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House of Commons Hansard
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01 November 2016
Volume 616
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8. What steps her Department is taking to improve access to justice. [906945]

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The Government’s reform programme is intended to deliver a simpler, fairer justice system that works for everyone. We are reforming our courts to make them more modern, open, swift and accountable. Since January 2015, we have invested £3.5 million to provide more support to litigants in person.

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The Government have utterly undermined access to justice for EU citizens and other migrants with their incredible 500% increase in immigration tribunal fees. Will the Minister at least closely monitor the drastic impact that that ridiculous increase is going to have and respond accordingly when everything the Government were warned about during their consultation actually comes to pass?

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The Government take a markedly different view from the hon. Gentleman about this. The fact is that these tribunals cost money and there are people making applications to them who are not in the category of needing help with fees. Where people need help with fees, we of course have a remissions scheme, but where they do not need help, how can it be wrong that they should pay for the costs of the system? It is only right that they do so.

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21. As the Minister has mentioned, an important element of improving access to justice is reform of the courts system. Would he like to say a little more about the modernisation of that system and, in particular, whether Lord Justice Briggs’s concept of an online court will be introduced? [906960]

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Lord Justice Briggs has prepared a report that has been not only revolutionary, but extremely helpful in the modernisation process, and I pay tribute to his work. We do intend to introduce a new online procedure for lower-value civil money claims. This procedure will be a mix of new technology, conciliation and judicial resolution, and will provide a simple dispute resolution process. We intend also to create a new rules committee to design the simpler rules this will require.

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The Minister says that the Government take a “markedly different” view on tribunal fees from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). However, when the Justice Committee published its review of court and tribunal fees earlier this year, its excellent chairperson, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill)—a Government Back Bencher—stated:

“Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving full cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter must prevail.”

Does the Minister agree with that statement?

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Yes, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for the work that he does, chairing the Committee so ably. There is no question but that we do need a mitigation system, as we have for fees, but having said that I welcome the Justice Committee’s report, which goes into a wide range of issues and we will respond to it shortly.

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Employment tribunal fees are an additional pressure on people who have been relieved of their employment in inappropriate circumstances, and they create a very real restriction on access to justice for those who are vulnerable. The group Maternity Action has said that, since the introduction of employment tribunal fees, there has been a 40% drop in claims for pregnancy-related detriment or dismissal. Why do the Government not follow the example of the Scottish Government and commit to scrapping employment tribunal fees?

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The principle should be that if someone cannot pay and mitigation is required, then there should be a system of mitigation of fees. If someone is able to pay, given that this costs the country a huge amount of money, why should they not make a contribution if they are using these facilities?

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In our country, it is a cornerstone of access to justice that there should be equality of arms in court. I was therefore shocked last week to hear the Minister of State for Courts and Justice tell us in an Adjournment debate on the Birmingham pub bombings that only

“an element of equality of arms”—[Official Report, 26 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 400.]

is necessary. Will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and either reassure us that this was a mere slip of his well-trained legal tongue, or, alternatively, admit that his Government are reducing, not defending, access to justice?

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That is a bit rich when, at that debate, I was able to announce that the families had got a legal aid certificate through the Legal Aid Agency. The hon. Gentleman is now talking semantics. I was saying that the element that was needed of equality of arms was being met in accordance with the rules of the agency. When it comes to Labour politicians talking about cuts and concerns about legal aid, it is worth remembering why it was necessary to make those cuts—it was because of the mismanagement of the economy, which the Government inherited in 2010.

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On the subject of that Adjournment debate of last Wednesday, Lynn Bennett died—[Interruption.] I will not give it up. Lynn Bennett died aged 18 in the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. Her father, Stanley Bennett, and her sister, Claire Luckman, are still searching for the truth. On principle, they refuse to fill in means-testing forms for legal aid representation in the inquest into Lynn’s death. They believe that the state is forcing them effectively to beg for access to justice. Will the Justice Secretary today agree to go back to the Home Secretary and ask her to reconsider this, so that Stanley and Claire can have access to justice on behalf of Lynn?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Legal Aid Agency, which is independent, has considered two applications for legal aid. One has been granted, and on the other, as was pointed out in the debate, a way has been described and set out in which it would be possible for those families to have legal aid, too. There is no question but that the families can be, and will be, represented. I accept that the Birmingham pub bombings were the most dreadful incident of a generation. I said in the debate that I remembered, as a young student, the powerful effect on the whole country of the worst bombing incident since the second world war, in which 21 people died and 222 were injured. All our thoughts in this House are with the families, their loved ones, and those who had their lives affected. On how we deal with these very difficult inquests in a very special category of cases, I made it clear in the debate that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working on that matter, looking at the precedents of what happened with Hillsborough and waiting for Bishop James Jones’s report. We will also look at all the matters that were discussed in that debate.