Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:56 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:56 pm, 27th November 2018

It is an honour to follow Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, who gave us an awful lot to think about. I agree with him that there is a great deal in the Bill that is good and that I would not wish to speak against, but I want to draw attention to a couple of its aspects about which I have concerns. As a non-lawyer, I am happy to be corrected if I have got something wrong and to be reassured by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lucy Frazer, when she makes her concluding remarks. I wish to raise a couple of areas of concern, particularly in relation to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the legal process, but also about the context in which these proposals are being made.

There is a sign on a wall near my constituency office in Bristol that says:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I am sure all Members will know that those are the words of Dr Martin Luther King, and they are as relevant now as they were when he first wrote them in his letter from Birmingham jail in 1963. I quote them because a reduction in justice for any of us is a reduction in justice for all of us. When a court closes, as is happening in many of our towns and cities, making it harder for witnesses to travel to give evidence and for members of the public to hear court proceedings; when someone gets inadequate advice from someone supposedly giving them legal advice; or when the powers of the court to act fairly and impartially are compromised anywhere in our system, it is a potential threat to justice for all of us. I know that the Lord Chancellor and the Minister would not wish to do that, so I pose my questions to ask whether we are sure we are doing everything we can to maintain the spirit of that quote.

We may be the victim of a crime or the witness to a crime. We may be accused of a crime, or we may know someone who is wrongly accused. We may have a constituent who needs our help. For all those things, we need our courts to work properly. I am truly concerned about the Bill. While it has good points, there are a couple of places where there are questions to ask.

First, I am concerned that these changes are being pushed through Parliament at a time when Members are understandably focused on other matters and when, as far as I know—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst may correct me if I am wrong—there has not been prelegislative scrutiny. I would like to know when there will be some form of legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee. There are provisions in the Bill that provide for regulations to be made through statutory instruments. That has been attended to in the other place, but those instruments provide for very limited scrutiny. Again, this is in a context where we will be overwhelmed by Brexit-related statutory instruments in the coming months and years.

Then there is the background of cuts to legal aid. I recognise that that is outwith the scope of the Bill, but it has an impact on the effect of the Bill. The wider context is that the justice system is under great strain. If the Lord Chancellor or the Minister has read the book “The Secret Barrister”, they will know the context I am referring to. I am also alluding particularly to refugees and asylum seekers, because I am concerned that they may be the people for whom the supposedly straightforward administrative advice that the Lord Chancellor mentioned may turn out to be more complicated and have a more far-reaching impact.

I need more reassurance from the Minister that there will not be an impact on immigration claims and appeals cases, which are sometimes already affected by perhaps less than great legal advice or legal aid cuts, and that the system will not be put under further pressure. That would mean that people who genuinely need our help, and who are entitled to sanctuary, could be failed and may be returned to places where they would face further danger. I would like some reassurance or clarification on that from the Minister, or perhaps an undertaking to look at it during the Bill’s further stages.

On legal qualifications, I refer hon. Members and the Minister to the comments of the noble and learned Baroness Butler-Sloss in the debate on the Bill in the other place. She said:

“My Lords, as a former judge of the family court, I wonder in what circumstances such judges—district judges, circuit judges or even possibly High Court judges—might need the advice of those who were not themselves qualified lawyers. I find that difficult. I see no difficulty with justices of the peace—that is perfectly obvious—but at the moment I cannot see how any family court judge, at any level, should be advised on legal issues by someone who is not legally qualified.”

She continued:

“I would be grateful to the noble and learned Lord for explaining what he sees this applying to, and in what circumstances.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 2018;
Vol. 793, c. 416.]

It would be helpful if the Minister could give this Opposition Member, as well as others who may be more knowledgeable than me and certainly the non-lawyers in this place, an idea of the answer to the questions that the noble and learned Baroness asked.

When our Front Bencher in the other place withdraw the Labour amendment on qualifications, she did so reluctantly. I note that she said she was withdrawing it with “a somewhat heavy heart”. I am therefore particularly concerned that the concerns she raised in the other place may not yet have been dealt with adequately. I would like some reassurance from the Minister on that.

As I have said, I am concerned, drawing on my casework as an MP, about the potential impact on appeals in immigration and asylum cases, which may be put under strain if there is any question of administrative information being given by people who are not legally qualified. Those affected are multiply vulnerable: they are usually traumatised, they may have little English, and with the best will in the world, they may not be capable of understanding the legal advice or administrative information that they are given. This may seem a tiny, nit-picking and technical point—and perhaps I have got it wrong—but I really think it is worth checking that we have not unwittingly put asylum seekers and refugees in a position where administrative advice may have a more far-reaching consequence than I am sure the Lord Chancellor intends.

On cost cutting, in Bristol we have a well-appointed court in the centre of the city, but I understand from colleagues who represent towns and smaller cities that they have experienced court and tribunal closures, resulting in increased journey times for victims and witnesses and reduced access to visible justice. The Law Society and others have already expressed great concerns about that, and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned the National Audit Office in that context.

Does the Minister recognise the concerns of those who see this Bill in the round—in the context of the wider cuts to court staff and court closures—about it being a move towards justice being delivered at a reduced rate? As I said, there are good things in the Bill. What is at issue is not that, but its impact and how it fits into the wider context.

The Bill does not in my view satisfactorily address the context of the cost cutting programme in courts, which is undermining access to justice and is being pushed through without proper scrutiny. I urge the Minister, if she has not already done so, to add “The Secret Barrister” to her Christmas reading list. I have not finished it, truth be told, but I will undertake to finish it if she will, because that may be useful for all of us. I am concerned that the Bill could be an attempt, in places, to cut corners and weaken safeguards, and I am concerned about delegating powers to possibly underqualified court staff without adequate training. I urge the Minister to consider Opposition Front-Bench amendments to that effect.

I urge the Government and the Minister to remember what I said at the start. I repeat those words:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I would like the Minister’s reassurance that she is truly convinced that this Bill does not, even in the smallest way, represent any threat to justice.