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Justice Questions


28th June 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers MPs' questions on a wide range of subjects including immigration tribunals, the functions of the chief coroner, civil litigation reform and compensation claims.

Immigration Tribunals

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the sums spent from the public purse on repeated appeals in immigration tribunals. [62243]

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the sums spent from the public purse on repeated appeals in immigration tribunals. [62255]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): As announced in our response to the consultation “Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales”, published on 21 June, we are removing most immigration cases, including appeals, from the scope of legal aid. We are also removing legal aid for certain repeat judicial reviews in immigration and asylum cases, subject to certain exceptions. We expect those measures to save more than £20 million a year. The Government have also consulted on introducing fees for appeals to the immigration and asylum chamber of the tribunal.

Dr Coffey: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Many of my constituents are becoming increasingly exasperated at the fact that some solicitors seem to exploit changes in circumstances and decisions, such as those on article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, simply to string out cases for as long as possible. What is he doing to ensure that legal aid is spent appropriately? What conversations has he had with the Immigration Minister on the reform of the immigration decision process?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that we are removing legal aid from most immigration cases. That will mean that the taxpayer is no longer funding those cases, which we think are relatively low priority. My hon. Friend has also spoken about cross-departmental co-operation, and we have had a number of discussions with the Home Office about our legal aid proposals, which go in the same direction as its proposals—for example, on making changes to the rules on how relatives of migrants are allowed to come into the UK. That close working will continue.

Gordon Henderson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the coalition Government inherited an immigration appeals process that is slow, unwieldy and routinely abused by applicants and their legal advisers? Does he further agree that the system needs a root-and-branch overhaul to make it fit for function?

Mr Djanogly: A number of the consultations did address this issue, including those with the judges, so we are acting to contain an avenue for abuse which my hon. Friend identifies. The Government intend to remove legal aid for immigration and asylum judicial reviews, where there has been an appeal or judicial review to a tribunal or court on the same issue or a substantially similar issue within a period of one year, as well as for judicial reviews challenging removal directions, subject to certain exceptions.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): As we are talking about immigration appeals and judicial reviews, what message does it send out to the law-abiding member of the public when someone such as Phillip Machemedze, that appalling Zimbabwean who was responsible for torturing, killing and doing dreadful things in Zimbabwe, is told by a judge that he cannot be sent back because he might be tortured or his human rights might be affected? Surely immigration and asylum is about people who have behaved well and are running away from tyranny, and not about people who are part of that tyranny.

Mr Djanogly: Where human rights are concerned and where someone risks being terrorised in their country of origin—I am not saying that it is right or wrong that they should go back—it is right that they receive legal aid to defend their interests.

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Chief Coroner

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What representations he has received on his proposals to transfer functions from the chief coroner. [62247]

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Which organisations his Department consulted on its decision not to establish the office of chief coroner. [62256]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I have discussed our proposals with a number of interested parties, including peers, MPs and civil society groups such as Inquest and the Royal British Legion. We have, where possible, sought to take into account those discussions in developing the proposals announced on 14 June to transfer a number of the functions of the chief coroner while retaining the office on the statute book. We believe that represents the fastest and most efficient way of delivering reform of the coronial system, although we accept that some stakeholders would prefer us to proceed with full implementation of the office of the chief coroner.

Mrs Moon: I am still concerned about how, without the office of the chief coroner, we are going to ensure that there is greater consistency in the recording of verdicts, because having that consistency would mean that information was available that provided research capability and informed service development, so that we could prevent future deaths.

Mr Djanogly: I have had a number of discussions with the hon. Lady on a number of matters appertaining to coroners and chief coroners and I know that she takes a great interest in this area. The new arrangements we announced on 14 June, coupled with the draft charter for the coroner service, which we published for consultation on 19 May, will deliver proper oversight of the non-judicial aspects of the coroner system and will help to drive up standards of service across England and Wales. The national charter, with its uniform expectations of what those coming into contact with the system should expect, will be key in helping to ensure a greater level of consistency. At the same time, a new ministerial board will be able to consider national statistics gathered from across the coroner service and to consider what action could be taken to address any shortcomings.

Chris Evans: I wonder whether the Minister has spoken to Cardiac Risk in the Young, which believes that replacing the chief coroner’s office with a ministerial board will not deliver the improvements necessary for the 21st century.

Mr Djanogly: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the absolute priority as far as we were concerned was to put the reforms in the legislation into practice but in a way that was not going to incur the cost that I am afraid we cannot afford at the current time. That is what I believe our proposals will do.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Following the Secretary of State’s most recent announcement in June, Chris Simpkins, director general of the Royal British Legion, has said:

“Ensuring there’s a functioning Chief Coroner is the least we can do to honour the ultimate sacrifice made by our Armed Forces and to ease the pain those left behind will always feel.”

