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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill - Lords Amendments


17th April 2012

During a debate on the Lords amendments to the Bill, Jonathan Djanogly outlines the Government’s determination to reform legal aid to ensure that scarce resources are focussed on the most urgent and serious cases and less serious disputes are resolved at an earlier stage.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Lords amendments 3 and 4, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.

Lords amendment 5.

Lords amendment 24, and Government motion to disagree.

Mr Djanogly: Lords amendments 1 and 24 impinge on the financial privilege of this House. I ask the House to disagree to them and will ask the Reasons Committee to ascribe financial privilege as the reason for doing so. Notwithstanding that, the House now has the opportunity to debate the substance and effect of the amendments, and shortly I will state the Government’s full reasons for rejecting them. Before I start, I remind the House of the statement that I made on Report on 31 October 2011 relating to my declaration of interests. It can be found at column 626 of Hansard, and I confirm today that it remains accurate. I ask the House to agree to the Government amendments in lieu of Lords amendments 3 and 4, which relate to the director of legal aid casework.

I turn to the Lords amendments. Access to justice is of fundamental importance to our legal system and to this Government, but our legal aid system is by any measure extremely expensive and sometimes prone to aggravating disputes unnecessarily by pushing them into the courtroom. The question for the Government has never been whether to reform it but how, and our approach is one with a principled basis of focusing scarce resources on the most urgent and serious cases while seeking a broader shift to earlier resolution of disputes. We have always been happy to accept amendments that deliver on those principles, so it should come as no surprise that the Bill is much revised. The Government have listened and made significant concessions, and I am grateful to the other place for its concern to improve the Bill.

In another place, Lords amendment 1, tabled by Lord Pannick, was said to identify the aims of the legal aid system in our society. It would place a duty on the Lord Chancellor, reflecting the provision in section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, to secure within the resources made available and in accordance with part 1 of the Bill that individuals have access to legal services that meet their needs effectively. However, clause 1(1) already sets out a clear duty on the Lord Chancellor to ensure that legal aid is made available in accordance with part 1 of the Bill, so the Government are concerned that the amendment replicates what is already in place.

Worse than mere duplication, technical problems with the amendment risk muddying the waters, creating legal uncertainty and undermining the Bill’s clear purpose. Unlike the clear duty in clause 1(1), which relates to legal aid made available under part 1 of the Bill, with legal aid being defined in clause 1(2), Lords amendment 1 would impose a duty in relation to legal services. Despite the purported qualifications in the words in brackets, it can be read as imposing a wider duty on the Lord Chancellor than that intended under the Bill, in that it risks imposing a duty on him to fund legal services beyond the realm of legal aid provision.

We believe that there are potential additional costs attached to the amendment, which would create uncertainty. It runs contrary to the policy intention of creating certainty through the unambiguous description of services in schedule 1 and the clearly defined circumstances in which exceptional funding is available. Both the uncertainty that would be created and the possible costs are undesirable outcomes.

The problem with the amendment is that it conflates the two important but separate principles of access to justice and the provision of publicly funded legal advice. It could be understood in the context of the 1999 Act, which, because it was drafted on an exclusionary basis, specifies what services cannot be funded under civil legal aid but leaves rather vague exactly what the Lord Chancellor is responsible for funding. However, the Bill is carefully drafted on an inclusionary basis, which means that it is explicitly clear about what services can be funded, thereby representing Parliament’s view on services that should be provided under legal aid to meet people’s needs.

Lords amendment 1 risks providing the basis for myriad new legal challenges seeking to widen the scope of the Bill. The central purpose of our legal aid reforms is targeting resources where they really matter, not providing work for lawyers. We cannot accept an amendment that might prompt endless legal dispute and judicial review.

