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Access to Justice: Wales

Volume 603: debated on Tuesday 15 December 2015

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to justice in Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve under your excellent chairmanship, Mrs Moon. Access to justice is not a special privilege, but a fundamental right. No one should be denied access to justice because of who they are, where they live or how much they earn. Everyone is equal before the law. The two-nation system is something on which the Secretary of State for Justice and I would possibly agree. When he was appointed, he said:

“There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class...And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.”

What he did not say was that his policies, and those of his Government, have created much of the injustice that we see today. Cuts to legal aid, tribunal fees and court charges have all put a price on justice, and ordinary people across Wales have suffered as a consequence.

The cuts to legal aid implemented by the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition have had a dramatic effect on access to justice in Wales. The number of cases granted funding has dropped by two thirds. Solicitors in my constituency say that cases have “decreased significantly”, and the number of debt cases supported by legal aid fell from 81,000 to just 2,500 over a one-year period. Every one of those cases involves real people, who are being denied the help that they need when they are at their most vulnerable. It is the most vulnerable people in Wales who are being hurt by the changes.

Earlier this year, the Select Committee on Justice and the Public Accounts Committee criticised the Government’s civil legal aid changes, saying that they limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most and that, in some cases, they resulted in cases becoming more difficult and therefore costing the taxpayer more. Does my hon. Friend agree that that very much echoes the cases that we see, week on week, in our constituencies?

It certainly does. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will come on to discuss that further. When we put a price on justice, those with the means to pay sky-high legal fees will be fine, but people who are in debt, women experiencing domestic violence and parents seeking custody of their children will not be. Ten law centres have already closed in England and Wales, and many more are unable to cope. We are talking not about legal aid lawyers supposedly raking in millions of pounds in fees, but about centres, staffed by volunteers, that can no longer offer fundamental support to those who need it most. Solicitors’ firms in my constituency have told me of the obstacles facing their clients:

“The evidential requirements are stringent. There are occasionally cost implications for clients in seeking evidence to support their application for public funding which is difficult for them if they are on benefits.”

They say that

“everything the Legal Aid Agency is doing is making it harder for both clients and lawyers to get legal aid.”

The cuts have removed legal aid from nearly all family law cases and led to a sharp increase in the number of litigants in person. In the first quarter of this year, 76% of private family cases involved at least one party who was not represented. The Personal Support Unit, which has an office at Cardiff Crown court and which offers advice to litigants in person, has seen the number of people accessing its services more than double from 20,000 in 2013-14 to an estimated 50,000 this year. The idea that someone who has had their children taken away from them and who may be fighting allegations of domestic abuse is able to defend himself or herself as well as a lawyer could is ridiculous, but that is the reality of the two-nation justice system.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the important subject of litigants in person. I have spoken to court staff and judges who are deeply concerned about the impossible position that they are placed in when they have to make a decision on cases involving, but at the same time end up giving advice to, litigants in person who are desperately unable to cope with the complexities of the legal system in which they have to operate.

My hon. Friend refers to the reality that the two-nation justice system has created. Cuts to legal aid are having a significant impact on advice services for those experiencing housing, debt and welfare problems. A report commissioned by the Welsh Government shortly after the first changes were introduced found that cuts had “severely affected advice services” and resulted in

“specialist welfare benefits advice being significantly reduced by Legal Aid funding.”

The Welsh Government have done what they can to mitigate those cuts, investing an extra £1 million a year to support front-line advice services, in addition to the top-up of £2.2 million a year to Citizens Advice Cymru to help it to provide a specialist advice service for those who need it. The reality is that thousands of people in need of support will still lose out because of the Ministry of Justice cuts. In Wales, the number of free, face-to-face welfare law advice sessions provided by the not-for-profit sector is estimated to have fallen from nearly 20,000 to barely 3,000 in just one year.

Last month, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the Government snuck in an increase in the small claims court limit, which means that the majority of people injured in road accidents, regardless of how severely they were injured, will lose their access to legal representation. Whether for people injured in accidents, families facing debt proceedings or those of limited means who want legal advice before a court hearing, the Government’s changes have had a profound effect on access to justice in Wales.

Few people are more in need of support than women who are experiencing domestic abuse. I am talking about women who have suffered years and years of physical and sexual violence, who turn to the family court to seek help for themselves and their children. Women who may need legal aid to divorce an abusive partner, or even to apply for a child arrangements order to protect their child from an abuser, now have to convince the Government that they have been abused before they can get any help. Worse, the narrow set of criteria proposed by the Government means that many women are unable to prove that they have been abused.

