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Justice Questions

13th March 2012

Jonathan Djanogly answers back bench MPs’ questions on subjects including broadcasting court proceedings, legal aid, bailiffs and court efficiency.

Broadcasting Court Proceedings

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): What his proposed timetable is for legislation to allow broadcasting of selected court proceedings. [99257]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We are planning to legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to permit broadcasting of selected court proceedings as part of our commitment to increasing transparency in public services. Initially, we will allow broadcasting of judgments in the Court of Appeal, and we expect to extend this to sentencing remarks in the Crown court in due course.

Mr Buckland: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he confirm that information will be the watchword, not sensationalism, and that any conditions imposed will have that very much in mind?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not allow our courts to become places of public theatre. Victims, witnesses, defendants and jurors will not be filmed.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Minister just said something very important when he said that witnesses will not be filmed. Will he repeat that guarantee, because a court appearance is a very traumatic process for a witness or victim? We need a red line that cannot be crossed not only by current Ministers but by Ministers in the future, so that witnesses are protected.

Mr Djanogly: As I said, that is our position. We will be consulting—and are—with a wide range of stakeholders, including broadcasters, victims groups and others, to ensure that appropriate operational arrangements and safeguards are in place.

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Legal Aid (Benefit Cases)

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of his proposed changes to legal aid on the number of cases concerning benefits requiring early stage legal advice. [99262]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): No such discussions have been held, as the withdrawal of legal aid would have no impact on the number of cases concerning benefits requiring early stage legal advice. The need for advice will be determined by decision making at the Department for Work and Pensions, not the availability or otherwise of legal aid. Of course, I recognise that many people find that the type of general advice concerned is useful in resolving their problems, which is why the Government have announced additional funding for the not-for-profit sector.

Jessica Morden: Two people a day will become homeless over the next few months according to Shelter. Does it not now make sense to invest more in homeless advice, not less?

Mr Djanogly: As I said, there is a difference between legal advice and general advice. We are investing in general advice.

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Charnwood citizens advice bureau works very closely with my office in Loughborough on benefits matters. Will the Minister, when he has such discussions, tell the Department for Work and Pensions that it needs to simplify the benefits system as that would be of great assistance in helping to keep some cases away from the legal system and administrative tribunals in the first place?

Mr Djanogly: I agree with my hon. Friend and can confirm that we are working very closely with the Department for Work and Pensions as part of its wider welfare reform programme to improve the quality and effectiveness of initial decision taking.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Lord Newton of Braintree, who was the Secretary of State for Social Security in a Conservative Government in the 1980s and early 1990s—in the days when the Conservative party won elections in its own right—said last week that 81% of all cases heard in the first-tier tribunals relating to benefits are to do with disability benefits. In 2009-10 an appellant at the first-tier tribunal who received advice before going to the tribunal was 78% more likely to win their appeal than an unadvised appellant. The advice that citizens advice bureaux, law centres and advice agencies give to their clients is very important. These are not fat-cat lawyers or litigious clients. Will the Government now accept the votes passed in the House of Lords over the past week, which will not only save taxpayers’ money in the medium to long term but will also avoid unnecessary misery and suffering for some of the most vulnerable in our society?

Mr Djanogly: I have to say that the Government are disappointed by the position taken in the Lords and we will return to the issue when the Bill comes back to the Commons. We remain of the view that these cases are primarily about financial entitlement and as such do not raise the fundamental issues involved in cases concerning liberty or safety. I can say to the right hon. Gentleman that the user-friendly nature of the tribunal means that appellants can generally present their case without legal assistance.

Sadiq Khan: If that is the case, why is the success rate 78% higher for those who do receive advice before they go to appeal? We have said from the outset that we agree that savings need to be made to the legal aid budget. If we were in government, we would be making cuts as well, but our values and connections with ordinary people mean that our priorities would be very different. Figures from the Ministry of Justice say that by the end of this Parliament, criminal legal aid provided largely by well-paid QCs, barristers and solicitors will be cut by 6%, whereas family legal aid will be cut by 29%, but social welfare legal aid, which is delivered by CABs, law centres and small voluntary organisations, at which some of the lowest-paid advisers and lawyers work, will be cut by 53%.