Lords amendments 3 and 4, which were tabled by Lord Pannick, and the Government’s Lords amendment 5 all concern the director of legal aid casework. Lords amendments 3 and 4 are born out of concern that the director’s decisions will be subject to political interference from Ministers. I reassure the House that the Government absolutely agree with Members of the other place that the Lord Chancellor should have absolutely no involvement in a decision about legal aid funding in an individual case. However, we ask the House to reject Lords amendments 3 and 4, because they would have the unwelcome effect of preventing the director from being appointed as a civil servant.

I must remind the House that we are abolishing the Legal Services Commission to improve the administration of legal aid, not to create greater fragmentation of responsibility and accountability.

Clause 4 provides protection to the director by creating, in clause 4(4), a statutory bar on the Lord Chancellor’s involvement in funding decisions by the director in individual cases. The Lord Chancellor may not give directions or guidance to the director about the carrying out of the director’s functions in relation to an individual case. In addition to that protection, the Bill imposes a duty on the Lord Chancellor to publish any guidance and directions that he issues to the director.

Lords amendment 5, which is a Government amendment, goes further by requiring the director to produce an annual report for the preceding financial year on the exercise of their functions during that period. That annual report will be laid before Parliament and published. We consider that further offer of transparency to be an important safeguard.

I am aware that the question of directorial independence was one that exercised the other place considerably. It is because we agree that that is a vital issue that we are happy to put the matter beyond doubt. That is why I am asking the House to agree to the Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendments 3 and 4. That will reinforce the protections already set out in clause 4(4) by requiring the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the director acts independently of the Lord Chancellor when applying directions and guidance given under clause 4(3) in relation to an individual case. That provides additional assurance on the director’s independence without compromising common-sense administrative arrangements designed to improve control and accountability.

Finally, Lords amendment 24 concerns the provision of advice over the telephone, on which I am afraid I cannot agree with many of the sentiments of the other place. The effect of amendment 24 would be to weaken a key measure to modernise the system and bring it up to date. The aim of the telephone gateway is to route access to legal aid, in the first instance, by the phone. That is not only much more efficient, enabling calls to be properly triaged, but simpler to access and generally of higher quality.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Has the Minister done any studies on the effectiveness of telephone advice lines for people whose first language is not English?

Mr Djanogly: We have, and if one were to call the telephone hotline, one would be able to speak in any of 170 different languages, which is more languages than one would find used in a high street solicitor’s office.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): It is fine for hon. Members to use telephone hotlines, but what about those with mental illness, special educational needs, learning difficulties or no English? What will happen to ensure they get legal advice and do not give up before they can get anywhere?

Mr Djanogly: I confirm to my right hon. Friend that it will be possible for all such people to have face-to-face advice. If the people who take the call, who are expert in finding out whether a person needs face-to-face advice, feel that people need face-to-face advice, they will get it. I am not just speculating. We know that that is the case because a modern, phone-based service currently exists, namely the Ministry of Justice community legal advice helpline. Its record is one of excellent public service.

In 2010-11, more than half a million calls were made to it. More than 90% of respondents to the last survey who subsequently received advice from the specialist service found it very helpful.

Concerns have been raised about accessibility. However, contrary to the claims of those opposed to the reforms, phone-based advice has been shown often to be more convenient and accessible than face-to-face advice, particularly benefiting those living in remote areas or those who have a physical disability.

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Will the Minister accept that currently, the CLS gateway is a choice—people can choose to use the phone system or to have face-to-face advice? For people under stress, who cannot bring themselves even to open an envelope with their bills in, face-to-face advice is often the most appropriate route.

Mr Djanogly: I simply disagree that face-to-face advice will be appropriate in all cases of disability—quite the opposite. In many cases, people with disability would prefer to use telephone advice.

Such advice is also high quality. Contrary to the assumption that face-to-face advice is always better, specialist telephone advice providers are currently required to meet higher standards than their face-to-face counterparts. That will continue under the new contracts required to implement the Bill.

