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Committee (7th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 1st February 2012.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 4:30 pm, 1st February 2012

As I said, we are consulting. I shall return to the question of getting it right. The problem is that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, is impetuous in so many ways, whereas this Government are determined to get things right-you can see the advice that I get on getting things right.

On Monday, we spent some time discussing QOCS and we heard the concerns of my noble friends and others that the matter should appear in the Bill. This afternoon, I do not want to repeat the more general arguments on these matters, but we need to get the details and the rules right to ensure that they are tailored properly in respect of the category of proceedings to which they apply. For example, in personal injury cases, it may well be that there should not be an initial financial test. However, the position is likely to be different for defamation, and perhaps for environmental cases too, which typically involve more than one claimant-sometimes many claimants. In such cases the costs involved can impact considerably on the ability of the public bodies that are under challenge to perform their general functions.

As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, explained in moving his amendment on Monday, he was looking for specific words rather than words like "unreasonable", which he said had such a broad meaning. Indeed, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, added that the word "unreasonable" was liable to cause serious difficulties of interpretation and yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has confessed, the word "unreasonably" is in Amendment 157.

It is precisely for those reasons that we are not yet ready to crystallise in statute, and ring-fence away from development in rules, words which are more properly left to the rules, where they can follow detailed discussions with stakeholders. They can be tailored and nuanced for the particular category of proceedings and, of course, the Lord Chancellor will remain accountable for the policy on these issues which is reflected through the Civil Procedure Rules.

Amendments 141, 147, 148, 149 and 150 deal with the recovery of ATE insurance premiums in respect of environmental claims under the Aarhus convention. Amendment 157 would introduce a new clause to provide for costs protection in the form of qualified one-way costs shifting-QOCS-for claimants in environmental claims and, it would appear, for all judicial review claims, whether concerning environmental issues or not.

The Government are, of course, conscious of their obligations under the Aarhus convention. Put simply, the convention requires us to ensure that parties have access to a procedure to challenge relevant environmental decisions that is, among other things, not prohibitively expensive. How we discharge those obligations has been a matter of debate for some time. It was addressed by Lord Justice Jackson in his report and was considered in a number of cases in the High Court and above. Amendments 141, 147, 148 and 149 seek to allow ATE insurance premiums to be recoverable from the other party in these cases. As I indicated in our debate on Monday, the Government's policy is that ATE insurance premiums should no longer be recoverable except in the particular instance of clinical negligence expert reports. Therefore, we do not favour this or any other extension of ATE premium recoverability.

Amendment 157 seeks to apply QOCS to environmental claims, subject to qualification in respect of unreasonable behaviour. The proposed clause would displace any rules of court in this area and provide for the Lord Chancellor instead to have the power to make regulations to extend QOCS to other areas in future. That seems to be something of a departure from the general principle that in civil proceedings, matters relating to costs are regulated in detail by rules of court. It is not clear why the departure would be beneficial.

As noble Lords are aware, the Government are introducing a regime of QOCS in personal injury cases to help balance the impact of the changes to no-win no-fee conditional fee agreements, and in particular as an alternative to "after the event" insurance. Claimants will continue to be able to take out ATE insurance if they wish, but they will pay the premium, which will be lower than the rolled-up premiums presently never paid by anyone other than a losing defendant. Although Lord Justice Jackson suggested that QOCS might be considered for use in some non-personal injury claims, the Government are not persuaded that the case for this has yet been made.

I noted the dispute between the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and my noble friend Lord Lester about protective costs orders, which are also part of this consultation. As a matter of principle, the Government's view is that protective costs orders can provide appropriate costs protection in environmental cases. Environmental organisations and the working group chaired by the then Mr Justice Sullivan, to whom noble Lords referred, expressed a preference for QOCS, having argued, including in a submission before the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee, that an appropriate PCO regime could provide full compliance with the requirements of the convention. With a PCO, it will be clear from the outset what costs the claimant will have to pay if their claim is unsuccessful, while ensuring that some contribution is made toward the costs of public bodies that have successfully defended the claim. As I said, we have consulted on the issue.

The Ministry of Justice consultation Cost Protection for Litigants in Environmental Judicial Review Claims outlines proposals for a cost-capping scheme for cases that fall within the Aarhus convention. The consultation closed on 18 January and we will announce the way forward in due course.