Charities such as Women’s Aid expressed serious concerns about the evidence criteria before the law was changed. Women’s Aid now says that 54% of women who access services as survivors of domestic violence would not meet the evidence criteria initially proposed. The cuts were railroaded through, however, and in one year the same charities found that 43% of women who had experienced domestic violence did not have the prescribed forms of evidence required to access family law legal aid. The Government have let those women down and, more importantly, let their children down.

In the light of that, it came as no surprise when the Justice Committee concluded last year that the reforms had failed three of the Government’s four tests. The reforms have not discouraged unnecessary litigation or targeted help at those who need it the most. On the Government’s claim that the changes were necessary to cut costs, the Committee said that the Ministry of Justice

“has failed to prove that it has delivered better overall value for money for the taxpayer because it has no idea at all of the knock-on costs of the legal aid changes to the public purse”.

The changes have not delivered value for money. Instead, they have forced vulnerable people to represent themselves in court and taken vital support away from abuse survivors.

The Government are charging ahead with changes to criminal legal aid, and we will face the same problems. From next year, the number of contracts issued to solicitors’ firms for criminal legal aid will fall from 1,600 to just over 500. Solicitors’ firms in parts of Wales, especially in rural areas, have warned that there simply will not be enough firms left to do all the work.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She will be aware that in the area that the Ministry of Justice names Dyfed Powys 2, which consists of all of Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and all of Powys—the Opposition Members present will be aware of the geography of the terrain—it is suggested that only four solicitors’ practices will offer the reduced legal aid. Does she agree that that is the worst kind of access to justice imaginable?

I would go as far as to say that it is almost zero access to justice.

The tendering process has been shown to be a complete shambles—the implementation date has slipped from January to April of next year and possibly into 2017. The president of the Law Society of England and Wales has spoken of a

“serious risk of a knock-on effect on access to justice for clients.”

That warning comes just weeks after the Government were forced to drop their criminal courts charges, which led to some 50 magistrates resigning from the profession in protest. In the words of the Justice Committee, the changes were

“having effects which are inimical to the interests of justice”,

including the creation of “perverse incentives” for innocent defendants to plead guilty. I am glad that the Government have finally realised that the court charges were not fit for purpose, but it was not before countless people potentially changed their pleas because they could not afford to say that they were not guilty.

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point of criminal courts charges, I am a member of the Justice Committee and we have just agreed that it was right to change the system. However, of the £5 million that was levied, only around £300,000 has been raised, leaving a debt on a large number of people who should not have had that charge imposed on them in the first place. Through my hon. Friend, I ask the Minister to tell us what will happen to those who have been levied the charge and who have not yet paid.

It is clear that, alongside access to justice, the Government’s reforms to the criminal courts system have risked another fundamental British principle—the right to a fair trial. One of the most basic attributes that we expect of any justice system is that it is fair. Those who have committed crimes must be punished quickly and effectively, but everyone has the right for their case to be heard and nobody should have to decide how to plead based on whether they can afford to pay the fees—not least because victims of crime deserve better.

Will the Minister agree to an urgent review into how legal aid costs are affecting access to justice in Wales? As court charges—one of the flagship policies—have now been dumped, what confidence does he have that the other changes are not having a similar perverse effect on justice and the right to a fair trial?

Members across the Chamber have serious concerns about the proposal of the Ministry of Justice to close 11 courts and tribunals in Wales. In large parts of the country, it is already hard enough for those attending trials to reach their nearest court in the allotted time, and the decision to close those courts will make that harder still.

The Law Society has found that many people will find it impossible to get to their nearest court within an hour when travelling by public transport. If the Government go ahead with their plan to close, for example, two courts in Carmarthen, just 32% of people taking public transport to my constituency of Swansea for family law cases would be able to get there within 60 minutes. For criminal cases, the figure is 31%. Across Wales, in areas where there is limited or infrequent public transport, it is a very real possibility that defendants and witnesses could end up on the same bus to the court hearing. Members can imagine the distress and legal complications that that will cause.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite ridiculous that, at the last Justice questions, the Minister suggested that people could access justice by telephone?

I think I referred to it as sentencing by text, if I am not mistaken. It is an absolutely absurd idea.

The Minister did indeed say that mobile phones would be the way forward for my constituents. We are facing closures in Pontypridd and Bridgend, which are difficult enough to get to at the moment. To tell those constituents to come down the valley and change transport to get to Cardiff will add another impediment to access to justice. Through my hon. Friend, I would say that the Minister really needs to think this through again and to think about the geography of Wales. We are not flatlands with a huge transport hub; we are valleys. I know that your constituency is affected by the issue as well, Mrs Moon.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The Law Society has expressed “grave concerns” that the proposal to close courts—I agree with this point—could “erode access to justice”. Its worries are shared by many people across the region.