Helen Shaw, co-director of Inquest, has said that instead of having a chief coroner,

“the government proposes to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner and add yet another layer to the current, fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent.”

How many organisations that, unlike the ministerial team, actually know what they are talking about will the Secretary of State ignore? As he is in the mood to do U-turns, will he do the right thing and leave the chief coroner out of the Public Bodies Bill?

Mr Djanogly: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the RBL manifesto he will see that we are meeting most of its requests for reform without having a chief coroner. If we were simply leaving the office on the statute book and not implementing any changes, I would agree with that claim. However, regulations about training for coroners, including for service personnel cases, will be possible for the first time under our proposals. We will be implementing powers to transfer cases more easily within England and Wales—and for the first time to Scotland—when required for cases involving the deaths of service personnel abroad. Those are real and significant improvements to the system that will directly improve the experience of service personnel families who come into contact with the coroner system.

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Civil Litigation Reform

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect on group action litigation against multinational corporations of his proposals for reform to civil litigation. [62250]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. I believe that strong claims, including those against multinational corporations, could still be brought under conditional fee agreements, or CFAs. The Government are also proposing the use of damages-based agreements, or DBAs, in all civil litigation, which might be particularly suited to funding group action litigation.

Yvonne Fovargue: An array of human rights experts, including several non-governmental organisations, human rights lawyers and the UN special representative on business and human rights, have all criticised the Government’s reforms of civil litigation. On what basis can the Minister assure the House that his proposals to reform civil litigation will not impact negatively on access to justice for victims of human rights abuse?

Mr Djanogly: I have been in correspondence with many of the people whom the hon. Lady mentions, and I repeat that the Government believe that it will still be possible to bring claims against multinational companies once our reforms are implemented.

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Compensation Claims

John Howell (Henley) (Con): What steps he is taking to change incentives for claiming compensation. [62251]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. These changes will encourage claimants to take an interest in the costs being incurred on their behalf, and will deter frivolous or unmeritorious claims from progressing to court.

John Howell: Does the Minister believe that implementing Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals will clamp down on bloated compensation payments, given that in the past some solicitors have profited from cherry-picking claims and are claiming high success fees from defendants, particularly public authorities?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend is right to raise the position of public-funded authorities such as the NHS Litigation Authority and local councils, which currently have to pay substantial additional legal costs to conditional fee agreement claimants. We believe that our proposals will ameliorate that position.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): But will the Minister acknowledge that what is in the Bill that comes before the House tomorrow implements only part of Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations; that, critically, the Minister has failed in that legislation to tackle at all the scandal of referral fees paid all the way along the chain, from the informant who passes on individuals’ details up the line to insurance companies, where it is then also paid by the insurance companies; and that this scandal will continue, notwithstanding any changes to be introduced in the structure of ownership of solicitors firms, until he and his colleagues implement in full Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations, which are to abandon and outlaw referral fees altogether?

Mr Djanogly: It was Labour who brought in the ability to recover success fees and ATE—after the event—insurance premiums in 1999. This became the key mechanism of the rotten compensation culture, of which referral fees are a symptom. Claimant costs represented 56% of damages in 1999, but by 2010 they represented 142% of damages—and yes, we are looking at referral fees in the context of the reforms as a whole.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Why does the Minister not merely look at referral fees, but give us a clear commitment that that outrage will be removed under the Bill?

Mr Djanogly: The Legal Services Board reported on that only a matter of weeks ago. We are looking at its recommendations, which go much further than a ban and, in particular, deal with transparency, which was what the Select Committee on Transport focused on. We will look carefully at all these issues.

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Compensation Claims

John Howell (Henley) (Con): What steps he is taking to change incentives for claiming compensation. [62251]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. These changes will encourage claimants to take an interest in the costs being incurred on their behalf, and will deter frivolous or unmeritorious claims from progressing to court.

John Howell: Does the Minister believe that implementing Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals will clamp down on bloated compensation payments, given that in the past some solicitors have profited from cherry-picking claims and are claiming high success fees from defendants, particularly public authorities?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend is right to raise the position of public-funded authorities such as the NHS Litigation Authority and local councils, which currently have to pay substantial additional legal costs to conditional fee agreement claimants. We believe that our proposals will ameliorate that position.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): But will the Minister acknowledge that what is in the Bill that comes before the House tomorrow implements only part of Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations; that, critically, the Minister has failed in that legislation to tackle at all the scandal of referral fees paid all the way along the chain, from the informant who passes on individuals’ details up the line to insurance companies, where it is then also paid by the insurance companies; and that this scandal will continue, notwithstanding any changes to be introduced in the structure of ownership of solicitors firms, until he and his colleagues implement in full Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations, which are to abandon and outlaw referral fees altogether?

