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Justice Questions


13th September 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers MPs' questions on insolvency litigation, the office of the Chief Coroner, access to justice for mesothelioma sufferers and the functioning of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.

Insolvency Litigation

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Insolvency Service on the viability of insolvency litigation following the implementation of the reforms proposed by Lord Justice Jackson. [71306]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Department has received many representations about different aspects of implementing the reforms proposed by Lord Justice Jackson, which we are taking forward in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I and my officials continue to have discussions with Government Departments and others on implementation generally, including with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Insolvency Service in relation to insolvency proceedings.

Yvonne Fovargue: In June, the Minister said that he was discussing with HMRC and the Insolvency Service the specific implications of the Jackson reform for the punishment of dodgy directors of insolvent companies, with a view to reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Three months down the line, what conclusion has been reached?

Mr Djanogly: Our current position is not to depart from Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations on recoverability, with the sole exception that we have outlined in the Bill. However, the Government are aware of the particular issues concerning the impact of abolishing conditional fee agreement recoverability in relation to insolvency and related proceedings. I and my officials will continue to assess and discuss the implications.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Will the Minister find time to meet me to discuss the case of a company based in Staffordshire that sold hot tubs and which defrauded many of my constituents? It took their money, went into insolvency and became a phoenix company.

Mr Djanogly: I shall listen to the circumstances of my hon. Friend’s case, but it might be one for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rather than the Ministry of Justice. If it is relevant to my Department, however, I will be happy to meet him.

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Office of the Chief Coroner

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Whether his Department has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the implementation of the office of chief coroner. [71310]

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Whether his Department has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the implementation of the office of the chief coroner. [71326]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): An impact assessment for part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 was published by the Ministry of Justice in December 2008. It summarised the full costs and benefits of implementing the coroner provisions in the Act.

Gavin Shuker: I am grateful for that answer. Baroness Finlay, working with the president of the Royal College of Pathologists, proposed a model with much lower running costs—just £300,000—than those that the Government are talking about. So will the Minister accept that the costs for the office he is proposing could be reduced?

Mr Djanogly: I have met and discussed this point with Baroness Finlay on a number of occasions. The previous Government said that the set-up costs were going to be £10.9 million and the running costs would be £6.6 million a year. We looked at that those figures and we agree with them. The problem is that as we have to maintain the independence of the judiciary, the chief coroner—if there were to be one—could, unfortunately, not be based in the Ministry of Justice, as Baroness Finlay wanted.

Tom Blenkinsop: The delays and current practice in the coroner system is having a direct impact on bereaved families, particularly in the Teesside area. What costs to the UK health services arise as a result of the current coroner system?

Mr Djanogly: We remain committed to fundamental reform of the coronial system. I know that there are particular issues to address in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and they are being dealt with. Implementing the office of the chief coroner would require new funding, which simply is not available in the current economic climate. Our proposals will allow us to deliver those reforms, but without those additional costs.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does my hon. Friend recognise that there is a much cheaper and more cost-effective way of raising professional standards and creating a head of the coronial profession? That would involve designating a serving coroner as chief coroner and give just minimal assistance to support him in that role.

Mr Djanogly: Unfortunately, the existing legislation would not allow that; the job would have to be done by a High Court judge or a circuit judge. The point of the matter is that we are putting in place a ministerial committee, which will answer to Parliament in a way that a chief coroner never could.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): As the repatriation of fallen soldiers through RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett in my constituency comes to an end, I know that the Minister will wish to join me in paying tribute to the first-class work done by the Wiltshire coroner over some four or five years. Will the Minister also now work closely with the Royal British Legion to ensure that the maximum possible support is available for bereaved families as these inquests proceed?

Mr Djanogly: I certainly congratulate the coroner on his work in tough circumstances. I also wish to tell my hon. Friend that I have met representatives of the RBL on a number of occasions. I believe that our reforms will improve the situation for the armed forces tremendously, through the national charter that we are providing and the ability to train coroners to military standards.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): There is a long list of organisations that wish to see a chief coroner in post and just the Minister who thinks he knows better. The Government’s fragmented proposals for the coronial system contain no mechanism to improve the appeals and complaints process—that was to be a key function of the chief coroner’s office. Nobody really believes that the proposed coronial board, reporting to Ministers, will fulfil that role. Does he think it acceptable to expect families to have to continue to pursue expensive judicial reviews and litigation in respect of coronial decisions, at great cost also to the taxpayer, and have no way of holding to account those coroners who do not deliver for bereaved families?

