Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
[Relevant document: Tenth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, “Legislative Scrutiny: Judicial Review and Courts Bill”, HC 884/HL 120.]
When the shadow Minister stands up to move new clause 4, I will be grateful if others stand up to indicate whether they wish to participate in the debate on the first group of amendments.
New Clause 4
Publicly funded legal representation for bereaved people at inquests
“(1) Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), after ‘(4)’ insert ‘or (7).’
(3) After subsection (6), insert—
‘(7) This subsection is satisfied where—
(a) the services consist of advocacy at an inquest where the individual is an Interested Person pursuant to section 47(2)(a), (b), or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 because of their relationship to the deceased; and
(b) one or more public authorities are Interested Persons in relation to the inquest pursuant to section 47(2) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 or are likely to be designated as such.
(8) For the purposes of this section “public authority” has the meaning given by section 6(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998.’.”.—(Andy Slaughter.)
This new clause would ensure that bereaved people (such as family members) are entitled to publicly funded legal representation in inquests where public bodies (such as the police or a hospital trust) are legally represented.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 5—Removal of the means test for legal help prior to inquest hearing—
“(1) Schedule 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.
(2) In paragraph 41, after sub-paragraph (3), insert—
‘(4) For the purposes of this paragraph, the “Financial resources” provisions at section 21 (and in The Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013 do not apply.’.”
This new clause would remove the means test for legal aid applications for legal help for bereaved people at inquests.
New clause 6—Eligibility for bereaved people to access legal aid under existing provisions—
“(1) Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (4)(a), after ‘family’, insert ‘or where the individual is an Interested Person pursuant to section 47(2)(m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 because of their relationship with the deceased’.
(3) In subsection (6), after paragraph (c), insert—
‘(d) or they fall within any of the groups named at section 47 (2)(a), (b) or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.’
(4) Schedule 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is amended as follows.
(5) In paragraph 41, after sub-paragraph (3)(c), insert—
‘(d) or they fall within any of the groups named at section 47 (2)(a), (b) or (m) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.’.”
This new clause would bring the Legal, Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 into line with the definition of family used in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
New clause 8—Exclusion of review of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal—
“(1) Section 67 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is amended as follows.
(2) Leave out subsection (8) and insert—
‘(8) Subject to section 67A and subsections (9) and (10), determinations, awards, orders and other decisions of the Tribunal (including decisions as to whether the Tribunal has jurisdiction and purported determinations, awards, orders and other decisions) shall be final and shall not be subject to appeal or be liable to be questioned in any court.
(9) In particular—
(a) the Tribunal is not to be regarded as having exceeded its powers by reason of any error of fact or law made in reaching any decision; and
(b) the supervisory jurisdiction of the courts does not extend to, and no application or petition for judicial review may be made or brought in relation to, any decision of the Tribunal.
(10) Subsections (8) and (9) do not apply so far as the decision involves or gives rise to any question as to whether the Tribunal—
(a) has a valid case before it;
(b) is or was properly constituted for the purpose of dealing with the case;
(c) is acting or has acted in bad faith, with actual bias or corruption or in some other way that constitutes a fundamental procedural defect.
(11) No error of fact or law made by the Tribunal in reaching any decision is to be construed as relevant to the question.’
(3) The amendment made by subsection (2) applies to determinations, awards, orders and other decisions of the Tribunal (including purported determinations, awards, orders and other decisions) made before the day on which this section comes into force.”
New clause 9—Evidence in judicial review proceedings—
“(1) Unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary, no court shall—
(a) permit oral evidence to be elicited in judicial review proceedings; or
(b) order public bodies or any person exercising or entitled to exercise public authority to disclose evidence in anticipation of or in the course of judicial review proceedings.
(2) In relation to any judicial review proceedings, or in anticipation of any judicial review proceedings, in which a public body or a person exercising or entitled to exercise public authority argues, or indicates its intention to argue, that—
(a) the proceedings concern a matter that is non-justiciable, or
(b) that an enactment excludes or limits judicial review, no evidential duty arises on that body or person until a court determines that the matter is justiciable and that no enactment excludes or limits judicial review.
(3) In subsection (2), ‘evidential duty’ means any principle of law or rule of court touching the identification of relevant facts or reasoning underlying the measure or other matter in respect of which judicial review is sought, or any order of the court to adduce oral or other evidence.
(4) Nothing in subsection (2) or (3) affects an evidential duty that may arise in relation to judicial review proceedings other than in relation to a measure or other matter that is argued to be non-justiciable or to be excluded from judicial review by legislation.”
