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Criminal Justice System: Equality of Access

Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 30 November 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered equality of access to justice in the criminal justice system.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this important topic. In the past six years, many lawyers have spoken of their fears about access to justice. When they do, they are often accused of special pleading, as if only lawyers care about people being able to use the protection our laws afford us.

There is a problem in this country with the debate about access to the courts and the provision of legal aid. The Government say that our legal aid budget is generous. The Government speak about court users, who must contribute to the running of the courts, as if most people have nothing better to do than spend their lives in court or as if people relish rushing off to court as often as they can. The truth of people’s attitude is, of course, quite different. I can do no better than quote a giant of the Labour movement and labour law, Lord Bill Wedderburn. In his seminal 1965 book “The Worker and the Law”, he wrote that

“most people want nothing more from the law than that it should leave them alone”.

The truth is that most people would hope never to have to use the courts—the employee who is being underpaid or unfairly treated, the businessperson owed money by a customer who will not pay or the mother who is injured in a car accident on the school run. For those who commit criminal offences, the situation is very different, but no doubt many of them wish the law would leave them alone.

There have been cuts to legal aid funding in many areas of law since 2010. It would be wrong to suggest that cuts have been visited only on criminal legal aid, and it is important to put things in context. First came the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. At that time, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) was the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor. The Act removed eligibility for publicly funded legal assistance from a raft of areas of social welfare law. For those seeking legal help with debt advice, there is no support—no support for housing advice, unless someone faces being made homeless, and no support for welfare benefits advice; the latter is particularly troubling. Past figures show that many appeals against the Department for Work and Pensions are successful. Between December 2014 and June 2015, 53% of those who appealed against fit-for-work decisions had that decision reversed. People would have to go to court far less if the decisions of Government Departments were better.

The cuts have given rise to a geographical concept I have never heard of before: a legal aid advice desert. The Law Society has a campaign devoted to the eradication of the cuts. There are areas of the England and Wales jurisdiction where legal aid advice for housing cases is disappearing. My constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney shares with the neighbouring area of Rhondda Cynon Taf just a single provider of legal aid housing advice.

The figures show that civil legal aid cases have decreased dramatically since LASPO became law. In July this year, Young Legal Aid Lawyers, along with the Legal Action Group and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, wrote to the Prime Minister. They explained that in 2012-13, before LASPO, there were 724,243 civil law cases funded by legal aid. By 2015-16, that figure had plummeted to just 258,460. As they told the Prime Minister, that is a picture of justice denied. The Act removed most private family law matters from the scope of legal aid. Divorce proceedings, child contact arrangements and financial and property disputes are no longer eligible, save where there is evidence of domestic violence.

At the time of LASPO coming into force, the Government made a commitment to review the effects of the Act within three to five years. We are squarely in that timescale now. The calls for that review to start have reached a crescendo. In recent months, the Trades Union Congress and Amnesty International have produced reports highlighting the scale of the problem. I pay tribute to both organisations for their work. It is surely time that the Justice Secretary set that review in motion. Perhaps her reason for not acting is that she is in possession of another review—a review of the effect of employment tribunal fees—that the Ministry of Justice appears to be sitting on, which we strongly suspect is because that review is critical of the fees.

In 2013, the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), introduced more reforms. He sought to impose restrictions on the availability of judicial review; to restrict the ability of foreign nationals to receive publicly funded legal assistance; to remove publicly funded legal assistance for nearly every area of prison law; and to make further cuts to immigration law and to family law. A proposal for competitive tendering for criminal legal aid fees was also floated, but later abandoned.

The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell asserted, without providing evidence, that the legal aid bill was spiralling. He also asserted, without providing evidence, that the public had lost confidence in the legal aid system and that campaigners were using judicial review as a tool to block his Government’s unimpeachable legislative programme. We can debate whether the economic argument was ever really made out. However, those reforms were a further restriction on access to justice. Worse still are the restrictions on judicial review, which can only be characterised as a flagrant set of measures to reduce Government’s accountability to the people.

