Mackay in retreat again on courts Bill

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THE Government last night notched up its fifth retreat on the increasingly battle-scarred Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill when Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, agreed to reconsider a plan for Government-appointed executives to oversee the Justice of the Peace system.

The U-turn came as Lord Mackay bowed to renewed opposition from the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth. The move, during the Bill's Committee Stage, comes in the wake of Monday night's defeat on changes to police disciplinary procedures and earlier retreats by ministers after widespread criticism. Some Whitehall sources concede that the Bill is a disaster.

The Lord Chancellor's office had hoped concessions already made on the provisions covering justices' clerks - who advise JPs on the law and grant adjournments and, crucially, legal aid - would meet Lord Taylor's objections and avoid an embarrassing defeat or retreat. In particular, it was hoped that abandoning plans to put the clerks on fixed-term contracts and performance-related pay would have removed the risk of conflicts of interest that concerned Lord Taylor. Lord Mackay also believed that chief clerk's legal expertise would give them an advantage in the sound running of the magistrates' courts.

But Lord Taylor said last night that the measure would blur the distinction between the chief clerks' administration functions and their legal and judicial role. Because they would be legally qualified and able to sit in the courts, the other clerks would feel accountable both in administrative and legal matters to them. He warned the Government that its course was a 'dangerous nonsense'.