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Justice Questions


19th October 2010

Jonathan Djanogly answers questions on a range of issues including legal aid, the use of technology in magistrates courts and the abolition of the post of chief coroner.

Vulnerable People (Legal Representation)

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): What steps his Department is taking to increase access to legal representation for the most vulnerable. [17824]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): On 23 June 2010 the Justice Secretary announced in a written ministerial statement that the Government were undertaking a policy assessment of legal aid in England and Wales. The Government intend to seek views on proposals later this autumn. In addition, on 26 July I announced the Government's intention to consult on implementing Lord Justice Jackson's proposals on funding arrangements from his report later this autumn. Those proposals, if implemented, would help to maintain access to justice at proportionate costs for claimants and defendants.

Mr Ward: The only organisation in Bradford with qualified solicitors offering welfare advice ceases its service part-way through the year as it uses up its allocation of matter starts, while other solicitors still have unused but non-transferable allocations. Will the Justice Secretary please ensure that, as part of the review, the inefficiency of matter starts is given due consideration?

Mr Djanogly: That will form part of the review, which, as I said earlier, will be out later this autumn.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) has talked about the importance of legal aid. Like many other hon. Members, I believe that legal aid is critical for those who want to address an injustice. Can he assure us that it will continue, and there will still be an opportunity to access it, even after the comprehensive spending review?

Mr Djanogly: Absolutely. The Government support legal aid very much. As far as we are concerned, however, it is a question of directing that legal aid to those who need it most, and that will form the core component of the review whose findings will come out later this autumn.

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Topical Questions

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Are my right hon. and hon. Friends aware of the devastating consequences, particularly for victims of domestic violence, of the decision taken by the Legal Services Commission to halve the number of legal aid providers? In the whole of my constituency of South Northamptonshire we have only one small firm specialising in domestic violence legal aid cases, yet it has just been told that its licence will be revoked. Can Ministers do anything to help my constituents?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): It was a competitive contract, and the contracts have now been awarded. It is appropriate to note that the new legal aid contracts for family law were due to commence on 14 October, but that on 30 September the Legal Services Commission lost a judicial review brought about by the Law Society against its recent tender process. The tender was ruled unlawful and the awards quashed, meaning that the Legal Services Commission is unable to proceed with the new family contracts until a fresh process can be undertaken.

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Given the potential closure of Northwich court in my constituency, as a result of which people will have to travel a considerable distance to reach the nearest court in Chester, what plans have the Government to encourage the use of technology to minimise the necessity for members of the public physically to attend the court for routine purposes?

Mr Djanogly: I thank my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to discuss the merits of technology in relation to the courts. As for the court in his constituency, access is important. The Government took the view that an average travelling time of an hour or less would be acceptable.

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Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): Many millions of pounds are spent on court cases involving divorcing couples. Yesterday David Norgrove was quoted as saying that the Department was looking to a Swedish model to help to resolve divorce cases-

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Name her!

Matthew Hancock: What changes does the Secretary of State propose to make, and how much would- [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I want to hear the rest of the question. It is becoming more fascinating by the word.

Matthew Hancock: What does the Secretary of State intend to learn from the Swedish model, and how much money would be saved?

Mr Djanogly: We have some good English models too. Family mediation can be quicker, cheaper and less stressful, and provide better outcomes, than contested court proceedings. We know that informing people about mediation helps them to understand how it can enable them to avoid long-drawn-out cases. I am pleased to report that the issue forms part of the Norgrove review, which we will follow with great interest.

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Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Since no funding was in place from the previous Government for the post of chief coroner, the decision not to go ahead with it was hardly surprising, but does that not leave a gap both in raising standards and in having an appeal procedure less costly than judicial review?

Mr Djanogly: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to explain the fact that we aim to improve the coroner system in line with most of the policy in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. However, the purpose of abolishing the chief coroner post is, first, to save the £10 million start-up costs and then the £6.5 million running costs, but also so that some of the chief coroner's leadership and operational functions can be transferred to an alternative body.

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Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): When can those opposed to the closure of Skipton court expect to hear a decision about it, and can the Minister reassure me that its unique rural case will be listened to carefully?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend has made strong representations in support of the court, and they were well received. The decision will be taken shortly before the Christmas recess.

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Dr John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The Ministry has a laudable and exemplary commitment to evidence-led policy. Given that, can the Minister assure me that when he reviews the magistrates courts, he will look critically at the information on the condition and use of Southport's courts in the Ministry's consultation document-which is, frankly, duff, inaccurate and misleading?

Mr Djanogly: I do not know how the consultation report was misleading, but if the hon. Gentleman contacts me later I shall be happy to look at it.

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Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): I am sure that the Ministry of Justice is aware of early-day motion 794 in my name, on the Court of Appeal ruling on mesothelioma liability. I received a letter this morning from the Association of British Insurers. I will deal with their very polite request that I withdraw my early-day motion after this, but first I want to focus briefly on its assertion that

"the industry and the ABI agrees...that the appropriate trigger point for employers' liability policies is the point of exposure"

to asbestos,

"not the point at which the disease develops"-

the disease being mesothelioma. Does the Minister agree?

Mr Djanogly: This is not a matter on which we propose to legislate in the near future, but if the hon. Lady wishes to discuss the issue further with me, I shall be happy to meet her.

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