During the past six years, we have witnessed a curious sight little seen before. Outside the Old Bailey here in London and outside courts across the country, we have seen the strange sight of gowned and bewigged lawyers protesting against cuts to legal aid. That, in turn, gave rise to more curious sights still: a huge and grotesque papier mâché likeness of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell being carried aloft around Parliament Square, and the barrister and former Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence taking to a platform erected in Old Palace Yard to call on the legal profession to strike. If 2016 has been the year that saw old certainties undermined, perhaps we should have seen it coming from that moment alone.

The question is, what brought criminal lawyers to that point? The profession has not seen a rise in fees for more than 20 years. While it is abundantly clear that many QCs have done and continue to do well from legal aid, the position is very different for the majority of junior barristers. Some reported at the time not being paid for their work or paying more in travel to get to court than they would receive for the court appearance itself. Solicitors firms throughout that time have had to do much more with much less.

The profession told of a real and present fear that it simply could not take more cuts. Diminishing fees would mean greater case loads and pressure to accumulate more clients and devote less time to those cases, all in order to stay afloat. For some professionals, that would mean compromises in quality and integrity that were a bridge too far, and they feared that firms willing to stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap would prevail.

It was rumoured that long-established and trusted law firms would disappear and that those that had been a presence on the local high street and had served their local communities for decades would be replaced by warehouses of inexperienced and exploited paralegals. It was also rumoured that removing those firms from the high street would leave no physical presence, which would be replaced with a faceless website and call centre run by G4S, Tesco or even Eddie Stobart.

The Government abandoned their restructuring of criminal legal aid and opted for more cuts. Mr Grayling imposed a reduction of 17.5% on solicitors’ fees, a huge reduction in resources that would have serious implications for any business. The cut was to be introduced in two stages: an initial 8.75% reduction last year with a planned further cut of 8.75% cut in April this year. The second cut was postponed for one year by Mr Grayling’s successor, Mr Gove.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is aware that we normally refer to hon. Members by their constituencies, not their names.

I am sorry, Mr Gapes.

It is hoped that the new Justice Secretary will shortly confirm that there will be no further reduction, but the warnings from lawyers to the Government have continued. They have warned about the future of the justice system, miscarriages of justice, and two-tier justice with one law for the rich and another for the poor. That is the peril we risk creating if ordinary people are denied proper legal representation.

Wealthy defendants in criminal cases sometimes seem to have unlimited resources and create the mistaken impression that justice can be easily bought or easily evaded. That may be unpopular. People convicted of the most serious offences may have benefited from legal aid. Newspapers often howl with outrage at the sums involved, but such cases are often the longest and most complex. The answer is not to deprive people of representation. If the state and the public choose and demand that certain activities are to be criminalised, a cost is involved. It is the mark of a civilised society.

We must ensure that those who want representation are represented. Only then can we be confident they are properly tried, and properly acquitted or convicted. A proper trial means competent prosecution and defence, and since 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service too has seen significant restraint. Its budget has been cut by around 25% and its staff has been reduced by 2,500. The Government will say this has not led to any problems and cannot be blamed for trials collapsing, cases being dropped or disclosure of important evidence being missed, but the truth is that the service is stretched and that has implications for access to justice.

Access to justice does not apply only to those accused. Victims of crime also need access to justice. They must be confident that their case receives the attention it deserves, that it is adequately resourced and that it is handled with care and expertise. Austerity has made access to justice more difficult for thousands of people, not just for the reasons I have given. Yes, the Government have cut legal aid and the budget for the Crown Prosecution Service, but they have also closed courts around the country. In February, it was announced that 86 courts and tribunals would be closed, but it was reckoned that 97% of citizens would be able to reach their required court within an hour by car. That is fine for those who have a car and drive, but what about those who do not? Many people rely on public transport and for them the journey time is greater. With those closures and greater travelling times comes a diminution in the principle of local justice.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Two of the courts that were closed across the country were in my constituency. Some of the reasoning was that the closures would facilitate a roll-out of technology and that access to justice would be more available than ever, but nothing has replaced the closure of those courts. There has been no technology, no hubs and no additional video link technology. We are left with a significant deficit in access to justice.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and correct point, which underlines the position across the country where access to justice has been denied to too many people. It has been replaced not with an improved service, but with a diminution in the principle of local justice.

