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Justice Questions

15th May 2012

Jonathan Djanogly answers back bench MPs’ questions on issues including the reform of no win, no fee arrangements, the role of small claims courts and the law on defamation.

No Win, No Fee Arrangements

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): What progress he has made on reforming no win, no fee arrangements. [106575]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 received Royal Assent on 1 May. Part 2 of the Act contains provisions that will fundamentally reform no win, no fee agreements to make them fairer between claimants and defendants. The changes will come into effect in April 2013, and we will set out more details about their implementation in due course.

Bill Esterson: The Government agreed to review no win, no fee arrangements for victims of mesothelioma and their families, possibly just to get the Bill through the House of Lords. Mesothelioma is a terrible disease, and everybody who suffers from it dies a terrible death. What will the Minister do to ensure that victims and their families are properly protected, in light of the review?

Mr Djanogly: It is true to say that the issue was heavily debated during the passage of the Bill. I am pleased to note that all parties in the House reached an agreed way forward. The Government are therefore committed to action on mesothelioma, and various proposals about the claims process are being considered. I am sure the House will understand that it would be inappropriate to draw up the terms of reference now for a review that will not take place for some time, but we will share details of the review process in due course.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): One of the worst mistakes that our last Government made was bringing in no win, no fee. It has Americanised our legal aid system and brought in a risk-averse culture and a load of ambulance chasers, so I welcome what the Government are doing. Will the Minister confirm that he will not let it rest there, that no win, no fee is now under a real review and that we will not tolerate the behaviour that we have seen in recent years?

Mr Djanogly: We are retaining no win, no fee for conditional fee agreements, but we are getting rid of the reforms that the Labour Government put in place whereby success fees and after-the-event insurance were recoverable. We will effectively return to the position of the last Conservative Government, which I hope and expect will put balance back into the claims equation.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): To get his Bill through, the Minister promised a 10% uplift in general damages and protection from costs for losing personal injury claimants. Those are poor substitutes for the current rules that his friends in the insurance industry wanted rid of, but where are those concessions? Are they more broken promises?

Mr Djanogly: No. All those procedures are being put in place, not least because of our concern to retain access to justice. As the hon. Gentleman said, we are introducing several measures that will help personal injury claimants pay their solicitors’ success fees and, if necessary, insurance premiums. For example, there will be a 10% increase in general damages, and we are introducing a system of qualified one-way costs shifting, which will be in place before the Act commences next April.

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Small Claims Courts

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): What steps he is taking to reform the role of small claims courts. [106582]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government announced in their response to the “Solving Disputes” consultation paper on 9 February that the general limit for cases in the small claims track will be increased from £5,000 to £10,000 next year. In addition, we are proposing that all small claims are assessed for mediation, to support our policy that cases that can be kept out of court should be kept out of court.

Eric Ollerenshaw: I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he believe that more could be done to ensure that, when those courts decide on a claim, they can enforce the decision and collect the money involved?

Mr Djanogly: Yes; courts offer several types of enforcement method which, collectively, are intended to make it as difficult as possible for debtors to avoid their responsibilities. We are currently reviewing how those enforcement methods might be improved and modernised, in particular through updating information orders and requests, which can be an important step in calculating the assets of the debtor.

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Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What recent progress he has made in reforming the law on defamation. [106584]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Defamation Bill has been introduced into this House as part of the Government's programme for this Session. The text of the Bill and accompanying explanatory notes were published on 11 May.

Dr Huppert: I thank the Minister for that answer. After campaigning for many years for libel reform, it was excellent to see the Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech and published—and in better form than it was in the draft, which says something about pre-legislative scrutiny. I particularly welcome the protection for academic and scientific articles and for operators of websites. The Bill talks about regulations applying to website operators to deal with anonymity and other issues. There are many nuances to that, so will the Government publish a draft of that order together with the Bill?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend sat on the Joint Committee and I know that he has long taken an interest in matters pertaining to scientific freedoms. I fully agree that we must ensure that the threat of libel proceedings is not used to frustrate scientific and academic debate and that the law must be reformed to provide an appropriate libel regime for publications on the internet. The Defamation Bill aims to address both those areas fairly and effectively. I look forward to further debate as it proceeds.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): What discussions has the Minister had with his Scottish counterparts about the Government’s proposed reforms, and what assessment has he made of their impact on Scotland?

Mr Djanogly: I am not the lead Minister on the Bill, as it has been led from the House of Lords. I am sure, however, that I will have discussions with my Scottish counterparts before long.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): In order to save the Northern Ireland courts and the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland from becoming, in the words of Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who works for the United Nations, “an international laughing stock” in defamation cases, have the Government decided to abolish the arcane defamation crime of “scandalising” judges, thus protecting the rights of Members freely to express their views in this House without hindrance from the courts?

Mr Djanogly: That is not part of the Bill as it stands. No doubt, from what the hon. Gentleman says, this is a matter that will be discussed.

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Magistrates Hearings

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Whether he plans to bring forward proposals to enable magistrates to sit in community centres and police stations. [106591]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We are currently developing a programme of reforms that will deliver swift, sure and visible justice—we intend to publish details shortly.

As part of that, we are considering new and innovative ways to involve magistrates in delivering justice, and we will work with magistrates to develop these plans.