Under our plans, an individual seeking advice will simply need to ring the community legal advice helpline. They will be greeted by a trained operator who will assess whether they are eligible for legal aid or not. Their goal will be to ensure that people get a high quality, accessible service that delivers the right help, either by transferring them to specialist telephone advice providers or face-to-face providers if telephone advice is not appropriate, or by signposting them to other possible support if their issue does not fall within the scope of the legal aid scheme.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): We know from our own experience as Members of Parliament that many of our constituents insist on coming to see us in our offices and working face to face, because that is how they can best get across their grievances. Why are the Government insisting on denying people the right to see somebody face to face?

5.15 pm

Mr Djanogly: In many cases the support that my hon. Friend’s constituents receive will be better received over the telephone than face to face. Crucially, the staff concerned will be trained not just to help the caller identify the nature of their problem, whether it is in scope and whether they qualify financially, but to assist with the prior issue of whether they need support in accessing the service. That could include the operator calling them back to reduce the cost of the call, a third party, such as an available family member, assisting the caller with the call, or a very good telephone translation service, if a person has limited or no spoken English. With 170 languages available, a better service will be delivered than someone could possibly get in a law firm’s offices.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): The hon. Gentleman said at the commencement of his remarks that this measure was about targeting resources a bit better. The Government’s impact assessment says that they might save between £1 million and £2 million under this unfortunate scheme. However, the cost will be three times that amount, in terms of people being let down, losing their homes, not being able to receive assistance, and so on, along with all the other problems that will flow from this. The cost will be far more than £1 million to £2 million.

Mr Djanogly: The right hon. Gentleman’s points go more to scope, which is not the subject of this debate, than the telephone service.

Some in the other place raised concerns about the gateway being mandatory and what that means for access by particular categories of vulnerable callers. However, that is precisely why we are applying the gateway in a limited number of areas—debt, discrimination and special educational needs—but not community care, which we have agreed should not be available initially. It is also why we are building in strong safeguards. Not only will there be an exemption for emergency cases, those in detention and under-18s, but even where a case is in scope and not in those groups, face-to-face advice will always be available where deemed to be required. Although those seeking advice in the three areas of law will be required initially to contact the helpline to apply for legal aid, callers eligible for legal aid who cannot give instructions or act on advice given over the telephone will be referred to face-to-face advice. I should also emphasise that, in response to concerns raised in another place, a review of the implementation of the mandatory gateway, including the operation of the gateway in the three areas of law, will be undertaken, and the report of that review will be published.

In all those areas—a duty to provide legal aid, the independence of the exceptional funding scheme and the operation of the gateway—the Government’s priority is to protect access to justice while modernising the service and ensuring that it is affordable. We agree with the need to underline the independence of a funding decision in an individual case. However, we cannot accept measures that would create legal confusion about what services the scheme provides, nor can we agree that it is unreasonable to ask claimants in three areas of law to access the service by the simple expedient of ringing a phone line—a modernisation entirely familiar from other walks of life.

I ask hon. Members to support the Government on all these amendments.

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Mr Djanogly: I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 31.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendment 32, and Government motion to disagree.

Mr Djanogly: The Government recognise that mesothelioma is a truly terrible disease—a terminal illness that has a devastating impact on the families of its victims—and we are wholly committed to doing everything we can to help its victims to achieve justice and get the support that they deserve. The Lords amendments seeking to exempt mesothelioma and industrial disease cases from our reforms to no win, no fee agreements in part 2 of the Bill are not the right way to advance the cause of sufferers.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Djanogly: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give me a chance to put forward our opposition to the amendments.

First, the amendments are unnecessary. The legal climate in which mesothelioma cases can be brought has wholly changed in recent years, and nothing in our proposals should prevent cases from being taken or those affected from receiving appropriate damages. Secondly, in making an exception to our change to the no win, no fee conditional fee arrangements regime, the amendments would create inconsistency and damage the wider goal of our reforms—to restore sense to the costs of litigation, which have been substantially increased by the way in which no win, no fee cases operate, largely to the detriment of defendants.