Amendment 23, page 1, line 3, leave out clause 1.
This amendment would remove clause 1 of the Bill continuing the status quo removing the provision to make quashing orders suspended and prospective-only.
Amendment 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out from “order” to end of line 9.
This amendment would remove the provision for making quashing orders prospective-only.
Amendment 24, page 1, line 9, at end insert—
“(1A) Provision under subsection (1) may only be made if the court is satisfied that it is in the interest of justice to do so.”
The insertion of this subsection would limit the use of any new remedies issued under clause one to where in the court’s view it is in the interests of justice.
Amendment 31, page 1, leave out lines 10 and 11.
This amendment removes the ability to make a suspended or prospective-only quashing order subject to conditions.
Amendment 2, page 1, leave out lines 15 to 18.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1, which removes the provision for making quashing orders prospective-only.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 2, leave out “or (4)”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 1, which removes the provision for making quashing orders prospective-only.
Amendment 26, page 2, line 4, at end insert—
“(5A) Where the impugned act consists in the making or laying of delegated legislation (the impugned legislation), subsections (3) or (4) do not prevent any person charged with an offence under or by virtue of any provision of the impugned legislation raising the validity of the impugned legislation as a defence in criminal proceedings.
(5B) Subsections (3) or (4) does not prevent a court or tribunal awarding damages, restitution or other compensation for loss.”
This amendment would protect collateral challenges by ensuring that if a prospective only or suspended quashing order is made, the illegality of the delegated legislation can be relied on as a defence in criminal proceedings.
Amendment 27, page 2, line 12, leave out “must” and insert “may”.
This amendment would make clear that the factors which the court considers before making a modified quashing order are a matter for the court’s discretion.
Amendment 33, page 2, leave out lines 14 and 15.
This amendment removes one of the factors to be considered by the courts when deciding whether to award a suspended quashing order or quashing order with limited or no retrospective effect. This is intended to rebalance the factors to be given consideration so as not to disadvantage the claimant unfairly.
Amendment 34, page 2, line 17, at end insert
“including, but not limited to, the interests and expectations of a claimant in receiving a timely remedy”.
This amendment would make it clear that the provision of a timely remedy to the claimant is a factor to be given consideration by the courts when deciding whether to award a suspended quashing order or quashing order with limited or no retrospective effect.
Amendment 35, page 2, line 19, at end insert
“which are to be identified by the defendant”.
This amendment would require the defendant to identify what the interests and expectations of persons who have relied on the impugned act are and to explain these to the court.
Amendment 28, page 2, line 21, leave out
“or proposed to be taken”.
This amendment would remove the requirement to take account of actions which the public body proposes or intends to take but has not yet taken.
Amendment 37, page 2, leave out line 23 and insert—
“(f) the Convention rights of any person who would be affected by the decision to exercise or fail to exercise the power;
(g) the right to an effective remedy for a violation of a Convention right under Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights; and
(h) any other matter that appears to the court to be relevant.”
This amendment would ensure that the courts would take into account the ECHR rights of those affected, including the right to an effective remedy, before exercising the new power to suspend a quashing order or give it prospective-only effects.
Amendment 29, page 2, line 23, at end insert—
“(8A) In deciding whether there is a detriment to good administration under subsection (8)(b), a court must have regard to the principle that good administration is administration which is lawful.”
This amendment clarifies that the principle of good administration includes the need for administration to be lawful.
Amendment 25, page 2, leave out lines 24 to 32 and insert—
“(9) Provision may only be made under subsection (1) if and to the extent that the court considers that an order making such provision would, as a matter of substance, offer an effective remedy to the claimant and any other person materially affected by the impugned act in relation to the relevant defect.”
This amendment would remove the presumption and make it a precondition of the court’s exercise of the new remedial powers that they should offer an effective remedy to the claimant and any other person materially affected by the impugned act.
Amendment 4, page 2, leave out lines 24 to 32.
This amendment would protect the discretion of the court by removing the presumption in favour of issuing suspended, prospective-only quashing orders.
Amendment 38, page 2, line 29, leave out from “court” to end of line 30 and insert
“may exercise the powers in that subsection accordingly”.
This amendment would remove the requirement for a court to issue a suspended or prospective quashing order when the provisions of section 1(9)(b) apply.
Amendment 32, page 2, leave out lines 31 and 32.
