§ 3.20 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of this Bill. As your Lordships will see from the Explanatory Memorandum, the Bill seeks to do four things. First of all, 290 we want to increase the number of permanent Metropolitan stipendiary magistrates. We are asking for a maximum of an extra eight magistrates, although desiring immediately to appoint two only. Secondly, the Bill provides for the appointment by me of acting Metropolitan stipendiary magistrates in order to avoid delays in the administration of justice. Thirdly, it seeks to enable the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District to hold land and buildings for the purpose of the probation service in the Metropolitan stipendiary courts area, and fourthly, to confer additional borrowing powers on the Receiver. In view of what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, says, it may be that I can address your Lordships somewhat more shortly than I should otherwise have done, because obviously he has considered the Bill. May I put the various points as briefly as I can?
The first point, the need for more Metropolitan magistrates, springs from the regrettable increase in criminal offences in recent years, of which your Lordships have heard a great deal in the past few months. Unfortunately, there is no sign of any change in this trend. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced in anoiter place last months that in the first three quarters of 1958 there had been a rise in indictable offences reported throughout the country of 14.7 per cent. compared with the number in the corresponding period in 1957, and the courts with which we are dealing, which cover the area of Central London, have borne their full share of the work arising from this increase. By reason of the area which they serve, these courts have always had more than an average share of difficult cases, those which raise complicated questions of law or sometimes require the attendance of many witnesses and occupy many days for the hearing in the magistrates' court. With all the reservations attached to total figures, I would inform your Lordships that the total figures for charges and summonses for the twelve months ended March 31 in every year over the last four years are as follows: 178,000, 193,000, 209,000 and 223,000. It is clear that an increasingly heavy burden has been falling upon the courts.
The other point on which your Lordships would like to be assured is that everything possible is being done by all concerned to deal with the increased work 291 as speedily as possible to avoid delay. I am assured by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary that the magistrates themselves and the staffs of the courts have worked hard and consistently and have done what they can by improving organisation within the limits possible with the existing court buildings. I am also assured that valuable help has been given by the lay justices for the County of London. They deal with various classes of cases which are prescribed by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and, in addition, lay justices have been sitting at a separate court at Bow Street for some years and others have recently begun to sit at Old Street and Tower Bridge Metropolitan Magistrates' Courts.
We feel that that is not enough to deal with the situation. It is most important that the administration of justice should be as swift as is compatible with fairness and thoroughness. I am sorry to say that, despite all that everyone could do, recently in dealing with cases in the Metropolitan magistrates' courts there have been delays which, in the best interests of the administration of justice, cannot be allowed to continue. Even if the offence be a minor one, it is undesirable that a case should not be tried for many weeks after it was alleged to have been committed; and if there is delay when a person is in custody on a more serious charge, the consequences are more serious still. Therefore we are convinced that it is essential to have more stipendiary magistrates as soon as possible.
The maximum number allowed by the law is twenty-seven, a number that was fixed by the Metropolitan Police Courts Act, 1839. The maximum number of twenty-seven was reached in 1954 and, as your Lordships will gather from the figures I have given, since then there has been a great increase in crime. Therefore we are asking Parliament to let us increase the permissible number to thirty-five. As I say, I want to appoint two more at once, one on general work and the other to make it possible for an experienced magistrate to concentrate on long and difficult cases arising anywhere in the Metropolitan stipendiary courts area. We have taken the number of thirty-five in order to allow a margin for future possibilities and to prevent a need 292 for further legislation, if the work continues to increase. Your Lordships will remember that when I was dealing with a similar Bill with regard to the county courts, your Lordships asked me to take a good margin in these matters. Therefore, I have taken that line here.
The second part of the Bill allows me to appoint a temporary magistrate in order to deal with periods of pressure of work. I have already the right to appoint a magistrate to take the place of a magistrate who is sick or retired, but I want to have the power to prevent these delays, which have been really disturbing during the last few months. I do not think that I need say anything more about that.
The remaining clauses of the Bill are also concerned with the Metropolitan area. The Receiver for the Metropolitan Police is an officer appointed by the Crown who is responsible for providing and administering the land, buildings and equipment required not only by the Metropolitan Police Force but also by the Metropolitan magistrates' courts. It is his responsibility to arrange for the building or acquisition of police stations, police houses and other police buildings and magistrates' courts. Clause 3 deals with the power of the Receiver to provide premises for probation purposes. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is the probation authority for the Metropolitan stipendiary courts area, and the probationary expenses in that area are met, on his direction, out of the Metropolitan Police Fund. So that clearly the Receiver, who is the responsible officer for this fund, is the proper person to provide the offices necessary to enable the probation officers to perform their important work.
