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Prisons and Courts Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:09 pm on 20th March 2017.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 5:09 pm, 20th March 2017

That is completely right. My final point on the subject, before I move on to the closures of courts and tribunals, is that the introduction of employment tribunal fees has harmed not only those who would bring a case, but those who would never dream of bringing a case. If employers know that there is virtually no chance of an employee bringing a case against them if they break the law, it gives unscrupulous employers the green light because they know that the risk of being held to account is so much diminished. This goes to the root of what access to justice is. Legal rights are basically worthless if we cannot enforce them or rely upon them because of lack of resources or for any other reasons.

Two Government programmes earmarked a total of 243 courts and tribunals for closure. This has obvious and long-lasting effects on the principle of local justice. The cuts have led to an increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves. As far back as 2014, figures such as the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, were warning of the rise in unrepresented litigants—litigants in person. The Justice Committee’s 2015 report into the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 said:

“The result is that the courts are having to expend more resources to assist litigants in person and require more funding to cope”.

We know that, and we know that litigants in person clog up the court system and make it less efficient.

As Members of Parliament, our weekend advice sessions are full of people who need a lawyer, but cannot get one. Ministers seem to treat the involvement of lawyers in litigation or potential litigation as a fundamentally bad thing. That misses much of the point. Those hon. Members who have ever needed to use a lawyer or who have ever been lawyers themselves will know the valuable role lawyers play in dissuading clients from ill-advised litigation, in encouraging settlements that are fair and beneficial to clients where possible, and in shortening the proceedings in court.

In that respect, the prohibition in part 2 on cross-examination by the abuser of the abused is, of course, very welcome. The stark evidence from groups such as Women’s Aid is that this gap in the law was being used as a further means of control and abuse. Despite the fact that we very much welcome this measure, it cannot be left unsaid that the reason this serious problem became so pronounced was the Government’s legal aid cuts, which exacerbated it in a very damaging and profound way, and Resolution—the body of family solicitors—makes that clear:

“The impact of LASPO has led to an increase in litigants in person, meaning we’ve seen a rise in the number of defendants cross-examining those they have abused.”

Let me turn to the subject of modernisation. Few will disagree that the court system needs modernising and digitising—some would say it is in more need of modernisation than this place. There remains too much paper involved, when technology has made it possible for much documentation to be stored, referenced, annotated and amended using tablets and the like. However, technology alone does not demolish barriers to justice, and it can exacerbate the risks. The Opposition favour streamlining justice and reducing unnecessary court hearings, and we recognise that part 2 seeks to achieve that, but as the chair of the Bar Council, Andrew Langdon, QC, has warned, the fact that online courts

“might encourage defendants to plead guilty out of convenience, when in fact they may not be guilty of an offence, no matter how small, risks injustice.”

We have to be mindful of that. In its briefing on the Bill, the Law Society also issued a caution, saying:

“Although we welcome the introduction of these measures as a way to improve efficiency, there are serious risks associated with them in the absence of adequate access to legal advice. Safeguards must be in place to ensure that a defendant is aware of the consequences of indicating their plea in writing and the other measures highlighted above.”

Online courts, again, present the opportunity for a modern and desirable way of using technology to reduce court hearings and, hopefully, to deal with preliminary matters efficiently. However, the Law Society, again in its briefing, cautions that online convictions should be thoroughly tested and reviewed before being expanded. The Opposition therefore hope the Government will be open to amendments that allow for reviews to take place after a specified time. That would seem sensible. Virtual hearings, procedures on papers only, and written plea and mode-of-trial procedures will all need to be reviewed in time. The Government need to give closer consideration to safeguards, and we will seek to put those in place.

On whiplash, the clauses in part 5 will have come as a relief to many. The Government have backed away from increasing the small claims limit across personal injury, and that is welcome. However, they see a personal injury lawyer lurking around every corner—the Minister with responsibility for courts and tribunals even mistook me for one. [Interruption.] There is a former personal injury lawyer behind me—my hon. Friend Rob Marris—although he has only one job now. However, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers made it clear in written evidence to the Justice Committee that even

“when whiplash statistics are combined with the number of injuries registered by insurers with the CRU”— the Compensation Recovery Unit—

“as ‘neck and back’
injuries, there has been”,

as I said earlier,

“a significant fall of 11 per cent since 2011/2012.”

Profound problems also exist with the tariff system proposed. As the Government have accepted, the amounts they have set out elsewhere are low. However, they are too low, and compensation must be commensurate with the severity of an injury. If those tariffs are taken together with the increase in the small claims limit to £5,000, no victims of road traffic accidents—not only victims of whiplash—would be entitled to recover legal costs where the compensation did not exceed £5,000. That will inevitably deter people from accessing legal representation and deter genuine claims. The Government should consider ensuring that victims of road traffic accidents are able to recover their legal costs.

We have heard repeatedly—this was touched on earlier—that the proposals in the Bill will lead to premiums reducing by as much as £40 a year on average. The Law Society has questioned the accuracy of these figures, saying that the pass rates on which they are predicated are difficult to predict and it is unclear how the 85% savings rate has been calculated. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West said, it is a matter of evidence—or, in this case, a lack of it. Most obviously, there is no mechanism by which insurers can be made to pass on any savings to consumers. We hear a lot of insults thrown at the British people about a rampant claims culture and people being on the make and on the fiddle, but a lot less about the behaviour of some insurers in failing to defend weak claims and how much the insurance industry is making out of all this. Only a tiny minority of insurance companies have said that they will pass on any savings. The Government need to take action to win those guarantees.

I look forward to the remainder of this debate. As I said, Labour does not oppose the Bill on Second Reading, but we do lament the fact that it lacks so much. I suggest that the Bill itself must transform if it is to transform.