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Access to Justice

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2016

We are committed to ensuring that our justice system delivers faster and fairer justice for all our citizens. Reform of our courts and tribunals will bring quicker and fairer access to justice and create a justice system that reflects the way people use services today. We have also ensured that legal aid remains available for the highest priority cases, for example where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they face the loss of their home, in cases of domestic violence, or where children might be taken into care.

The result, as the Lord Chief Justice extraordinarily reported two weeks ago, is that:

“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”.

Two constituents were sacked unfairly. One went to tribunal but was unable to afford legal representation and therefore lost. The other immediately gave up. With justice now available to only the well-off, does the Minister have any serious proposals to open up access to justice to ordinary people?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of employment tribunals, because it allows me to say that this Government’s aim is to ensure that people do not have to go to court or tribunal in the first place, and therefore do not have to incur the legal expenses or experience the stress. In the case of employment tribunals—he might not be aware of this—the ACAS early conciliation service, which is free, was used by 83,000 people in its first 12 months. I very much hope that when constituents bring problems to his surgery in future, he will point them towards that free service.

Since the Government changed the criteria for access to legal aid there has been a huge increase in claims of domestic violence. Has the Minister made any assessment of the link between those two items?

We constantly ensure that matters are kept under review. We are committed to having a review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 three to five years after its implementation.

The Law Society describes access to justice as being

“on the verge of a crisis”.

Funding for civil cases has fallen by 62% since civil legal aid was cut. Will the Minister carry out a full review to understand the equality impact of the changes in civil legal aid?

As I have just said, we will be carrying out a full review of the implementation of LASPO. We still have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world, notwithstanding the reductions we have made.

Some of the people who would struggle the most to pay court fees are those affected by family breakdown, often in chaotic families. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what plans he has to simplify and reduce costs to access child arrangements orders, and will that include any further statutory rights for grandparents?

On court fees, what I will say is that where people have difficulty attending court, there is a fee remission system available, which can be for remission in full or in part.

We learnt this week that a district judge is suing the Ministry of Justice, blowing the whistle on the rising number of death threats and the increasingly violent claimants that our judges are having to deal with day in, day out. Given that that comes so soon after the Lord Chief Justice’s warning that judges face a rising number of challenging and emotionally charged cases, what action is the Minister taking to address these claims, or is this just another admission that his party’s failed austerity policies have made our courts more dangerous, both for judges and for victims?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new post on the Opposition Front Bench. She will appreciate that, given that there is ongoing litigation, I cannot possibly comment on that from the Dispatch Box.