Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 20th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Lister of Burtersett Baroness Lister of Burtersett Labour 6:30 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, as the Minister has explained, Amendment 152BYH is in response to an amendment I tabled in Committee with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. The purpose was to remove legal confusion about the power of bailiffs to return a fine to magistrates for consideration. That confusion has resulted in hardship for many vulnerable people.

I am grateful to the Minister and to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for meeting me and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, as well as representatives of Zacchaeus 2000 and Citizens Advice to discuss this and related matters. I am even more grateful that the Government agree that the current law is flawed and that this Bill provides the ideal vehicle for removing the confusion. I assume therefore that they do not expect that there will be a further suitable Bill coming along in the foreseeable future and thus they brought forward their own amendment.

I had hoped that I would be able to sit down at this point and that all would be sweetness and light, but as the noble Baroness knows I am worried that the amendment refers simply to the power to withdraw the warrant where there has been a mistake, albeit one made in consequence of the non-disclosure or misrepresentation of a material fact. Rectifying mistakes will not prevent all of the kinds of problems that Zacchaeus 2000 and Citizens Advice have identified. I am particularly concerned about cases where there has been a change of circumstances since the fine was set. For instance, if the debtor's or defaulter's material circumstances have changed because of illness, unemployment or relationship breakdown, that could have just the same effect on the ability to pay the fine as if there had been a mistake at the time of the original determination.

I have been in touch by e-mail with the Ministry of Justice about this. Its response was that while the amendment does not cover a simple change of circumstances, it is clear that a debtor can argue that the change of circumstances, if it had been known to the court, would have affected the decision to issue the warrant, so the decision was based on a mistake as to the debtor's circumstances and that, in other words, the provision in the amendment goes further than the simple slip rule would do.

Will the Minister clarify this statement for your Lordships' House? I do not really understand what it means. Does it mean that if a debtor's circumstances change for the worse after the fine has been set and the bailiff is made aware of it, the bailiff can withdraw the warrant and return the fine to the magistrates' courts on the grounds that the fine would not have been set on that basis had those circumstances pertained when it was set? If it means that, I urge the Minister to withdraw the amendment and make that clear at Third Reading. Otherwise I fear that we face a new source of legal confusion. If it does not mean that, I fear that the amendment will not go nearly far enough to resolve the kind of problems that Z2K and Citizens Advice have brought to our attention. Will the Minister withdraw the amendment and think again before Third Reading? Can the Minister confirm that a mistake will cover cases where the defaulter was not in court when the fine was imposed so that the mistake was made because the full circumstances were not known?

In Committee, the Minister prayed in aid the revision of the National Standards for Enforcement Agents, and in particular the standards they set for dealing with vulnerable and socially excluded people. The revised standards for such situations, now published on the MoJ website, are virtually identical to those previously in operation. It is clear from the experience of Z2K and Citizens Advice that they have not provided an adequate safeguard. That is why we had hoped that the amendment would ensure that bailiffs have discretion within the application of the Wednesbury principles-in other words, a test of reasonableness-to return a fine to the magistrates' court when they discover that the debtor is in a vulnerable situation as set out in the National Standards for Enforcement Agents.

I am disappointed but realise that the Minister signalled this in Committee. Can I ask that the MoJ monitors this? If it is clear that the National Standards for Enforcement Agents are not on their own providing an adequate safeguard, will the Government consider returning to this issue at the next legislative opportunity?

In conclusion, I thank the Government for having moved on this issue. However, I am seeking assurances about the situation with regard to a change of circumstances, to be made clear in an amendment at Third Reading, if necessary, and about monitoring the effectiveness of the National Standards for Enforcement Agents, which state that,

"the agent has a duty to contact the creditor and report the circumstances in situations where there is evidence of a potential cause for concern", to ensure that that happens. Otherwise I fear that vulnerable people will continue to suffer and that legal confusion will continue reign.