My Lords, one of the topics for today’s debate on the humble Address is constitutional affairs. This is, indeed, a testing time for our constitution. Most of the next two years seem likely to be occupied with Brexit-related legislation. It will be heavily and appropriately scrutinised by Parliament, particularly by your Lordships’ House. It seems distinctly likely that various issues arising out of our departure from the European Union will find themselves once more before the courts. When and if they do, I hope that we will never see a repetition of the outrageous press response to the decision of the Divisional Court in the Gina Miller case, nor of the failure by the Government explicitly and immediately to condemn such an attack.
The independence of the judiciary is a critical feature of the rule of law. That does not mean that any Government have to agree with the decisions that judges reach—judges are not infallible; there is an appeal system—and the reasoning behind judgments can be criticised with perfect legitimacy. It is even permissible on occasions to question whether judges have entered political areas which they should not enter. What is not acceptable, however, is a failure to defend the independent judiciary on the grounds that this might be tantamount to an attack on the freedom of the press.
The new Lord Chancellor has made a confident start. He has a considerable task to restore the relationship between the Government and the judiciary. If he reads the Lord Chief Justice’s evidence to the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, he will realise just how much work needs to be done. We should ensure that our judges, highly regarded around the world, are properly respected, paid and supported. I welcome the review of their pay and conditions recently announced. The crisis in judicial morale described by the Lord Chief Justice is extremely worrying. There is, I know, a real issue with recruitment. We certainly want a diverse judiciary, but we want one where there is no dilution in merit.
The civil liability Bill is, as I understand it, designed to reform the law in relation to whiplash claims. Although claimants’ lawyers are always sceptical about the figures, I have seen no serious challenge to the fact that the volume of road traffic-related personal injury claims has remained static over the past three years and is more than 50% higher than 10 years ago, despite the fact that there has been a decrease in the number of road traffic accidents from around 190,000 in 2006 to around 142,000 in 2015. I welcome all steps to clamp down on what has undoubtedly been a racket in whiplash claims, but of course we should be careful to ensure that genuine claims result in compensation. There should be a reduction in insurance premiums as a result. Insurance companies should be kept to their promise in this regard.
However, any reductions in premiums that whiplash reforms bring about will be substantially eroded by the increase in the size of premiums necessary because of the alteration of the discount rate announced by the then Lord Chancellor earlier this year. This alteration is, to put it kindly, surprising. Not only will this change affect insurance premiums but it will cause an enormous increase in the size of claims of medical negligence against the NHS and others. I declare an interest as a barrister practising not exclusively but certainly in this area. I am familiar with the astonishing rise in the size of these claims. One has to question whether the changes are desirable. I hope the Government will consider bringing forward changes so that if, as a claimant, you seek a lump sum rather than periodical payments, the choice you make should indicate that while you are not necessarily an adventurous investor, you can be treated as a middle-of-the-road investor for the purpose of the discount rate.
Access to justice is vital. I am sorry that the prisons section of the courts Bill is to go. I hope that much of what the Government want to achieve can be done with non-legislative measures. The courts Bill, as I understand it, will make the courts cheaper and more accessible. The online court is an exciting development. If it increases access to justice while not disadvantaging the digitally challenged, that is to be welcome. I understand why some are sceptical about it; justice must be not only done but seen to be done.
The Government are committed to reviewing the LASPO Act. Part 1 of that will certainly benefit from such a review. I hope they take into account any recommendations made by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in his review of similar matters. Access to justice must be maintained.
Finally, I return to the rule of law. It is said that the future of this Government is uncertain. The party opposite has said that it will bring the Government down. Some of the comments attributed to its leaders about the use of extra-parliamentary means to do so, if they are true, show very little regard for the rule of law. I note in particular the allegation of murder made by the Shadow Chancellor about Grenfell Tower. Let us wait until the public inquiry has reported. The next two years are likely to provide stress tests on our constitution. I hope that in your Lordships’ House that constitution will maintain its vigour.