This amendment removes the extra weight which would otherwise be given to subsection 8(e) by the courts when applying the test created in subsection 9(b) to establish whether the statutory presumption is applicable.
Amendment 30, page 3, line 13, at end insert—
“(5) After section 31A of the Senior Courts Act 1981 insert—
‘31B Constitutional importance of judicial review
It is recognised that judicial review is of fundamental constitutional importance to the rule of law, the accountability of public bodies and the government in particular, access to justice and the protection of human rights and that limitations on access to judicial review should only be imposed where strictly necessary and proportionate.’”
This amendment would highlight the importance of judicial review in the UK’s constitutional principles.
Amendment 5, page 3, line 14, leave out clause 2.
This amendment would preserve the ability of claimants to seek judicial review of a decision by the Upper Tribunal to refuse permission to appeal a decision of the First-tier Tribunal (also known as “Cart judicial review”).
Government amendment 6.
Amendment 42, in clause 2, page 4, line 16, leave out from “Ireland” to the end of line 17.
This amendment is consequential on amendment 43.
Amendment 43, page 4, line 19, at end insert—
“(8) This section does not extend to Scotland.”
This amendment would ensure that the exclusion of review of Upper Tribunal’s permission-to-appeal decisions did not extend to Scotland.
It is a pleasure to open the debate and speak to the new clauses and amendments that stand in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am grateful to the Government for their co-operation on the programme motion, and to the Minister and his colleagues for the civilised way in which we have debated the Bill thus far. Unfortunately, they were not persuaded by our arguments in Committee, so if there is no movement today, the Opposition will vote against the Bill on Third Reading, as we did on Second Reading. We have issues with part 2 of the Bill, which will mainly be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) in the debate on the second group of amendments, although I will deal in this group with our concerns about chapter 4 on coroners and our proposed new clauses 4 to 6.
I start with amendments to part 1 of the Bill, which are the most numerous and most needed to try to redeem the Bill. There is a strong clue to the Opposition’s approach in amendment 23, which we tabled to leave out clause 1 in its entirety. I have also signed amendment 5, tabled by the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), which would leave out clause 2. In short, we see no merit at all in part 1 of the Bill and would strike it out.
The purpose of judicial review is to determine whether public bodies have made lawful decisions and to provide remedies where they have not. The conceit of the Government’s approach, which would be taken further by new clauses 8 and 9, tabled by the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), is that the courts are trespassing on the rights of Parliament, substituting their views for ours and, in some ways, entering the realm of politics. We read that the Justice Secretary and the Prime Minister think that the Bill, which was introduced by the previous Lord Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), does not go far enough in clipping the judges’ wings. They seek to remedy that through repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998 and its replacement by a so-called new Bill of Rights and an interpretation Act: an annual audit by Parliament of which judicial decisions it likes and which it seeks to overturn. The Opposition think that that is constitutionally wrong and a provocation.
A better way to look at the role of the courts was set out by the late Lord Bingham in A. v. Secretary of State for the Home Department who, in rejecting submissions from the then Attorney General in that case, said:
“I do not in particular accept the distinction which he drew between democratic institutions and the courts. It is of course true that the judges in this country are not elected and are not answerable to Parliament. It is also of course true…that Parliament, the executive and the courts have different functions. But the function of independent judges charged to interpret and apply the law is universally recognised as a cardinal feature of the modern democratic state, a cornerstone of the rule of law itself. The Attorney General is fully entitled to insist on the proper limits of judicial authority, but he is wrong to stigmatise judicial decision-making as in some way undemocratic.”
We celebrate the role that judicial review plays in our constitution in amendment 30, which says that
“judicial review is of fundamental constitutional importance to the rule of law, the accountability of public bodies and the government in particular, access to justice and the protection of human rights and that limitations on access to judicial review should only be imposed where strictly necessary and proportionate.”
Should the Government prefer that wording to that of the clause, that would be welcome. Failing that, we have tabled 11 further amendments that cumulatively or, in the alternative, seek to mitigate the worst effects of clause 1.
The clause introduces suspended or prospective-only quashing orders and cements them with a presumption that they will employed by the courts in most cases. The Government-appointed independent review of administrative law, which was supposed to lay the groundwork for the Bill, did not recommend prospective-only orders and specifically disapproved any presumption as to their use. Prospective-only orders could deprive claimants of a proper chance of redress and will certainly create a chilling effect. What is the incentive to pursue judicial review if the claimant has no prospect of having the wrong righted?