Ian Lucas: How can appropriate damages be recovered by mesothelioma victims if a proportion of those damages is to be taken from them to cover the cost of legal fees?

Mr Djanogly: This is not a question of whether mesothelioma sufferers receive adequate legal support but of how much their lawyers get paid for providing it. We are saying that that must be more reasonably assessed, and that is the point of our reforms.

Let me remind hon. Members that the current regime of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements was meant to promote access to justice but has frequently ended up as something of a racket allowing risk-free litigation for claimants, inflated profits for legal firms, and punitive additional costs for defendants.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Can the Minister tell us of one case in which a mesothelioma sufferer has taken something to court that did not deserve to go there—one case in which a sufferer from this horrible disease, which leaves them dying in a horribly painful way, has in any way abused the system?

Mr Djanogly: Let me repeat what I said: this is not a question of whether the person making a claim has a valid claim but of how much his lawyer gets paid. That is what we are looking at, and that is where the system needs reform. To be clear—I say that because I have heard that some hon. Members are not clear about this specific point—I emphasise that under our proposals the client’s lawyer’s costs will still be recoverable from the losing other side.

However, clauses 46 and 48 abolish the recoverability of the success fees and insurance premiums that have pushed up prices for everyone.

Helen Jones: Is the Minister aware that the lead asbestos case was very complicated and took six years to get to the Supreme Court? Does he really think that lawyers will take those kinds of cases without an assurance that their costs will be met?

9 pm

Mr Djanogly: As I have just said, lawyers’ costs will be met in the usual way. What we are talking about is the success fee. That is where the problem has come into the system.

Helen Jones: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Djanogly: No; if the hon. Lady listens, I will answer the question.

Our reforms are intended to redress the unfairness that exists in our civil litigation system between claimants and defendants. They will move conditional fee agreements back to the position that they were in before the Opposition’s disastrous reforms in the Access to Justice Act 1999. Our proposals are premised on the similar treatment of classes of cases, based on the costs or difficulty of bringing a claim. The Lords amendments would introduce a new unfairness between claimants, based only on the type of disease or illness, and essentially dependent on whether it was caused in the workplace.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): A number of my constituents who worked on the docks in Goole and in power stations have been affected by this illness. There seems to be a lot of confusion in this debate. For simplicity’s sake, will the Minister say whether my constituents who worked at the docks and who are suffering from this awful disease will receive more or less money in compensation under the Government’s proposals than they receive at the moment?

Mr Djanogly: That will depend on the arrangements that they make with their lawyers. Under the new system, for the first time since the Opposition’s reforms which did so much to create a compensation culture in our country, the client will have an interest in what their lawyer is being paid. Until we get back to that situation, there will be an ongoing ratcheting of costs, which is not in the interests of such claims.

The Opposition’s Lords amendments rate one sort of claim above another. Somehow, a mesothelioma claim is automatically more worthy than a personal injury claim. The Government simply do not accept that. I acknowledge the concern in the other place, which underpinned Lords amendments 31 and 32, that the new arrangements will prevent lawyers from being willing to take mesothelioma cases and leave claimants out of pocket, but I believe it to be mistaken.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The Minister says that a mesothelioma claim is not, by definition, more serious than a personal injury claim. That obviously depends on the personal injury claim. However, every single mesothelioma claim is a serious matter. Will he at least acknowledge that there is a difference between all mesothelioma claims and some personal injury claims?

Mr Djanogly: All non-clinical negligence personal injury cases, including respiratory disease claims, have been out of the scope of legal aid since 2000—let us acknowledge that—under changes introduced by the last Government. Although some expert reports may be required in respiratory disease cases, the Government are not persuaded that they differ substantially from other personal injury cases in a way that merits the retention of the recoverability of after-the-event insurance premiums.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister may be aware that Barrow is the constituency with the second highest number of mesothelioma suffers in the country. Does he not understand how insulting and potentially distressing it is to those sufferers to be branded as part of a compensation culture?