The Government have rightly looked at technology to ameliorate some of the problems. Trials have been launched with greater use of video links, including for defendants who need not appear in court unless necessary. Mobile vans have been parked near witnesses’ homes to allow them to give evidence without going to court. However, there are other examples, to which my hon. Friend alluded. Solicitors in Exeter were left frustrated by a new court system enabling all defendants to appear over a video link from local police stations to Plymouth magistrates court but which, however, denied them proper and private consultations with their clients. Technology must be utilised, but it must not be assumed to be good in and of itself. It must not be adopted without allowing defendants a proper defence—there must be no compromise on that.

We are worried about access to justice. One of the first acts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on becoming leader of the Labour party was to ask Lord Bach to convene a commission to assess access to justice in our system, and it is considering what can be done to improve the current situation. An independent group of commissioners is looking at the whole system. They have been invited not for their party sympathies, but for their expertise. An interim report was recently launched and is already a great piece of work with innovative and exciting ideas. It is hoped that it will be finalised next year.

Lord Chief Justice Thomas observed earlier this year that

“our justice system has become unaffordable to most”.

There can be no greater indictment of the position we find ourselves in today. I hope the Minister can offer some reassurance but, sadly, I do not hold out much hope.

I join the welcome to you in the Chair, Mr Gapes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this debate on an important subject.

Access to justice is at the heart of everything we do in the Ministry of Justice. The sad thing about the hon. Gentleman’s remarks—of course he is entitled to point to areas where things are unsatisfactory—is that he did not talk about the context. The context is that there are far fewer cases and that, because of that, in some parts of the country courts sit for only a quarter of the time they could sit. Therefore, we are working against a changing picture, and not least against the background of the Government spending £1 billion to modernise our courts and tribunals. Every time one introduces modernisation, one has fewer unnecessary directions hearings; and one enables witnesses to give evidence by video link. Any of these changes affect the sort of court estate we need and issues of access to justice, but in a positive way. It is clear that he has concerns about access to justice and I hope that I can reassure him.

We are still spending a great deal of money on legal aid. The changes the hon. Gentleman referred to were made by the then Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), to concentrate legal aid on matters of most importance to individuals—for example, when a home was a risk, where someone’s livelihood was at risk because of the threat of imprisonment in a criminal case, or where someone might lose their children in a care case involving domestic violence. I think most of us would agree that my right hon. and learned Friend concentrated the effort where it was most needed. I do not think it is seriously arguable that he did not.

A review by March 2018 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offences Act 2012 was promised; it has to be completed by a particular date in March 2018. We have only just entered the period in which the review might have started, so it is not as though we have been dragging our feet for years. The review will go ahead.

To say that in this country we do not have debt and housing advice is incorrect. What is the citizens advice bureaux network doing? It is providing just that. On Friday, I opened a new bureau in Letchworth, where the debt and housing advice from Citizens Advice is well regarded. Shelter, which has a contract with the Legal Aid Agency, is a fantastic organisation giving advice about housing matters. The Department for Work and Pensions puts a great deal of effort and time into welfare benefit advice and giving people information.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there were legal aid advice deserts for housing law. That is not so. Every part of the country has housing advice available. The point about housing advice is that in some areas of the country there are many more housing cases in which people might lose their homes than there are in others, so the provision is not exactly the same in each place, but it is national. The fact that there is one provider with a number of offices in one place does not mean that there is no advice. There is advice from that provider, and often the provider is very expert. If we said that that area had to have two firms, we would reduce the amount of work available to the provider that has the expertise, so it is not as simple a question as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

I was glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Sir Ivan Lawrence. I do not remember the occasion in question, but I pay tribute to his contribution in this place over many years before his retirement.

Turning to access to justice more generally, I think it is true to say that our courts and tribunals are open to everyone, regardless of their circumstances and location. As my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals made clear in their joint statement in September, a modernised Courts and Tribunals Service must be just, proportionate and accessible. It would be undermined if it were not. However, the services that our courts provide at the moment do not always accommodate our citizens’ busy lives or meet customers’ accessibility needs. Access to justice is not just about how close people are to a court. Our programme will reduce the need for many customers to attend court. Modern technologies offer significant benefits in that respect, and we intend to explore every opportunity to use those technologies to make access to justice easier.