Whether it is closing courts, slashing legal aid or any other reforms that I have not had an opportunity to address—such as employment tribunal fees, changes to judicial review or the plan to scrap the Human Rights Act—Government policies are having a severe impact on access to justice in Wales. It is the responsibility of any Government to ensure that our justice system does not become the preserve of the wealthy and unresponsive to the needs of those who need to use it most. It is vital that the justice system is accessible when we need it and accessible to all. I seriously fear that after another five years of this Government, neither of those opportunities will be open for Wales.

Order. I have before me only two names of Members who have asked to speak. At 5.20 pm, I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen for the Labour party and the Scottish National party, who will have five minutes each, and then the Minister, who will have 10 minutes. I will first call Albert Owen, and if other Members wish to speak, they will have to rely on the generosity of the hon. Gentleman and the next Member to be called if they are to get in before 5.20 pm.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on an excellent speech that covered most of the points that need to be considered.

I will actually start by agreeing with the Minister and the Ministry of Justice that access to justice for all is a fundamental aspect of our society. That is what it says in the consultation document on proposals for the provision of the court estate in England and Wales. I totally agree that we all want access to justice for all. Indeed, I would say that local justice and democracy are the pillars of a modern society, but we are moving away from that—I shall develop that argument a little later.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber, because he was kind enough to acknowledge my submission to the consultation and to meet a delegation that included Citizens Advice and a local solicitor. We were able to outline many of my concerns for my area and, indeed, the periphery area of north-west Wales, including Dwyfor Meirionnydd, because the representative from the solicitor represented the whole old county of Gwynedd. However, it is Christmas, and I am going to subject the Minister to my concerns once more because it is important that they are on the record.

People know the importance of direct access to justice. The Ministry of Justice wants to close the two remaining courts in my area in Llangefni and Holyhead. Llangefni is the principal and municipal town of Anglesey. Holyhead is the largest town on the island, but also the furthest from Cardiff and London—it is on the periphery area. It is the hub to the Republic of Ireland and has a large transit population, as well as local residents. The proposal to transfer to Caernarfon court is therefore fundamentally flawed. What is more, the alternative that the Minister has talked about—the virtual courts and the digital fines—are equally flawed. Frankly, the one-size-fits-all proposal of the Ministry of Justice does not fit Wales; each part of Wales should be looked at on its merits. I understand, as I think does every Member in the Chamber, the need to modernise the justice system, but denying access is not modernisation. It is a backwards step and the proposal does not take into account people’s distances from court.

The Government talk about courts being 30 miles away and taking about an hour to reach. The journey from Holyhead to Caernarfon is 30 miles, but it can take an hour and a half. It can involve train journeys, two buses and changing. As has been said, many of those who have to travel will be witnesses, not just those who are up in court.

I believe that the proposal is flawed because it is driven by the Treasury. One of the main reasons why the exercise is being carried out now and in such a way is to save money on the estate. Yes, we need to get value for money, but the process is driven by the Treasury, rather than the Ministry of Justice. It is important to put that point on the record and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to it.

Access to local justice has to be practical, and people have to be able to have such access. The Minister talks about virtual courts, but they will be virtually impossible to implement. There are very few buildings in my constituency that could accommodate a virtual court. He talks about access via the digital age, but the digital age has not arrived in many rural or peripheral parts of Wales. That is an important point because the superfast broadband roll-out is happening at the exchanges, but not going to many towns and areas that need it. It would be difficult to have a virtual court in north-west Wales, for example, because the information and communications technology systems simply are not there—they are intermittent. I am pleased that the Government have done a U-turn with regard to universal coverage, but that will not come in until 2020, at the earliest, and these proposals are going through now. When will the Minister respond to the consultation exercise and make his recommendations and proposals? I believe that he should wait until we have proper infrastructure if he wants to experiment with the digital age for accessing justice.

I am conscious that other Members wish to speak, so I will not go over most of the issues that I discussed with the Minister. However, I highlight the fact that in the 21st century we still need a court system that individuals can access. The public want individuals to be tried in their area, as has happened historically. If we are to move forward into the digital age, we need the necessary infrastructure in place, and the Ministry of Justice needs joined-up thinking with other Departments.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is particularly important that digitalisation is done properly in Wales because we are a bilingual country and people must have access to justice in the language of their birth? If that language is Welsh, they must have access in Welsh.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was going to make that point in my closing remarks, because when we talk about “local”, we are talking about local culture and local languages as well as the basic principle of access to local courts.