Mr Djanogly: As I have said, the Government are committed to urgent reform of the coronial service, and this is exactly what we are going to be doing. We are putting in place all the provisions under the 2009 Act, except the appeal process, which was going to cost £2.2 million a year. We feel that the existing processes are adequate.

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Mesothelioma Sufferers (Access to Justice)

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): What recent representations he has received from people with mesothelioma and mesothelioma support groups on the potential implications of his proposed reforms to legal aid. [71311]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Legal aid for personal injury claims was abolished by the previous Administration in 1999, so I take the hon. Gentleman to be referring to the proposed reforms to civil litigation funding and costs, and will answer on that basis. I have received several letters from MPs and others about the potential impact on mesothelioma sufferers. The Government’s package of reforms includes a number of measures to help claimants. We believe that valid claims will still be brought under the new regime but will be resolved at more proportionate cost.

Toby Perkins: Mesothelioma victims are often in the last year of their life by the time they are diagnosed and many are already too ill to seek redress. The proposals to prevent their being able to recover afterwards from the insurance premiums will mean a big up-front cost for many people. Derbyshire asbestos support team is very concerned that they and their families will miss out on access to justice because of these proposals. What can the Minister do to ensure that those people, who are very ill and who do not have trivial claims, have access to justice?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We recognise that reducing the time from diagnosis of the disease to settlement of the claim without the need for litigation would be preferable. Proposals to introduce a scheme that will incorporate a fixed time scale and cost each stage of the claim so that only the most complex cases reach litigation are being considered.

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Special Immigration Appeals Commission

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What steps he is taking to improve the functioning of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission. [71318]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The operation of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission is kept under regular review. There are no present plans to change current arrangements.

Mr Leigh: Too often immigration cases are deliberately spun out using never-ending reviews and ever-upwards appeals. What steps will the Minister take to protect the much-needed immigration reforms proposed by the Government from such delaying tactics?

Mr Djanogly: Parliament has on previous occasions decided against the ousting of the High Court’s judicial review jurisdiction. The Supreme Court recently indicated that it considered it would not be appropriate for the Government to take that route. However, improvements are being made. The legal aid reforms currently before Parliament seek to remove legal aid from repeat applications for judicial review in immigration and asylum cases.

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Topical Questions

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), defended the Government’s narrow definition of domestic violence in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill with these words:

“We are concerned that to include admission to a refuge in the criteria would be to rely on self-reporting…We are not persuaded that medical professionals would be best placed to assess whether domestic violence has occurred. Although they may witness injuries…nor would the fact of a police investigation without more evidence provide sufficient evidence”.––[Official Report, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Public Bill Committee, 6 September 2011; c. 359-60.]

Women in this country will be appalled by those remarks. Would the Under-Secretary like to take them back, and also change his definition in the Bill?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): It is not a question of taking them back; it is a question of making them in a very transparent way in our consultation. Having looked at the consultation, we came back and reassessed the definition of domestic violence, broadened what is included, and we are prepared to debate it in Committee. That is the process that is under way, and the Government stand by that.

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Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): Using a restricted definition of domestic violence, as discussed a moment ago, will penalise victims of domestic violence, many of whom suffer for long periods before they begin to report incidents to the police. Will the Minister, given that he appears to be in some difficulty over this, consider meeting organisations working on domestic violence to work out how to make that definition work?

Mr Djanogly: I have met organisations and we have consulted on the issue. I am always prepared to meet organisations. I have to tell the hon. Lady that the key issue is having tests that are objective, and that is what we are trying to achieve.

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Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The building that formerly housed Wisbech magistrates court is owned by the Ministry of Justice and is in a prime site next to the historic port in Wisbech and a couple of yards from a conference centre. Will my hon. Friend the Minister meet me to discuss how we best use the site for regeneration so that it does not get locked in the stalemate that there has been with the police service locally?

Mr Djanogly: I will meet my hon. Friend. The court closed in April this year and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is progressing the disposal of the courthouse. As part of that process it is due to meet officials from both Cambridgeshire district council and Fenland district council later this month.

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Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): An appeal to the special educational needs and disability tribunal listed today will not be heard until late February 2012.

Does the Minister agree that that is wholly unacceptable and that a much quicker process is needed in order to resolve some of the cases relating to special needs?

Mr Djanogly: If my hon. Friend would like to write to me, I will look into that.

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