Mr Djanogly: It was Labour who brought in the ability to recover success fees and ATE—after the event—insurance premiums in 1999. This became the key mechanism of the rotten compensation culture, of which referral fees are a symptom. Claimant costs represented 56% of damages in 1999, but by 2010 they represented 142% of damages—and yes, we are looking at referral fees in the context of the reforms as a whole.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Why does the Minister not merely look at referral fees, but give us a clear commitment that that outrage will be removed under the Bill?

Mr Djanogly: The Legal Services Board reported on that only a matter of weeks ago. We are looking at its recommendations, which go much further than a ban and, in particular, deal with transparency, which was what the Select Committee on Transport focused on. We will look carefully at all these issues.

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Legal Aid (Domestic Violence)

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): What consideration he has given to those responses to his Department’s consultation on legal aid that raised concerns about his Department’s definition of domestic violence. [62252]

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): What his policy is on the provision of legal aid support for victims of domestic violence. [62257]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published the Government’s response to the consultation on 21 June. Legal aid will remain available for applications for protective injunctions, as at present. However, for disputes about children or finance following the breakdown of a relationship, legal aid will be available for victims of domestic violence where there is objective evidence of the need for protection.

Caroline Nokes: Will the Minister give an assurance that, in cases where domestic violence has been a factor in family breakdown, all other associated costs incurred in bringing about a resolution will be covered by legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: For family matters, including disputes about finance or children arising from the breakdown of a relationship, legal aid will be available for victims of domestic violence where there is evidence of a need for protection. Of course, we will also provide civil legal aid for victims of domestic violence to apply for protective injunctions, such as non-molestation orders.

Alun Cairns: It is reassuring that victims of domestic violence will remain eligible for legal aid under the changes, but the evidence is not always clear, because many victims will not report domestic violence to the police. What sort of evidence is the Minister expecting to see in order for people to qualify for legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: We listened to the concerns expressed in the consultation that our criteria for evidence of domestic violence were too narrow and we have expanded them. The key issue is that the triggers must be objective.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): In the light of the ongoing debate on this matter, does the Minister share the concerns expressed by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee about the dilution of the quality of Crown representation in all these cases, or does he take the view of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which states that there is a lack of transparency in how the fees are calculated for taking on such cases?

Mr Djanogly: We are certainly concerned about the transparency of fees and how they are calculated. We are looking at this very carefully as part of our overall reform of legal aid, particularly for the Legal Services Commission.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Women are often at risk of domestic violence when relationships break down, even when there is no previous history of it. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, attempts to end a relationship are strongly linked to partner homicide and a higher risk of physical violence and sexual assault. Now no legal aid is proposed for divorce or child custody cases, and the definition of domestic violence is still very narrow and requires a history of complaints. How will the Minister ensure the safety of women now that they have to negotiate face to face with potentially violent partners?

Mr Djanogly: I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the present system. At the moment, perpetrators rarely receive legal aid; it is the victims of domestic violence who receive it. That means that in the current system the victims face the perpetrators of the crime. The reality is that on a day-to-day basis the judiciary are having to deal with this and have set procedures that they go through to make the process as good as possible for the victims.

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Topical Questions

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): In the light of the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment, which says that increased criminality, less social cohesion and increased costs are all likely to result from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, have the costs to other Government Departments been considered and costed? If so, what are they?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have worked closely with other Departments to examine the impact of our proposals, and that is ongoing.

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Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that in October last year, Citizens Advice in Manchester signed a three-year contract with the Legal Services Commission for the provision of community legal services, which involves four new advice centres, one of which is in my constituency. On the strength of that, Citizens Advice entered into a series of leasing and employment obligations. Will he cut through the increasing uncertainty and confirm this afternoon that that contract will be honoured in full?

Mr Djanogly: That is, of course, a matter for the Legal Services Commission, with which the contract was agreed—but about 50% of CABs have legal aid contracts, which last for different periods. The proposals will work through over the period of the contracts.

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Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Can the Minister update the House as to what discussions he has had with the Minister of Justice in the devolved Administration concerning proposed changes to the legal aid system?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that I have had discussions, correspondence and a meeting with the devolved Administration to discuss the implications for legal aid and to ensure that we are all moving in the same direction.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the Secretary of State consider, within a year of the legal aid proposals being implemented, assessing the ability of those on low incomes to access the courts, the availability of appropriately qualified lawyers prepared to undertake publicly funded work, and the sustainability of legal services provided by bodies such as Citizens Advice?

Mr Djanogly: We have just commissioned research on those topics, and there will also be a post-impact assessment within three years.

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John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to Question 7, will the changes to civil litigation make it easier or more difficult to take action against multinational companies? The consensus among non-governmental organisations is that it will be more difficult.

Mr Djanogly: People will still be able to be assessed by solicitors to decide whether they are prepared to represent them in multinational actions.

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