But existing legislation gives him no specific power to hold land and buildings for this purpose. This clause gives him the same power to provide land and buildings for probation purposes as he has for police purposes and the purposes of the Metropolitan magistrates' courts. Since the Receiver has already, at the request of my right honourable friend, entered into certain leases of property for probation offices—this is a vital work, and I hope your Lordships will not think the action was improper—it is necessary to validate his position.
Clause 4 deals with the power of the Receiver to borrow money for appropriate purposes connected with his 293 various functions. In the past, that permission has been given for specific reasons, but we are now in a stage where the capital investment policy is so carefully considered, first of all, by the Departmental Minister—in this case my right honourable friend the Home Secretary—and then by the Treasury, that I do not think your Lordships will feel it is necessary to place any limits, as any specific action that the Receiver might take would have to be approved by these two authorities.
I have tried to shorten the matter, but I am afraid I have still been rather long. I hope your Lordships will think that this Bill is a useful step towards the improvement of the administration of justice in Central London and will prove of benefit to the courts, the legal profession, the police and all those who are affected. As the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said in his admirable speech, we should not forget the importance of the administration of justice and of making proper provision for it. I submit to your Lordships that all these points I have put before you will help in that direction. I beg to move.
§ Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ LORD SILKIN
My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor has certainly made the case for this Bill right up to the hilt, and we on this side of the House will do nothing to impede its progress. The main case, of course, is the increase in crime. But is there not a subsidiary reason for requiring more magistrates—namely, the increase in the number of offences, as distinct from crime? I must not make rash statements, but I suppose that most of us are at some time or another offenders, inasmuch as we have all left our cars in unauthorised places; and that also is taking up the time of an increasing number of magistrates. The noble and learned Viscount has said that there is considerable delay. I happen to know that there is a delay of nearly six months from the time of the commission of an offence, such as a parking offence, to the time when the matter comes before a magistrate. As the Lord Chancellor said, that is most undesirable. Happily, that is not the position in regard to crime, which is dealt with more 294 speedily, although not speedily enough. There is no doubt that there is a case for more magistrates, but I hope that the increase in the number will not be frittered away in dealing with parking offenders, thus leaving us in the same position as regards the real purpose behind the Bill.
I should like to ask two questions of the noble and learned Viscount, the first dealing with accommodation. Even in the days when I had some acquaintance with the courts, which I am afraid is a long time ago, the courts were congested. With the increase in the number of offences, I wonder how the actual physical work of conducting hearings can be carried out and where the increased number of magistrates will carry on their work. I speak subject to correction, but I should have thought that we needed substantially more courts to-day than we did twenty-five or thirty years ago. Secondly, is the noble and learned Viscount satisfied with the geographical distribution of these courts, in London? London was a much different place at the time when these courts were built and the location was decided, and the burden of population has greatly altered to-day. There has been a great shift in population and in the incidence of crime: in some neighbourhoods there is more crime, and in others there is less. I wonder whether the location of the different courts to-day is suitable for the requirements of the present time. I do not know whether that point has been examined at all, but I should be glad to hear what the Lord Chancellor has to say about it.
My Lords, if I am not out of order, I should like to ask the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack two questions. First of all, can he tell me whether there is any age limit to a person appointed under the Bill? Secondly, are there any restrictions on the appointment of former—that is to say, retired—stipendiary magistrates?
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, perhaps I may answer the noble Lord, Lord Meston, first. The only age limit to appointment is the age limit on retirement; they cannot be appointed older than the age at which they would retire. Otherwise it is a matter for my discretion. As to the other point, I do 295 not think there is anything to prevent the utilisation of the services of someone who has served as a stipendiary. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, raised two points, the first as to the need for new courts generally. I think there is such a need, and there is a special reason for it which the noble Lord will appreciate. It is essential, if you are going to combine the services of a stipendiary magistrate and lay magistrates, that they should be in the same court, because, as the Maxwell Committee pointed out—I have not gone into it, but it is well known to those who study the matter—it would be intolerable for the prosecutor or complainant to choose the forum in which he prosecutes or makes a complaint in quasi-criminal proceedings. Therefore what we really want are courts which will house not only a stipendiary magistrate but lay magistrates such as one finds in provincial courts with which I happen to be familiar, such as Liverpool.
We have the other point very much in mind at the moment. I am sorry to say, having been connected with the matter now for eight years, that new courts have been far down in the building queue. I do not say that they have been roughly in the same sort of place in the queue as prisons, and I have managed to secure a few new courts in the country as a whole, although not nearly as many as I should have liked. It is very much in the minds of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and myself that when they are built they should be spaced to meet the new conditions. I will certainly convey all that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has said specifically to the Receiver, who has to consider it at the official level. Apart from that. I thank your Lordships for the reception of the Bill and I am sure that it will benefit the administration of justice in Central London.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the whole House.