The Government talk about putting in place devolution and decentralisation, yet their record is one of the complete opposite. They are centralising tax offices, for example. If the Government’s proposals go through, the nearest tax office to Anglesey will be in Liverpool, which is nearer to my constituents than Cardiff. We are now talking about courts moving 30 or 40 miles away from their population, which is nothing but centralisation. I urge the Minister to look again at these proposals, to put them on hold, to talk to local communities and to listen to the consultation. He should not rush through the proposals because while I agree with him, ultimately, that we need free and fair access for all, that will not happen if these proposals go through.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Moon, and I will be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on raising this issue. She talks about the emergence of a two-tier system, and there will be a very strong divide between rural and urban communities.

Mercifully, there is one courthouse left in my constituency, in Aberystwyth. That is the only one, as our courthouse in Cardigan was shut down five years ago. I reiterate what the hon. Lady said about the challenges of geography and distance. In the debate that I secured when we tried to stop the closure of Cardigan courthouse, we heard that as Cardigan was only 38 miles from Aberystwyth, all would be well, because there would be ease of access to our court in Aberystwyth, but that is not so. It might be quick and easy to travel 38 miles down the A55 or the M4—or perhaps not—but the situation is a different kettle of fish for people living in rural communities. As she said, the problem is compounded by my constituents’ experience of trying to access public transport in rural areas where no such system exists.

Access to our courts is a very real issue. If I were being parochial, I might say that my underused courthouse in Aberystwyth will gain more work when the courthouse in Dolgellau is shut, but I do not say that because, from experience, I believe that the situation goes to the heart of access to justice for many of our constituents.

Let me talk specifically about the point about which I intervened on the hon. Lady. She alluded to the limitations of legal aid, and I want to talk about the number of practitioners out there in the country. When the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), who is now Leader of the House, was Secretary of State for Justice, he proposed a two-tier system for delivering criminal legal aid. That proposal has continued under the current Secretary of State. The scheme involves a bidding process for the limited number of contracts within each bid zone, and I repeat what I said in my intervention. My vast constituency of Ceredigion falls into the Dyfed Powys 2 zone, which includes Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and the whole of Powys, including the towns of Brecon, Llandrindod Wells, Newtown, Welshpool, Machynlleth, Aberystwyth and Cardigan. Incredibly, the Ministry of Justice decided that only four contracts would be made available in that vast area, which is dangerous nonsense.

When I talked to solicitors’ practices about the prospect of bidding, the reality soon emerged that no single firm in Dyfed-Powys would be able to service such a contract because the volume of legal aid work in mid and west Wales is so low that it could not sustain a business undertaking such an endeavour. The characteristic of our model for delivering criminal legal aid in Ceredigion, which is not dissimilar to that in other places in rural Wales, is of one or two solicitors within a high street mixed practice effectively subsidising legal aid work. When the Government made their proposal, the fact that there was no plan B suggested that it was doomed to fail. As of July 2015, there are only five firms undertaking legal aid work in Ceredigion, which suggests that many firms have already decided that such work is not profitable. None of the firms in my constituency felt able to bid for the duty contracts, either on their own or collaboratively. The Government suggested at the time of the announcement that small practices would come together, but that was not going to happen. Such an arrangement is fraught with difficulties.

We are where we are, but I am not quite sure where that is. The hon. Member for Swansea East said that we were led to believe that the bidding process would be concluded in January 2016, but it is now suggested that it will be concluded in April. There are contingency contracts around, which suggests that the situation might not be resolved until 2017. That is causing great concern among solicitors’ practices and a lot of uncertainty. When can we expect a resolution? The spectacle of there being only three or four providers across mid and west Wales makes one shudder, which is why a renewed number of legal aid concerns have been raised in all our surgeries. It is also why there is huge pressure on the very limited citizens advice bureaux across our constituencies, to which I pay tribute.

The other thing that needs to be mentioned is the Welsh language, which is spoken by more than half my constituency’s population. I am concerned about whether the providers, especially if they come from outside my area, or outside the broad expanse of mid and west Wales, will still be able to present their services through the medium of Welsh. That remains a great worry, whatever the Legal Aid Agency suggests, because when these services were being delivered by small solicitors’ practices in high streets throughout the country, we had a guarantee. As those practices were based in Welsh-speaking communities, their services could be provided in the mother tongue, whatever that mother tongue may be. Again, I sadly reflect that the situation illustrates how the Ministry of Justice has scant knowledge of and regard for rurality and, I believe, scant regard for the Welsh language, too.