The presumption is the clearest but not the only way in which the clause seeks to fetter judicial discretion. The Opposition’s remaining amendments seek to restore that discretion and attack the most prescriptive parts of the clause. Amendment 24 provides that modified quashing orders will be applied only where, in the court’s view, it is in the interests of justice, and that they ought to be confined to those rare cases where a quashing order might cause, for example, significant disadvantage to third parties. Amendment 31 recognises that suspended quashing orders may be beneficial in some cases but seeks clarity from the Government on their intentions and what conditions they feel should be met when using the provision.
Amendment 26 looks to preserve collateral challenge in the event that such modified quashing orders are used. Let us say that delegated legislation made during the coronavirus crisis that created imprisonable criminal offences was declared illegal by a court. If a court granted a prospective-only quashing order under the Bill, that would make imprisonment legal before the remedy. A person accused could not argue before the criminal courts that the statutory instrument was invalid, because the measure requires a judge to act as if it were valid. The amendment seeks to protect a person’s right to use the court’s decision as a defence in criminal proceedings.
Amendment 27 clarifies any factors that the court considers are a matter for its own judgment. The current use of “must” instead of “may” directs the judge’s reasoning and interferes with judicial independence and discretion. That is especially obnoxious as judicial review is discretionary and involves taking account of all the factors before the court. The court must be able to do justice on the facts, not be nudged to decide cases favourably to the Executive.
Amendments 33 to 35, 28 and 32 deal with the list of factors the Bill requires the courts to consider when applying a quashing order. For example, amendment 33 will remove a factor that would unfairly disadvantage the claimant. Amendment 34 recognises that a suspended or prospective-only quashing order can leave a claimant waiting for justice, so it asks the court to be mindful of a timely remedy. Amendment 28 would remove the requirement to take account of actions that the public body proposes to take. For example, if a public body tells a court that it intends to carry out certain measures to fix a problem, the court may suspend the quashing order, but if the public body goes away and changes its mind on the actions that it will take, the claimant, again, is left without a timely remedy. Amendment 28 would ensure that the court does not have to take account of the proposals made by a public body, and so a quicker remedy for the claimant ensues. Taken together, the amendments rebalance the proposal in clause 1 to protect the rights of claimants.
Amendment 29 clarifies that the principle of good administration includes the need for administration to be lawful. Let me finally, in addressing clause 1, turn to amendment 25, which would remove the presumption that suspended or prospective-only quashing orders should be used, and, instead, favours an effective remedy being offered to the claimant so that justice is preserved. The presumption set out in clause 1(9) undermines the independence and discretion of the court. The presumption acts on a one-size-fits-all approach to justice and does not respect the judge’s ability to assess the facts laid out in front of them in their courtroom and decide on a suitable conclusion. Amendment 25 also has a further protective factor that, if clause 1 is kept within the Bill and suspended and prospective-only quashing orders are to be used, there will be a pre-condition that there will be an effective remedy. If a single step could improve this part of the Bill, save abandoning it entirely, it is the removal of the presumption. For that reason, we wish to test the House on amendment 25 this afternoon and put it to a vote at the end of the debate.
Clause 2 ousts the jurisdiction of the High Court in relation to what are called Cart judicial reviews and removes the supervisory jurisdiction of the court over the tribunal system in those cases—for example, where the upper tribunal has refused the claimant the right to challenge the decision made in the first-tier tribunal not to allow and appeal the earlier decision.
In Committee, we objected to clause 2 both because of the nature of the cases subject to the Cart jurisdiction, which are primarily, but not exclusively, immigration and asylum cases, and because, on the Government’s own admission, it is designed to set a precedent for future employment of ouster clauses, which they clearly intend to become a more common feature of legislation. That is another attempt to subvert the authority of the courts. Unlike with clause 1, there is little that could be done to improve clause 2—you either like it or you don’t. Therefore, most commentators who are concerned by it think that the only solution is to strike it down. That was also the view of both Opposition parties in Committee, and we see from amendment 5 that it is also the view of the Liberal Democrats whose amendment to leave out clause 2 I have signed.
Contrary to the Government’s narrative that Cart judicial reviews are profligate, they are only allowed to proceed where there is an arguable case that has a reasonable prospect of success that both the decision of the upper tribunal refusing permission to appeal and the decision of the first-tier tribunal against which permission to appeal was sought are wrong in law. The claim either raises an important point of principle or practice, or there is some other compelling reason to hear it. Again, this is a mechanism to right a wrong. In the instance of Cart judicial review, it is to be used when there has been a serious error of law in the first-tier tribunal and stops deserving cases slipping through the net.
