bar were appointed to the office of sheriff principal. I except for the moment Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lanarkshire and the Lothians. But the purpose was that the most distinguished members of the Bar, who were in daily contact with the law, should be the sheriffs principal.

Now we are about to depart from that in entirety. I appreciate that the decision was made under the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Act that this would be possible. But it was not necessary. It was sensible in the case of Edinburgh, the Lothians, Glasgow and Lanarkshire that the sheriffs principal there, who have manifestly larger duties, should be full-time sheriffs principal. No case has been made for the sudden change that all the other sheriffs principal should be abolished and replaced. What allegedly is the case for this change? It is certainly not a saving in money or an improvement in the standard of sheriffs.

Let us look at this important matter. I may be corrected, but I think that what will happen is this. A member of the Bar will say "Do I regard myself as good enough to go on practising so that I may make the Court of Session bench or even the House of Lords, or shall I opt out?" In the latter case, we shall not get the same level of sheriff principal. That is one matter of considerable concern.

The next matter, however, gives me much greater concern. The Under-Secretary said—I accept it and fear it—and it was said in another place, that the purpose of the order is to make for administrative efficiency. What the Government are looking for, therefore, is not for a member of the Bar to be a good lawyer and not for a court of civil appeal of the highest sort, which has done very well in providing cheap justice—and I mean cheap justice—as a court of appeal in civil matters, but for a man who will be an administrator.

Let us look at the absurdity of the first sheriffdom, that of Grampian, Highland and Islands. It is almost the size of Egypt. No one could effectively administer such an area. Have we for so long been suffering under sheriffs principal who are ignoring their administrative duties, getting matters wrong or doing things badly? Not at all. What is the justification for the change? It is purely the justification of bureaucracy, which says "We are regionalising. We will regionalise the sheriffs and make it all fit." But it has never fitted. The sheriffs principal have never been restricted to one county, one local authority or one area. No one has ever complained that this upset the bureaucracy. But suddenly it all has to fit bureaucratically.

I believe that this will be bad for justice, bad for the Bar, bad for the law and, most of all, bad for the litigant. The fact that six sheriffdoms have been created does not mean that the sheriffs will reside there. The sheriffs may reside 200 or 300 miles away from their sheriffdoms. An administrator will be necessary. The administrator will need a large staff.

What is it predicted that the administrator will do? What are all the new administrative duties which will require a man, previously a full-time practising silk, to administer the capabilities of a court of appeal and, in criminal matters, a court of first instance on indictment? Suddenly we need administrators, who will need clerks, who will need offices. What will the expense be? What duties will these people perform? We are replacing justice with bureaucracy. That is what worries me about this order. It is not justified by the Minister on the basis that the system has broken down, or that the previous system was wrong. It is not justified, in the case of any other sheriff-dom, on the basis that one could be temporary while another must be full time. This is done purely as a bureaucratic measure and as an act of cleanliness.

I believe this measure goes against a long-standing tradition of the law of Scotland which has served the people of Scotland, both litigants and accused, extremely well. I regret to say that I can see no advantage in it, although I can see great expense. I have great reservations about the matter.

Can the Minister tell us what he anticipates will be the proportion of time that the Sheriff of Grampian, Highland and Islands, which is no small district, will spend on administration and what the administration will be? How much time does he anticipate that the other sheriffs will spend on these matters?

The motive for any change in our system of judges, courts and judgments should be that the litigant or the accused will obtain a better deal. I can see nothing in this order which suggests that he will. All we will have is something which satisfies regionalised bureaucracy.

The Lord Advocate

Will the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) apply his mind to the fact that the Grant Committee reached the conclusion that full-time sheriffs principal were desirable precisely for the reasons he put forward, that is to improve the quality of justice in the sheriffdoms?

Mr. Fairbairn

Yes. The Grant Committee divided eight votes to six. It said that sheriffs should be established in sheriffdoms where desirable, and I agree. That committee did not say that it took the view that the only way to resolve the matter was to have sheriffs posted across the board overnight. There was no question of a sudden transformation in Scotland or that we should change from one system to another. The Grant Committee said, I believe rightly, that if there was a case for establishing a full-time sheriff in Fife or Inverness it should be done but that there was no need to introduce a bureaucratic system for its own sake.

I believe this measure to be ill-conceived, ill-thought-out and based on an ignorance of what the Grant Committee said, and of what the Sheriffs Court (Scotland) Act provided. If it is approved by this House, it will be to the great regret of litigants, who are the essential people involved.

3.10 a.m.

Mr. Harry Ewing

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) for their good wishes to me on my first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I understand that all the best honeymoons take place at 10 minutes past 3 o'clock in the morning. This is something of a honeymoon for me.

The hon. Member for Dumfries asked me to indicate the steps being taken to keep closer in touch with Edinburgh once the reorganisation of sheriffdoms comes into effect.

It is possible to over-estimate the links with the Faculty of Advocates and Edinburgh. The arguments are set out in the Grant Report and, briefly, it is our experience that those who have most to contribute tend to hold office for the shortest period. Probably the best example is the five changes in almost as many years in the hon. Gentleman's own area of Dumfries and Galloway.

The hon. Gentleman asked why it was that we did not retain part-time sheriffs principal. Since 1971 part-time sheriffs principal have been in post in 10 of the 12 sheriffdoms, but the looked for improvement in the day to day administration of the courts which the Grant Committee found so sadly lacking and which the 1971 Act was designed to improve has not been achieved. The view is now taken that effective local administration and control requires a whole-time sheriff principal resident in his sheriffdom, the more so at a time of change and reorganisation. I should also like to deal with the suggestion that the removal of the part-time sheriff principal destroys the link that exists between the acquisition of judicial experience in the sheriffdom and appointment to the Court of Session. I shall not weary the House with the arguments set out in the Grant Committee's report except to say that I endorse the majority view which was that those who have the most to contribute tend to be sheriffs principal for the shortest period. This is a view which I have expressed already.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about appointments. They will be made by Her Majesty on the recommendation of the Secretary of State, and the intention is that the best men for the job will be appointed. By virtue of their experience, existing part-time sheriffs principal will be strong candidates for consideration, if they so wish, so that the existing part-time sheriffs principal are not ruled out as a possibility for appointment to the new sheriff principal posts.