Order. I have received a number of notes from Members advising me that they notified the Speaker’s Office of their wish to speak. I have not been advised that those requests were received by the Speaker’s Office, but in an attempt to get in everyone who has approached me, I shall set a three-minute time limit on speeches.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate on such a crucial issue at such a crucial time. Access to justice in Wales is under threat. In employment tribunals, for example, there were 16,456 single-claim cases in 2014-15, which represented a 52% fall on the number in 2013-14. That fall was due to the introduction of the fees system that has levied up to £1,200 on people who have lost their jobs and are not in a position to spend that amount of cash.

I practised in the Welsh courts as a barrister for 11 years before entering this place, and while I remain a door tenant at Civitas in Cardiff, I no longer practise. I am fully aware of what has been going on, especially in relation to employment matters. The changes mean that literally thousands of people are no longer able to enforce their legal rights before an employment tribunal.

There are 11 scheduled court closures. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) pointed out that the Minister has talked about telephone hearings already happening in court, but let me make the distinction clear. Interlocutory hearings, especially those in the civil courts that last for less than an hour, have for some years been done on the telephone—that is absolutely true. It is also true that in certain trials and certain specific circumstances, witnesses have given evidence by video link. However, extreme care has always been taken with trials, when it is best that the veracity of witnesses is judged face to face. Their demeanour has to be judged; it is not simply a case of what they happen to say through a particular visual medium. It is crucial to realise that there has to be a limit to what is done through the so-called digital revolution in the court system. Certain trials simply cannot be done on the telephone or via such a visual medium, so the Ministry of Justice must take that into account.

Local justice is crucial, because it is important that we do not see justice as distant. Justice should reflect the culture of the area, and I fear that the closure of 11 courts will put that at risk.

I urge the Ministry of Justice to be wary of false economies on civil legal aid. It is one thing to take down the legal aid bill, but it is quite another if one ends up with far more litigants in person in the court system. There is nothing wrong with people representing themselves, but they should not do so simply because they cannot afford to access a lawyer. If that does happen, I am afraid that the court system will be slowed by having so many litigants in person, and the Minister will find that the cuts in civil legal aid are simply counter-productive.

One of my first contributions after being elected to the House of Commons in 2010 was to fight in this Chamber on behalf of the two magistrates courts that remained in my constituency: Ammanford and Llandovery. The Government proposed closing those courts on the basis that services would be provided in Carmarthen magistrates court, yet here we are debating the future of that court and the state-of-the-art family, tribunal and probate hearing centre that was opened in Carmarthen by the Lord Chief Justice in 2012. That goes to show, to use a famous Welsh political phrase, that centralisation is a process, not an event. I wonder how long it will be, with services being centralised in Llanelli, before we are arguing about the centralisation of services to Swansea, which is only a dozen miles to the east. It is easy for Ministers and their civil servants to sit here in London and draw lines on a map and crosses through budget lines without understanding the full effect of the changes on the communities we represent.

I oppose the proposals for the west of my country for five primary reasons. First, Carmarthen is the legal capital of the west of my country. It was afforded that status by James I in 1604, when he made it a county corporate by charter. I am struggling to understand why the Minister thinks he knows better than James I. Carmarthen is one of only two towns in Wales that still has a town sheriff, and that gives a clear indication of the importance of the role that Carmarthen has played in the legal system in the west of Wales.

Secondly, the Ministry of Justice has spent £1.7 million on the two courts in Carmarthen in the past seven years, so it would be a colossal waste of money to close those courts following such investment. When the family court was opened in 2012 by the Lord Chief Justice, it was seen as a pathfinder for the future of legal services in Wales and England because of all its video-conferencing technology. The Minister says that such technology is the way forward, but I am informed by magistrates that none of that equipment has actually been installed. I therefore find it difficult to understand how the Minister can make the case for closing that court in Carmarthen—it has just been opened—on the basis of a lack of operational capacity. He will argue that the way forward is remote justice but, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, we are talking about areas that are known to have broadband “not spots” and to lack fast mobile provision. It will be difficult to deliver such a legal system in the areas we represent.

Thirdly, Carmarthen is the natural travel hub for the west, north and east of Carmarthenshire. It could take five hours by public transport for someone from Newcastle Emlyn or Llandovery to make it to Llanelli to attend court. The natural transport hub for Carmarthenshire is the county town, so it does not make any sense to close the courts in Carmarthen. Fourthly, as has been mentioned—

Diolch yn fawr, Gadeirydd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing the debate. It is an important topic, and it is particularly important to my rural constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Fifteen courts were closed across Wales during the last Parliament, and since the 2015 election, a further 14 have either closed or are being earmarked for closure by the UK Government. The proposed closure of Dolgellau magistrates court in my constituency, for example, means cases will need to be transferred to either Caernarfon or Aberystwyth, which, incidentally, is outside the North Wales police region. The issue of inadequate public transport in Wales is well documented, but Members will understand that a journey from Dolgellau to Aberystwyth or Carmarthen is not simply a matter of getting on a tube with an Oyster card. For my constituents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and indeed for many people across Wales, it is simply impossible for public transport to get them to a magistrates court for a 9.30 am start.