Cart judicial review is usually used for asylum or human rights cases. As all Members will know from their casework, such claims are not only complex, but have serious consequences for the claimants and are often matters of life and death. The independent review of administrative law did favour doing away with cart JRs, but these recommendations were based on the wrong statistics—a very low success rate of 0.22%. The Government now admit that the success rate could be 15 times higher, at 3.4%. Other analyses estimate 5% or even above 7%.
In Committee I cited many compelling cases, which I do not have time to repeat here. We are concerned about the consequences for individuals currently protected by the right of appeal, albeit in narrow and prescribed circumstances. But we are also worried about the precedent being set for expansion in the use of ouster clauses. Clause 2 is not just a threat in this Bill but could come back to haunt us again and again if we do not act now to remove it. It is for this reason that I oppose Government amendment 6. If the clause is to stand, the protection given by proposed new subsection (4)(c) is essential. This allows an appeal where the upper tribunal has acted
“in bad faith, or…in fundamental breach of the principles of natural justice.”
This already heavily caveated exception—why bad faith rather than bias; why fundamental breach rather than material breach—will be compounded if the exception on natural justice is qualified by the phrase “procedurally defective”. I therefore ask the Government not to compound the offence and to drop their amendment.
I turn to chapter 4 of part 2, which deals with coroners, and to our new clauses 4 to 6. I make no apology for re-tabling these new clauses, which were discussed in Committee, as they address a burning injustice. But let me first make a brief comment about what is in the Bill.
The Government explain their proposals as a series of reforms to the coroners courts to improve their efficiency and help with the backlog. They mirror some of the provisions in other parts of part 2. We do not object to these in principle, but serious concerns have been raised about clauses 37 to 39. Clause 37 allows for the discontinuance of an investigation where the cause of death becomes clear before the beginning on an inquest. But the evidence for discontinuance may change once tested, and this could be significant, for example, where a death in the community appears initially to be from natural causes. Without the necessary safeguards, some deaths will not be properly scrutinised. Clause 38 gives coroners the power to hold inquests in writing where they decide that a hearing in unnecessary. This takes away a family’s right to request an in-person hearing. Clause 39 would enable remote attendance at inquest hearings. This has implications for accessibility, transparency, participation and open justice.
Taken together, clauses 37 to 39 risk further entrenching levels of coronial inconsistency, which is a continuing problem in the coroners service, and they could exacerbate the difficulties faced by bereaved families who are not eligible for legal aid in navigating the inquest process. I hope that we can return to these issues when the Bill moves to the other place.
The clauses also draw attention to what is not in the Bill. The Bill does nothing to address the ongoing and deeply unjust inequality of arms in the coronial courts. It misses the opportunity to put bereaved people at the heart of the inquest system by providing non-means-tested public funding for bereaved families at inquests where state bodies are represented. The current funding system for the bereaved at inquests is fundamentally unfair. State bodies have unlimited access to public funding for the best legal teams and experts, while families are often forced to pay large sums towards legal costs or to represent themselves. Others have resorted to crowdfunding. The Bill presents a timely opportunity to positively shape the inquest system for bereaved people by establishing in law the principle of equality of arms between families and public authorities, and public authority interested persons. New clause 4 would ensure that bereaved people, such as family members, are entitled to publicly funded legal representation at inquests where public bodies are legally represented.
New clauses 5 and 6 would ensure that the early stages of legal help are available to the bereaved by removing the means test for legal aid applications and bringing the definition of family into line with that in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
We are well aware of the draft Hillsborough Bill and the 33-year battle for truth that those families fought. At the original Hillsborough inquest, families received no public funding for representation, while state bodies were represented by five separate legal teams. That led to the draft Hillsborough law, which would provide for a statutory duty of candour for public bodies alongside publicly funded legal representation for bereaved families. The time for that proposal not only has come, but is long overdue. I know that there is cross-party support here and in the other place. If the Government are not yet ready to address that long-standing injustice, we will divide the House on new clause 4.
I rise to speak on new clauses 8 and 9, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt).
Those who served on the Bill Committee will not be unfamiliar with the arguments I intend to address, as we rehearsed them at considerable length in Committee. The Minister knows well my general concerns about the Bill: while it is a good start in dealing with the pressing issue of judicial review and how that has been distorted by recent judicial practice, it is only a start. We need much more wide-ranging reform of judicial review and, indeed, much more wide-ranging reform of the relationship between this House and the judiciary, as set out in the Attorney General’s recent speech in Cambridge on judicial activism.
