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Justice Questions

13th December 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers back bench MPs' questions on subjects including the retirement age for Coroners, access to justice for vulnerable people and reform of the role of bailiffs.

Coroners (Retirement Age)

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): What assessment he has made of whether there should be a compulsory retirement age for coroners. [86094]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 requires a senior coroner, area coroner or assistant coroner to vacate office on reaching the age of 70. The Government intend to implement this provision as soon as is practicable, although the retirement age will not apply to those in post immediately before the change comes into effect.

Ian Swales: I thank the Minister for that answer. The Teesside coroner is used as a bad example nationally by charities such as Cardiac Risk in the Young and the Royal British Legion. It is led by 81-year-old Michael Sheffield. Will the Minister meet a delegation of local MPs to discuss how the performance of the Teesside service could be improved?

Mr Djanogly: I am happy to meet to discuss the Teesside service, but not the coroner per se. The Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor are aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the Teesside coroner and have asked the Office for Judicial Complaints to investigate. I cannot comment any further while that investigation is ongoing.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): The Secretary of State’s change of heart, perhaps encouraged by the other place, about the creation of a chief coroner is most welcome, and I look forward to hearing that a chief coroner has been appointed. However, there are still major concerns about the repeal of section 40 and other sections in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that provide for the new appeal process. I understand the Secretary of State’s concerns about costs, but all that bereaved families are looking for is a commitment to bring forward a proper appeal process. The Teesside coroner is a very good example of the fact that the current system of judicial appeal is time consuming, costly and damaging. Will the Minister reconsider the decision about the appeal process?

Mr Djanogly: We take the view that it is better to focus on raising the standards of coroners’ inquiries and inquests to ensure that bereaved families are satisfied with the process without the need for new appeal rights and the resulting expensive litigation.

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Vulnerable People

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to ensure access to justice for vulnerable people. [86095]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Access to justice is a wide concept, encompassing general advice provision, access to courts, as well as privately and publicly funded advice and representation. In respect of legal aid, the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill are designed to ensure that resources are targeted at the most serious cases, in which public funding is justified, protecting fundamental rights to access to justice.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I thank the Minister for that answer.

“The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will have a damaging effect on access unless substantial amendments are made in the House of Lords.”

Those are not my words, but those of the esteemed Cross Bencher, Lord Pannick. Is the Secretary of State concerned by the opposition shown by Lord Pannick and others—especially given the enormous time pressure on business in the other place—and will he therefore save considerable time and effort by announcing now to the House his intention to reverse his damaging proposals on legal aid, which risk undermining access to justice for the most vulnerable?

Mr Djanogly: We do recognise that there is a need to provide a suitable level of protection for the most vulnerable. Reforms will ensure that legal aid is targeted at those who need it most, for the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. Areas that remain in scope, such as domestic violence, asylum, property repossession and protecting children, demonstrate our commitment to that.

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker—I shall be brief. Is not one of the most important aspects of access to justice the time it takes to get a decision? Are there not still too many unnecessary adjournments in our court process, and what is the Minister doing about that?

Mr Djanogly: With my honourable colleagues on the criminal side of the Department, I am looking at many areas in which to speed up court processes. Indeed, the speed of the magistrates court process has increased dramatically since we came into power.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): That is all well and good but what the Minister does not say is that people who need debt, welfare benefit or housing advice will now be out of scope, as he well knows, and that that will have a knock-on cost. This is simply short-termism. On the definition of domestic violence, he also knows that far more people will be litigating in person, which will also be a waste of money.

Mr Djanogly: I must put the right hon. Gentleman right: we are not ending debt advice or advice in some of the other areas he mentioned. In fact, we will still be spending some £50 million on social welfare advice.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Fifty-three peers of the 54 who spoke in the House of Lords on Second Reading of the Government’s flagship Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill expressed their worries about the Bill. They came from both sides of the political spectrum and many were among the country’s leading experts. Unlike their Liberal Democrat and Conservative counterparts in the House of Commons, they are not Whips’ fodder and will not be bought off by platitudes or the offer of jobs in government. What plans does the Minister have to address the concerns that they raised, or will there be no change from the Bill that left this House?

Mr Djanogly: The right hon. Gentleman mentions the fact that the Bill is currently going through the other place and will shortly head to Committee. Of course, the Government, being a listening Government, and the Ministry of Justice, being a listening Ministry, will take onboard the concerns of noble Members in the other place and act accordingly.

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Commercial Rent Collections

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): What steps he is taking to reform the role of bailiffs in commercial rent collections and repossessions; and if he will make a statement. [86102]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government have given a commitment to provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs. Although there are no plans to reform the role of bailiffs in repossessions, the Government are considering replacing the existing common law right for a landlord to distrain for arrears of rent with a modified out-of- court regime for recovering rent of commercial premises. We will announce details of a full public consultation in due course.

Mike Freer: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he confirm that the consultation will include representatives of landlords and not just those of tenants?

Mr Djanogly: Of course. It is vital that we ensure that our proposals for transforming bailiff action do not impose unreasonable burdens on business. To that end, we are undertaking further work to explore all the regulatory and non-regulatory options available.

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Magistrates Court Trials (Merseyside)

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): How many trials in magistrates courts in Merseyside were abandoned or deferred due to the non-appearance of either defendants or witnesses in the last year for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. [86105]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): In the last 12 months—from July 2010 to June 2011—for which data are available, there were a total of 5,239 trials in magistrates courts in Merseyside. Of those, 615, or 12%, did not go ahead on the day due to the absence of a witness, while 151—3%—did not go ahead due to the absence of a defendant.

John Pugh: In recognising the problem, does the Minister think that it will be made worse by the closure of magistrates courts in places such as Southport, and will he monitor the situation?