The Ministry of Justice claims its programme of cuts is necessary to save money, but what will effectively happen is that the cost of providing justice will be passed from the state to the citizen. The cost will still be borne, but by the individual regardless of ability to pay, while the state washes its hands.

I have left out a number of things due to time pressures, which is unfortunate, but I return to the issue of courts. I have a background in teaching through video conferencing, so I welcome the Minister’s commitment last month to undertake a Welsh language impact assessment before coming to conclusions about the future of courts in Wales. On the other hand, I am also interested in efforts to increase access to justice through the use of technology, particularly video technology.

Given the swathes of court closures and the particular problems they will cause in rural parts of Wales, allowing hearings to take place remotely may be welcome. I note however the eight conditions set out by Lord Leveson’s review of efficiency in criminal proceedings in January 2015. He considered those conditions to be prerequisites for remote hearings. The first of them seems obvious, but is in fact crucial: the equipment used and the audio and visual quality should be of a high standard. Given what fellow Members have said, I wonder what consideration has been given to the quality and reliability of digital infrastructure in those areas where courts are to be closed. I particularly urge that consideration is given to Lord Leveson’s recommendation that a committee of criminal justice professionals be charged with identifying best practice for hearings conducted via video link, not only to maintain the gravitas of the court environment, but, more importantly, to ensure that justice outcomes via communications technology are consistent with justice outcomes in a conventional environment.

I also urge the Minister to consider alternative public buildings if a court building—this is understandable—is no longer deemed suitable for 21st-century justice. In the case of Dolgellau, the Meirionnydd council chamber would require little adaptation, and offers such facilities as parking and translation equipment. As an aside, it is also nearer the cells and the police station than the present court—

It is a privilege to serve under your chairpersonship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for securing a very important debate. It has been amplified by the number of Welsh Members who have attended this afternoon to put their point across very passionately. It is further amplified by the lack of the 11 Tory MPs who occupy certain sections of Wales. The only thing more surprising is that Wales still has 11 Tory MPs; I hope the people of Wales will deal with that at the next general election.

Scotland is fortunate; we have had a separate legal system since the Act of Union. It was enshrined in the Act, so during the last 300-odd years we have been able to design certain elements of our justice system differently to suit the needs of the people of Scotland. Many of the complaints raised this afternoon would be fixed to a great extent by devolution of justice to Wales. I urge Welsh Members to think about that as a serious concept. Justice decisions made closer to the people that they affect would inevitably be better decisions.

The Government have created several bars to access to justice over the past few years. We have seen criminal court charges, which, thankfully, they have agreed to end. We do not have them in Scotland. Employment tribunal fees have been imposed on employment tribunal cases, as we have heard. We have committed to abolish those in Scotland as soon as the matter is devolved. The slashing of the legal aid budget has impacted on access to justice. We are not immune from such cuts in Scotland, but we feel we have been able to manage resources better so that they do not have the impact that they have had in Wales.

I have been very impressed by some of the submissions that we have heard, particularly from the hon. Member for Swansea East. She gave a passionate speech about the real effects on ordinary people. That is always the story with austerity, which impacts on the most vulnerable in our society first. The Government’s austerity agenda impacts on access to justice in Wales. That is undeniable.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made another fantastically passionate speech and coined the phrase “one size fits all”. It goes back to the whole devolution prospect. I do not believe as a matter of principle that a one-size-fits-all approach across the UK is sensible for all the Celtic nations. He is absolutely correct when he says that access to justice is driven by the Treasury. The Ministry of Justice has not come up with a grand plan to increase justice provision, yet reduce costs. The Justice Secretary has rolled over in negotiations with the Treasury, whereas other Departments have not done so.

Given the pressure on time, I will conclude my remarks. I support the proposal that Wales should have more decisions taken by the Welsh Parliament, closer to the Welsh people, to make better decisions for the people of Wales.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I am conscious of something that George Bernard Shaw once said. He apologised for writing a long note because he had not had time to write a short note. I fear I have written rather a long note, but I know you will keep me to delivering a short speech.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing today’s debate and on such a wide-ranging, passionate and practical speech that highlighted some of the real problems with access to justice in Wales. I really hope the Minister will take these matters on board and make some changes. The debate has been phenomenal. We have had contributions from 10 Back Benchers and a visitor from Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Richard Arkless). We have had contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who made a very important point about the Justice Committee and we look forward to a response from the Minister on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) talked about the issue of litigants in person. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). The latter referred to many issues relating to his constituency, but he also referred to an issue that really needs highlighting: the prospect of the accused and the defendant travelling on the same bus. Imagine a victim of domestic violence and the perpetrator on the same rural bus. That is a really important point that shows many of the flaws in the current proposals.