Mr Djanogly: As I said, this is a question of what lawyers get paid. I am in no way assessing the vulnerability of the individuals whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that significant steps have been taken in recent years to lower the barriers to bringing compensation claims for these disastrous diseases. A fast-track procedure for mesothelioma cases has been introduced in the High Court. Over the past few years, various legal changes, including primary legislation such as the Compensation Act 2006 and judgments of the Supreme Court, have removed many of the hurdles for sufferers of respiratory diseases in bringing claims.

The legal climate in which such cases are brought has been transformed in recent years. Judgments of the Supreme Court have removed many hurdles, and a judgment only last month means that victims of this dreadful disease who are able to trace an insurer will now be paid and not miss out on compensation. As I said, a fast-track procedure has been introduced to ensure that claims are dealt with as quickly as possible.

A key outstanding barrier is identifying the employer’s liability insurer when an employer no longer exists, and the Department for Work and Pensions continues to work with stakeholders to see what more can be done to address that. Overall, however, cases are much less difficult to undertake than in the past, and there is no reason to believe that legal firms will stop bringing them, even under the new arrangements, or that they will be particularly expensive.

Kate Green: Does the Minister not accept, though, that some cases will now simply go unrepresented and unpursued, and that victims will instead have to rely on the Government’s own compensation scheme, in which the average payment is £16,000? This change will be an expensive choice for the Government, because it will lock people out of access through the courts.

Mr Djanogly: Decisions are made about such cases now, and even under the existing system, if there are large sums involved, ATE insurance companies want to know the likelihood of losing. A lawyer also has to make such an assessment. As things stand, the balance is not right, and we want to rebalance the situation.

Partly as a consequence of what I have said, I do not believe we should accept the view that critics sometimes advance that our reforms will leave victims of this terrible disease out of pocket. It is true that under our plans individuals will pay legal costs out of their general damages. Crucially, though, damages for future care and losses are protected, and general damages are being increased by 10% to offset a success fee capped at 25%. It is of course entirely up to the lawyer whether any success fee is taken from a claimant’s damages at all.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Even if damages for future care and losses are protected, the average life expectancy for advanced mesothelioma has been disclosed as being about nine to 12 months—so that is a great comfort. How can the Minister seriously tell the House that there will be no loss of damages given that the 10% uplift, which is very indistinct, is compensated for by a 25% loss of damages? We should not blame the lawyers, we should blame the Government, who are taking damages away from mesothelioma and asbestosis victims.

Mr Djanogly: I am actually saying quite the opposite. I am saying that damages are going to be increased, not decreased.

The aim of our reforms is to end the current situation whereby legal firms can get away with charging what they want because the claimants do not have a stake in keeping an eye on the bill. At a time when the cases in question are becoming easier to bring, we should not accept amendments that would reduce pressure on legal firms to cut their fees. Instead, our focus should be on cutting inflated margins, not making exemptions for one type of disease.

I understand claimants’ fear of being left liable for high defendant’s costs should they lose, but under our reforms, we are protecting personal injury claimants from the risk of paying such costs, including in industrial disease cases, by introducing qualified one-way costs shifting.

Helen Jones: Even if I accepted the Minister’s argument about plaintiffs keeping an eye on fees, which I do not, how would someone with no legal training who was dying of mesothelioma be supposed to keep monitoring their lawyers’ fees?

Mr Djanogly: People entering into a conditional fee agreement have a relationship with their lawyer, and it is quite right that someone who employs a lawyer has some idea of what is on that lawyer’s clock and what they are charging. That is very important. If someone is sick, they will have family who can help them through their sickness.

The Government are determined to see more proportionate costs in civil litigation, with greater fairness in the risks borne by parties. Without our reforms, high and disproportionate costs in civil litigation would continue. Moreover, if the Lords amendments were accepted, claimants in mesothelioma cases would have an advantage over others who may be suffering from equally debilitating conditions. That cannot be justified.

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