Mr Djanogly: We are certainly monitoring the situation, and I do so virtually on a weekly basis. Since 2009, until closure, Southport courts sat on three days per week. The court utilisation figure prior to consultation on closure was 33%. Since the work was transferred to Bootle courts, the utilisation level of Bootle has increased from 49% to 68% for the month of October 2011.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP) rose—

Mr Speaker: Ulster is a little way away, but I am sure that it is not beyond the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman to relate his supplementary to Merseyside.

Dr McCrea: Absolutely, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister tell us whether any figures are available on the cost to industry and individuals in Merseyside, when witnesses attend court proceedings only to be told later in the day that they can go home because the proceedings cannot go ahead?

Mr Djanogly: I cannot do so off the top of my head, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. There might be good reasons for such occurrences, such as someone entering a guilty plea, as well as bad reasons. The situation is complicated.

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Legal Aid

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the potential effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. [86106]

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the potential effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. [86115]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government published an equality impact assessment alongside our response to consultation, which laid out the best assessment of the effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. That recognised the potential for the reforms to impact on a greater proportion of women, alongside others featuring protected characteristics.

Karl Turner: There have been reports in the media that the Deputy Prime Minister is to announce a consultation on the definition of domestic violence. Will the Minister explain how it accords with the narrow definition in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which will exclude many women from the legal support that they need and will, I believe, put a number of them at serious risk?

Mr Djanogly: As the hon. Gentleman says, there is to be a consultation on domestic violence, although I believe that it will be undertaken by the Home Office rather than the Deputy Prime Minister. We will look carefully at the results of the consultation, but the definition of abuse in the Bill is broad and comprehensive, and includes mental as well as physical abuse.

Kate Green: What steps is the Minister taking to protect women who are victims of domestic violence from the risk of aggressive and unfair questioning in the courts by abusive partners, given the likelihood of an increase in the number of litigants appearing in person as a result of the legal aid cuts?

Mr Djanogly: I believe that some 50% of respondents are currently not represented through legal aid. As a consequence, the circumstances that the hon. Lady describes are common in our courts, and our judiciary are expert and accustomed to dealing with them when they arise.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Most women, in particular, depend on legal aid cases when starting out in practice. As a non-practising advocate, may I ask my hon. Friend whether the changes will affect the number of women entering the profession, and whether it is likely that the early stages of legal aid cases will be replaced by mediation?

Mr Djanogly: We are certainly promoting mediation as an alternative to court. That is always to be recommended when it is appropriate, which I admit is not always the case. The impact on providers in terms of their sex varies according to the nature of the organisations involved and the nature of the work being undertaken, but there is no real difference between the impacts on male and female solicitor providers of either civil or criminal legal aid services.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Did the impact assessment also cover the potential effect of the legal aid changes on men?

Mr Djanogly: By implication, yes.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The press were, of course, briefed on the domestic violence review before the House was. It was clearly stated at the weekend that the Deputy Prime Minister would undertake it, but perhaps he cannot be found now, which is why the Home Office will be in charge.

If the purpose of the review is to broaden the ambit of what constitutes domestic violence, why are the Department and the Secretary of State narrowing not just the definition but the evidential criteria, so that whether a woman is supported by a GP or hospital doctor or by a refuge, she will no longer be able to obtain legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: We have no intention of narrowing the definition, and we do not believe that the definition in the Bill does that. I can say, however, that our policy is to end legal aid for most private family law applications relating to, for instance, divorce, ancillary relief and child contact. The main exception is legal aid in domestic violence cases, which we are anxious to retain.

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Health and Safety

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of compliance by local authorities with the requirements of his Department on health and safety in cemeteries. [86107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Responsibility for health and safety in local authority cemeteries lies with the relevant council. The Department published guidance on the safety of burial ground memorials in 2009 and burial authorities have been encouraged to take account of it, but there are no plans to initiate individual assessments of compliance.

John Mann: The Minister says that there are “no plans”. Luckily, the new administration in Bassetlaw council has dug up the stakes that were put in by the last Conservative administration, at huge cost to the taxpayer. Why are the Government not sorting out the abuse of a change in the regulations that was made in 2009? Local authorities across the country are still doing nothing about it, much to the disgust of those who visit cemeteries.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman’s expertise in this area is renowned, so perhaps I can write to him on the specifics of the cemetery in his constituency. I just point out to him that the Ministry of Justice has no responsibility for health and safety in local authority cemeteries.

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Topical Questions

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will join me in paying tribute to the work of the citizens advice bureau in Amber Valley. What progress has he made in his discussions with the Cabinet Office to secure future funding for such centres?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Cabinet Office is working on two fronts: first, in relation to an immediate payment to not-for-profit organisations; and secondly, in relation to a longer-term proposal to look at transitional arrangements for those bodies. The MOJ supports both.

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Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Earlier this year, I put down a parliamentary question about the situation regarding employment tribunals. I was told that information on the length of time was not held centrally. Subsequently, I have discovered that there is such information, but that it does not show what the Government intend to do, which is to extend the period in which a person has the right to apply to an employment tribunal. Why do the Government continue to drive such a policy when they do not have that information and there is no right to it?

Mr Djanogly: I should say that that is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills policy. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s policy is that fewer people should go to tribunals in the first place. That is why we are encouraging people to go to ACAS in all circumstances before they go to the tribunal. That is what we have been consulting on.

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Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Last Friday, the Government equality unit announced that the Equality and Human Rights Commission funding for discrimination casework in law centres would end in March 2012 and that discussions would begin for replacement arrangements from April 2013. How do the Government plan to support victims of discrimination in the intervening 16 months and thereafter?

Mr Djanogly: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no proposals to end legal aid for discrimination cases. I think he is confusing that with the Government’s wider decision to delay the legal aid changes by six months.

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