Mr Speaker: The question mark is about to come upon us, is it not?

Sadiq Khan: Will the Minister explain why the cuts are being made to the most vulnerable instead of to areas where cuts can be made more fairly?

Mr Djanogly: We simply are not doing what the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Social welfare law will still receive £50 million in legal aid and we are redirecting the money we spend on legal aid towards helping the most vulnerable. When it comes to advice on benefits, people do not currently receive legal aid for representation. Before people go to appeal they will still be able to receive advice for many such cases from a general advice practitioner such as their local CAB.

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Legal Aid (Victims of Domestic Violence)

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on victims of domestic violence. [99270]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is designed to protect victims of domestic violence. It protects funding for advice and representation in private family matters for victims of domestic violence, as well as public funding in respect of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. We will also continue to waive financial eligibility limits in these cases.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Minister for that response, but he will be aware that when the matter was debated in another place, serious concerns were raised that genuine victims of domestic violence would not receive the legal aid support and ability to take action that they need, because of the legislation that the Government are bringing through. Organisations such as Refuge have expressed similar concerns. Will the Minister assure us that all victims of domestic violence will receive the help and support they need?

Mr Djanogly: Again, the Government were disappointed by the position taken by the Lords and will return to the matter when the Bill comes back to the Commons. We are very concerned about the victims of domestic violence. Indeed, it was because we are removing legal aid for private family law that we realised there will be certain categories, such as domestic violence, that will not be suitable for mediation, which is why we are concentrating on that area.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is widely recognised that specialist domestic violence courts have been very successful, but 23 of them are due to close. Will the Minister assure me that the expertise and multi-agency working that have been a feature of their success will continue in this changed landscape?

Mr Djanogly: It is important to point out that those specialist domestic violence courts are closing not because of what they do, but because the courts in which they are based are closing. I am pleased to say that those specialist courts will be moving to other courts, so no specialist domestic violence courts will be lost.

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Broadcasting Court Proceedings

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): When he plans to bring forward legislative proposals to allow television recording and broadcasting of court proceedings. [99279]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): As soon as parliamentary time allows, the Government plan to legislate to remove the ban on cameras in courts. We are working closely with the Lord Chief Justice, the judiciary and the broadcasters on achieving this.

Henry Smith: I very much support the broadcasting of court proceedings because of the transparency that it will bring, but will my hon. Friend confirm whether a fee will be charged to broadcasters for the use of the material so that the cost does not fall on to the taxpayer?

Mr Djanogly: I can assure my hon. Friend that the negotiations that are being conducted with broadcasters are taking place on the basis that they will be paying for the service.

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Topical Questions

Mr Ellwood: In these tough economic times, more people are borrowing money, getting into debt and, sadly, having to deal with the bailiffs, who are, on occasion, aggressive and intrusive. What is being done to ensure that creditors and debtors are aware of their rights and responsibilities?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government are clear that aggressive bailiff activity is unacceptable, and we are committed to bringing forward effective proposals that protect the public and ensure that such action is proportionate. We have made a start by publishing our updated national standards for enforcement agents, and we have followed that up with a consultation paper issued on 17 February on a new, legally binding regulatory regime for bailiffs.

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Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): The Office for Judicial Complaints has been investigating the poor performance of the Teesside coroner since August but, seven months on, we still have no indication of when the investigation will conclude. Has the Minister set a finish date for the investigation? When will matters improve? Has he merely kicked the subject into the long grass?

Mr Djanogly: I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we have not kicked the matter into the long grass. It is a judicial investigation and it must take its course.

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George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Last year, the Government found it necessary to close several smaller courts because of low utilisation rates, particularly in rural areas such as Norfolk. Will the Minister update the House on the effect of those closures on court efficiency in the remaining courts?

Mr Djanogly: The efficiency of the courts is being improved because of the closures. We have now closed 130 of the 142 that were on the closure list. In all cases, the closures have gone very well and magistrates have all transferred to local, surrounding courts.

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