We heard a speech from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on rural communities, especially in mid and west Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) showed his extensive practical experience of legal representation and some of the flaws in the current proposals. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) rightly complained about centralisation, and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) raised, among other issues, remote hearings. Labour Members often talk about the importance of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but for this Government and their proposals it is tough if you happen to be a victim of crime, which is very different indeed. It is extraordinary that no Conservative Members are here. They had an increase in numbers at the general election and they are still not here representing the interests of the people of Wales.

There are many problems, but I want to focus on two issues. The first relates to the impact on the Welsh language, which several Members mentioned. Few of us ever have to testify in court, and even fewer will testify against an attacker or an abuser, but, for the people who do, being able to communicate effectively and to hear and understand everything that is said is essential. For many first-language Welsh speakers, that means being able to engage with the court in Welsh. That right goes back nearly 70 years to the Welsh Courts Act 1942, which overturned the ban on Welsh in courts that had been in place since the 16th century.

Everyone can surely speak English, but I refer Members to the words of the Labour peer, Viscount Sankey, during the passage of the Welsh Courts Act:

“No doubt many members of this House read French easily and speak it well; many speak it perfectly; yet how should we like to be examined and cross-examined in French? Should we not be rather nervous and embarrassed witnesses and fail to do ourselves justice?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 October 1942; Vol. 124, c. 662-8.]

I am not sure Members are quite as proficient in French as they probably were in the 1940s, but the point remains that being able to communicate in one’s own language before a court is essential. It is not a nicety. The Ministry of Justice’s own Welsh language scheme admits that the Department has failed to evaluate the linguistic consequences of its policies. Securing the rights of Welsh speakers and promoting the equality of Welsh and English are not optional niceties; they are statutory requirements, and the disregard is positively shameful.

The Welsh Language Commissioner has criticised the way in which the closures have been proposed. As she points out, a

“decision to change the court estate, should aim to promote and facilitate the use of Welsh in Wales.”

We want an answer.

Let us look at the case of Anglesey, or Ynys Môn, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn calls it. Some 70% of people on the island have knowledge of Welsh, with 56% describing themselves as Welsh speakers. If I am allowed, I will refer to the Human Rights Act—

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Moon. I commend you on having managed to get through so many speakers in such a short time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) on securing this important debate. I also thank the many colleagues who have turned out for this debate; that demonstrates its importance. Individuals have spoken with passion, both on constituency matters and more generally. Several points have been raised, and I intend to address as many as I can. I ask Members to be patient if I do not instantly respond to their issue in the first minute or two. I will make one thing absolutely clear at the outset: the Government share the hon. Lady’s passion for a justice system that works for everyone.

The hon. Lady referred to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor’s eloquent comment that the Government’s commitment to one nation justice was fundamental to the rule of law. At the heart of one nation justice is equality, and a justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable and works better for victims and witnesses. Our justice system does not always do that, despite the fantastic efforts of those who work in it. That is why the Ministry of Justice is leading a major reform programme. As the hon. Member for Swansea East will know, the MOJ has secured more than £700 million in funding to invest in courts and tribunals in England and Wales. We are working closely with the senior judiciary to deliver a justice system for everyone, at a lower cost for all those who need to access the courts.

There is much agreement that our courts and tribunals need urgent reform, and a high degree of consensus that the current system is not only too slow, but unsustainable. Despite the best efforts of front-line staff, the infrastructure supporting the administration of the service is inefficient and disjointed, and based on technology that is, in some cases, decades old. I hope Members agree that that has to change. That means using up-to-date technology, which I will discuss later in my speech, and modernised working practices, and having a more appropriate and efficient estate. It will also mean victims and witnesses being able to attend some hearings remotely, and not having to experience the stress and strain of a personal visit to a court, or, indeed, having to take a day off work.

Mention has been made of victims and witnesses travelling together. Clearly, that is a situation that none of us would want. The beauty of a remote system is that there is no danger of meeting people on the bus to court. The victims will not be travelling with the witnesses and the defendants. They may well be in a local civic building of some kind, in a video-conferencing suite to which people go by appointment at a specific time. They will be far more comfortable there, and will not have the stress and strain of going to court, which would be a strenuous and stressful experience for most people.