Then the hon. Gentleman raised the question of the sheriff principal continuing as the returning officer at a General Election. I understand the vested interest put forward by the hon. Gentleman. The answer is "Yes," at least at the moment, because the Representation of the People Act provides that the sheriff principal is to be the returning officer, and that Act has not been amended. It will, of course, be necessary for him to utilise the services of, for example, his sheriffs in discharging the duties, and this is the present situation. That will continue to be the position with the redistribution of the sheriffdoms.

I was asked whether the new sheriffs will have the opportunity to move on to the Bench, and the answer is in the affirmative. It is still possible for a sheriff principal to be appointed to the Senate of the College of Justice, so there is no problem there.

The new sheriffs principal are being required to reside in their sheriffdoms. I accept the rather loose point put by the hon. Gentleman, particularly with regard to the size and spread of the various sheriffdoms which we intend to bring into operation. It is the intention that a sheriff principal should reside in his sheriffdom. It will be a matter for discussion with the sheriff principal when he comes to be appointed, but that is the intention.

I was asked how many sheriffs will be required with effect from 16th May 1975. The number will be broadly the same as now but will be reviewed in the light of the assessment to be undertaken by the new sheriffs principal themselves.

The question was also raised as to what has to be done to meet the criticisms contained in Mr. Brand's Note of Dissent from the Grant Report. The Scottish Courts Administration has been set up and has done a great deal of preparatory work in connection with the order. The reconstituted Sheriff Court Rules Council, under the chairmanship of Sir Allan Walker, has been in operation for the last three years and has done a great deal of work on behalf of the Government and the Law Officers.

I must disabuse my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire about the term "commissariots". They are the districts in which a commissory—in other words, a sheriff—operates. The function is largely confined to dealing with such matters as the confirmation of executors in the estates of deceased persons. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend on this point but that is the description both of "commissariot" and of "commissory".

I can give both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ayr an assurance that the discussions about Ayr will be meaningful. When the new sheriff principal is appointed, one of his first actions will be to hold the fullest possible consultations within his sheriffdom with all the court users in order to ensure that all the points are made and considered. But in no circumstances will these consultations lead to a change in the boundary of the sheriffdom itself. As long as it is clearly understood that the boundary cannot be changed, the consultations can go ahead on the question of particular districts—for example, whether cases from Irvine are fed into Kilmarnock or into Ayr.

The court at Kilmarnock is being extended to cope with any increased work load that might arise from any upsurge in cases being fed into the court. The Ayr court requires expansion. Even on an adjusted volume of business it is doubtful whether the loss of business amounts to the 40 per cent. mentioned by the hon. Member for Ayr. When the extension of the Kilmarnock court has been completed it will be adequate to cope with the increased business. Kilmarnock solicitors have indicated that it is adequate to undertake the increased work load.

Consultation on sheriff court districts —this is the point that I was making when I was saying that the boundary of the sheriffdom cannot be altered—will be meaningful and will not necessarily have to follow the local authority districts. I think that the hon. Member for Ayr and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire can rest content with the assurance that the consultations will be meaningful and that they need not follow local authority district boundaries.

The hon. Member for Western Isles asked about the requirement, as he put it, of a resident sheriff in Stornoway. The hon. Gentleman has indicated that he is aware that in 1973 certain changes were made that meant that the Stornoway Sheriff Court was serviced by a sheriff from Inverness. The current interval between a pleading diet and trial is only five weeks, the shortest delay in Scotland. There is no delay in the disposal of civil business. That position is reached on the basis of a sheriff attending the court for three days every fortnight. That is a sufficient indication of the extent to which there would be a surplus of shrieval power should a permanent sheriff be provided for the borough.

I can give the assurance that the sheriff principal of the sheriffdom will no doubt keep this matter under consideration. If for some reason a need should arise at a later date I have no doubt that the sheriff principal will consider making representations. At the moment we are satisfied that the needs of Stornoway—we recognise that it is an important and principal town in the Western Isles—are adequately met by the three days per fortnight to which I have referred.

I now turn to the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire. I know that we have been here since half-past two yesterday afternoon, but I felt when the hon. and learned Gentleman was comparing the Grampian, Highlands and Islands Sheriffdom with Egypt that he was getting his sheriffs mixed up with his Sharifs. I think that the long day has had rather a bad effect on the hon. and learned Gentleman. We are convinced that the reorganisation of the sheriffdoms will lead to a better deal, will provide better facilities and will in every way improve justice at sheriff level in Scotland.

Mr. Fairbaim

The Minister stressed that the real benefit was an administrative one. Is he aware that the Grant Committee did not attach great significance to the administrative duties performed by the sheriffs principal?

Mr. Ewing

I made the point that the main benefit was the administration of justice, and that is the point on which we rest. We are convinced that the organisation of the sheriffdoms and the proposals we are submitting tonight will lead to a vast improvement in the administration of justice in Scotland and to a better deal for all who use the courts—those who work in them and those who, through some misfortune, find themselves there in another capacity.

We are convinced that the proposals in the order will lead to the improvement that I have indicated throughout my speech.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Sheriffdoms Reorganisation Order 1974, a draft of which was laid before this House on 12th November, be approved.

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