Mr Cunningham: What credence does the Minister give to press reports that police stations could be used as magistrates courts? In relation to these innovations, how many more magistrates will he need, and what will the cost be?

Mr Djanogly: I had not heard that, but it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman could be confusing it with virtual courts, where the courtroom is extended into the police station. The defendant would be in the police station, with the defence counsel either in the police station or in the magistrates court, but the magistrates would still be in the magistrates court.

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): An efficient and flexible justice system was demonstrated last summer in the response to the riots by all in the Courts Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, and it is to be commended. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that it is right that an open mind is kept as to how justice can best be administered in local communities?

Mr Djanogly: It is very important to maintain justice at the core of summary justice and in the localities. I should say that neighbourhood justice panels are not about recreating magistrates courts, because, as panels, they reach restorative outcomes by consensus; magistrates would not be exercising any judicial powers in this capacity.

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Pleural Plaques

Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on arrangements for compensation claims by people with pleural plaques. [106593]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have received a number of recent representations on pleural plaques from Members of Parliament sent on behalf of their constituents.

Mr Hepburn: Now that the devolved assemblies of Scotland and Northern Ireland have seen sense and are going to compensate pleural plaques victims, will the Minister follow suit? If not, why not?

Mr Djanogly: The Government understand that it could be seen as unfair for compensation to be available in one part of the UK but not in another, but the civil legal systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland and that in England and Wales are separate and there will inevitably be differences in the law.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): My constituent, Janet Jeffrey, lost her father in 2003 to pneumoconiosis after working at Shaw’s foundry in Middlesbrough. Can the Minister assure me that any compensation arrangements will include all those whose families are affected and will not be restricted only to miners?

Mr Djanogly: I can say that in light of the medical evidence, the Government do not consider it appropriate to overturn the House of Lords’ judgment that the condition of pleural plaques is not compensable under the civil law. However, I would point out to my hon. Friend that the law does not prevent a person with pleural plaques who goes on to develop any recognised asbestos-related disease in the future from bringing a claim in relation to that disease.

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Topical Questions

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The justice system plays a vital role in helping business to flourish. Economic growth can only be achieved if the framework exists within which businesses are free to trade and prosper and the justice system can help them to achieve that. Earlier this week, I published a paper, entitled “Justice for Business” and subtitled “Supporting Business and Encouraging Growth”, which sets out how our ambitious transforming justice programme is making the justice system more effective, less costly and better for business. By delivering lower legal costs, regulation that encourages investment and court processes that are faster, simpler and cheaper, we are overhauling the justice system so that business can get on with the job and contribute to growth rather than getting bogged down in protracted and expensive litigation.

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Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): Legal aid is a safety net that protects the most vulnerable people in our society, but now that the Government have refused to listen to the concerns of Mumsnet and other organisations that protect vulnerable women, does the Minister accept that there are potentially thousands of women who will be too scared to leave their violent partners as a result of the reforms?

Mr Djanogly: It is very important to emphasise that the position for someone suffering from domestic violence remains absolutely unchanged—they will be able to get on-the-spot injunctive relief and that will be non-means-tested.

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Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Will the Minister say when the review of the justice needs of Gloucestershire will be finished? Given that both the Crown and the magistrates courts in Gloucester are top of the list for replacement in the south-west of England, will he confirm that his Department will look closely at the proposal, which he knows I strongly advocate, for a new justice centre that brings together courts, tribunal and police station in the heart of Gloucester’s Barbican site?

Mr Djanogly: I have of course met my hon. Friend to discuss the matter, and discussions about the court and tribunal estate in the Gloucester area are ongoing. Our aim is to achieve an estate of appropriate capacity to meet the business need, and which is also efficient and less costly to run. We continually review our estate to ensure that it is well utilised and offers the best possible quality of service and facilities that we are able to provide for our users.

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Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Is the Ministry of Justice aware that the Crown Prosecution Service has proposed withdrawing its staff from a purpose-built joint office that they share with the police at Athena house in York, where prosecutors and police officers work side by side, sharing files, to reduce court delays and court costs in York and Selby? Will a Justice Minister meet the Law Officers urgently to put a stop to this plan, on the basis that it would significantly increase costs for his Department?

Mr Djanogly: That is a matter properly addressed by the Attorney-General rather than the Ministry of Justice, but to the extent that there are issues that concern the Ministry of Justice, of course we will take an interest.

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Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I welcome the intention set out in the Queen’s Speech to improve judicial diversity. How do the Government intend to achieve that, and can the Minister confirm that the principle of the best person for the job will remain paramount?

Mr Djanogly: We are starting at the top. We think diversity is very important so, through the Crime and Courts Bill, we are looking to reform the way in which judges’ appointments work, and we will be looking at that in the context of diversity.

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Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The families of missing people welcome the recommendations of the Justice Committee on presumption of death, which were published 12 weeks ago. Can the Minister tell the House when he will respond to that report?

Mr Djanogly: The Government realise the emotional and practical difficulties faced by the families and friends of missing people who are thought to be dead. We will respond shortly to the Justice Committee’s report.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the Minister rule out the use of closed material proceedings in inquest cases and cases that do not involve national security?

Mr Djanogly: My understanding is that that will be the case.

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