To return to my point about the courts in my constituency having closed, I completely buy the notion, if we are starting from a position of what is best practice in supporting vulnerable victims and witnesses through the court process, that having old-fashioned buildings was not necessarily the best practice that we would like to see, but nothing—no technology, digitalisation or modernisation of the justice system—has come in to replace the courts in my constituency. Can the Minister give me any information on what might be happening?

I am of course happy to look into the situation in Halifax and write to the hon. Lady, but I will make this point to her. Because our courts are used for only about 50% of the time, we are trying to use them more fully and to have courts that are more modern and have modern communications—wi-fi, video links and so on—so we are closing some courts and investing the money in improving the remaining ones. That is the overall plan.

The Lord Chief Justice gave this example—a Welsh example—the other day to the Select Committee on Justice. Wales is mountainous in parts and has road issues and so on, but in Dolgellau, where the court was closed, a video link has been established so that it is easier for local residents to give evidence and they do not have to travel to Caernarfon, for example. There are areas where such changes have already been made. There are some areas where we are proposing to make suitable alternative arrangements, and we have a more general programme of considering questions such as whether it is possible to sit a court for a particular case in, say, the town hall or another public building. Such courts have been characterised as pop-up courts. We also have that initiative, which we are working on at the moment. Attempts are being made, but I will of course write to the hon. Lady about Halifax.

A significant amount of the work of magistrates courts will be conducted online. That will of course mean less attendance at courtrooms. It will increase the speed of the process, save money and remove the need for defendants to attend court at all. Our ambition is for attendance at a court building to be reserved for the more serious cases, in which there is to be a trial or there is a serious issue of sentencing.

We are making a lot of progress. The common platform programme has already introduced the ability to plead guilty online for certain traffic offences, as part of the single justice procedure whereby one magistrate deals with the cases. We have introduced wi-fi into all criminal courts, and the programme will continue so that we get an end-to-end digital process. The police will build a digital file, which will go to the CPS, which will put it into the right condition for court. Then, once it is going to court, all the users of the system will be able to draw down that information, that case file. The judge will be able to give directions online. We will have far fewer ineffective hearings and hearings that it would be possible to avoid by using technology.

Many vulnerable people come into contact with the courts, and it is important, through the changes, to ensure that they are helped to access digital services. We are currently consulting on how to improve their access to the digital process, as part of the announcement that was made in September.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney represents a constituency in south Wales. He will know that, during the consideration of court closures in that area, particular efforts were made to find suitable alternative provision; we have discussed places such as Dolgellau. I appreciate that some individuals may find themselves in difficult circumstances when needing to attend court. Anyone who has a concern about travelling to court on the same transport as the person they are accusing or anything of that sort should make it clear to the police and the CPS that they have that concern. Arrangements will always be made to ensure that witnesses can get to court in a satisfactory way.

It is right to thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. It is important to recognise that we are in a period in which crime is falling, the number of cases is falling and the way in which we do the work is changing, so he is right to say that, when it comes to legal aid for criminal cases, there is a case for discussion and seeing whether it is possible to improve the two main legal aid schemes: the advocates scheme and the litigators scheme. I can assure him that the Ministry of Justice is in productive discussions with both parts of the profession—the Bar and solicitors—to see whether we can find legal aid schemes for their work that are more attuned to modern needs, but that also fit in with career progression and all those things that are of concern to the Bar and solicitors. We are doing that actively at the moment; we are in discussions with them.

The hon. Gentleman recalled some remarks that were made at the time suggesting that judicial review would be dead following the changes made by the then Lord Chancellor, who is now my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. In fact, more than 4,500 cases were started the following year, so I think he is right to feel that that did not happen after all.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the review of employment tribunal fees. I cannot tell him the outcome yet, because we are still doing it, but I think it is good that the Government are prepared to review that issue, just as we are also reviewing the immigration fees at the moment. I do not think that should be criticised; I think the hon. Gentleman should welcome it.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.