We are replacing paper forms, automating much of the administrative process, and allowing defendants to indicate their plea online. The use of telephones was mentioned. Let me make it clear that we are piloting a scheme in Manchester in which pleas can be made online, using either computers or smartphones. That is happening right now, as we speak.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not, but I will address his point. He rightly said earlier that there will be some cases where digitalisation is clearly not appropriate; that is why we will maintain courts. Nevertheless, for many cases, court will not be necessary. The majesty of the court will remain for appropriate cases that deserve to go to court, but it is important to remember that access to justice does not always mean access to a court, with all the time and expense that that entails. Nor does it mean that people should always turn to taxpayer-funded lawyers. Where suitable alternatives are available, we want to see more cases diverted from the courts.

There is no doubt that in many cases court should be the last resort, not the first. Encouraging greater use of mediation has been a key part of our wider reforms to the justice system. Mediation can be quicker, cheaper and certainly less stressful than protracted litigation. For the taxpayer, who would otherwise be paying solicitors, barristers and for time in court, there will be a saving. For the parties involved, it is far better to sit around a table and have constructive engagement than to be in a court scenario, where there is often—I speak as a former solicitor—a destructive environment, rather than one of constructive engagement.

There might be some validity in that, but how does the Minister square it with the rise of litigants in person? We may well see the well-heeled being able to get the best legal advice in the world, while those on the other side of the dock have to represent themselves in person. Surely that is not fair.

I plead with the hon. Lady to be patient; I will turn to litigants in person shortly.

From April last year, the Children and Families Act 2014 made it a legal requirement that anyone considering applying to court for an order about their children or finances should first attend a mediation information and assessment meeting, which we call a MIAM, unless exemptions such as domestic abuse apply. The requirement was introduced so that parties could consider the benefits of mediation before the start of court proceedings, which can be long, arduous and expensive. From November last year, we have funded the first single session of mediation in cases where one of the parties is already legally aided. In such circumstances, both parties will be funded for the MIAM and the first session of mediation.

I hope Members appreciate that legal aid is only one part of a balanced access-to-justice provision, although of course we recognise that in some cases it can be a vital part. We also recognise that those in greatest hardship at times of real need should have the resources to secure access to justice. When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. We had to find significant savings, which meant making difficult choices. Despite that, we have made sure that legal aid remains available when it is most needed: where people’s life or liberty is at stake; where they face the loss of their home; in cases of domestic violence; or where their children may be taken into care.

In the case of domestic violence, evidence is required to ensure that the correct cases attract funding, but we have listened and made changes to the amount of evidence required. One of the first things I did when I was appointed Minister in October 2013 was meet certain stakeholders, who told me that the conditions were too stringent. As a consequence, I made the appropriate changes. We will, of course, continue to listen and to make changes where necessary.

The fact remains that even after all the reforms, our legal aid system remains one of the most generous in the world. Last year we spent more than £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is around a quarter of the Department’s expenditure. We have also made sure that funding is available through the exceptional funding scheme, where that is required under the European convention on human rights or by European law. We believe that the reforms to the legal aid scheme are sustainable, but we have provided that there will be a review within three to five years of the implementation of part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

As far as the Welsh language is concerned, let me make it absolutely clear that Welsh-speaking users can call the Civil Legal Advice Welsh-language operator service, or request an immediate call back from a Welsh-speaking operator. The bilingual site architecture has been designed to ensure that the same service is available in the Welsh language as in English, and that the content can be easily kept up to date. We continue to work with the advice sector to develop sustainable and collaborative ways of working to ensure that people can obtain advice when they need it.

On litigants in person, we have provided £2 million for a strategy led by the advice, voluntary and pro bono sector. It maximises the provision of support to litigants in person, and there is an increase in the provision of face-to-face, phone and online support.

In the few moments I have left, let me address a few of the points raised. The hon. Member for Swansea East said that there has been a reduction in the number of criminal contracts, but there is a far higher number of contracts for own-client work, which means that people can continue to work for the clients that they already have. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who has a distinguished record in government, asked about the criminal court charge. He will know from his time in government that laws change. Until 24 December—the date that the Lord Chancellor gave—the law will apply. I have already touched on the issue of telephone access, but I emphasise that the digitalisation process that we envisage will clearly not apply to all cases. The physical presence of courts, which people will need to go to when appropriate, will always remain.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea East on securing this debate, and I thank all Members for taking the trouble to attend. I hope I have been able to give some comfort to Members, and assure them that we are very keen to ensure that access to justice remains.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered access to justice in Wales.

Sitting adjourned.