New clause 8 addresses the courts’ role in curtailing the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and especially in circumventing the role of the investigatory powers tribunal. I take a particular interest in that, having been the Minister at the Home Office who introduced the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which deals with the necessary precautions and safeguards associated with the storage and retrieval of electronic data. Indeed, the Bill I took through the House introduced the double lock: all warrants, as well as being dealt with by the Home Secretary, are, as an additional safeguard, dealt with by a judicial commissioner. That safeguard was to ensure the core principles of proportionality and necessity, which lay at the heart of all considerations of that kind.
The problem is that the courts have taken it upon themselves to become involved in matters that should be the exclusive preserve of this House. It is very important to see the Bill in context. The supremacy of Parliament is fundamental to protecting the interests of the people. Parliament’s role in our constitutional settlement is not—as was suggested in an evidence session with Aidan O’Neill QC—a matter of mutuality.
Absolutely. The separation of powers does not deal with neutrality. It deals with different powers, which are, by constitutional arrangement, held by the courts and this place. The relationship between the two is critical. It is critical to our considerations today and more critical still to our constitution. A. V. Dicey argued that the separation of powers confers on Parliament a dominant characteristic. Parliament consists of Her Majesty the Queen, the House of Lords and the House of Commons acting together. Therefore, as Dicey says:
“The principle of Parliamentary sovereignty means neither more nor less than this, that Parliament… has… the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament.”
That is precisely the point that my hon. Friend makes.
We need to reaffirm that principle in general and the Bill is an opportunity to do so. Any Parliament that makes a new law or repeals a law will be obeyed by the courts. That is fundamental to the role of this place. All of us who represent the people, as my hon. Friend says, have a duty, not just a mission, to reflect the will of the people.
Is not the point of judicial review to make sure the Government comply with the rules and restrictions set by Parliament? Restrictions on judicial review allow the Government to ride roughshod over Parliament’s views.
That is, of course, true, and it is why judicial review exists. The hon. Gentleman is right that there need to be checks and balances, but it is wrong to use judicial review to perpetuate matters of high politics or to perpetuate debates that have been settled in the country and in this place.
What we heard from the Minister when we debated these issues at considerable length is that, in effect, people are having several bites of the cherry. Debates were settled and then people came back to reopen them and revisit subjects that had already been agreed. That is not the role of the judicial process and it is certainly not the role of judicial review. The Bill goes some way to addressing that.
The purpose of my new clauses is to probe and press the Government to do more. I strongly urge the Minister to accept them with enthusiasm and alacrity because to involve the courts in matters of investigatory powers, as I said, is quite wrong. The landmark Privacy International case of May 2019 illustrates how wrong it can be. I will not go into detail because time does not permit, but other hon. Members will be familiar with the case and its legal ramifications. I recommend the Attorney General’s speech, which I have mentioned already, to those who want to find out more.
Professor Richard Ekins gave evidence to the Public Bill Committee, and he wrote an excellent paper on these subjects for Policy Exchange. He describes the Supreme Court’s judgment in respect of the Privacy International case as
“a very serious attack on some fundamentals of the constitution.”––[Official Report, Judicial Review and Courts Public Bill Committee, 2 November 2021; c. 15.]
For a very long time, it was not accepted that the courts should become involved in matters of investigatory powers, and particularly the tribunal. There was no possibility of judicial review for 19 years after the 2000 Act was passed.
My hon. Friend makes the point more eloquently than I ever could, partly due to her expertise. The real point is that these cases have created the possibility of a much more wide-ranging rebalancing and reappraisal of the relationship between the courts and Parliament, without public consent—indeed, the public have not been consulted. That is not good for the courts. We want to maintain the integrity of the judicial process by affirming the characteristics they have long enjoyed that underpin the separation of powers. New clause 8 would not only do a great service to the cause my hon. Friend highlights, but improve the Bill and be in the courts’ own interest.
It is important to understand that new clause 9 has two parts. Subsection (1) aims to limit the extent to which judicial review proceedings involve the testing of evidence or resolving and disputing questions of fact. The traditional view is that judicial review proceedings are an inappropriate forum in which to solicit or test evidence because they are a supervisory jurisdiction that should focus on questions of law rather than questions of fact. Once again, what has occurred over time is that the courts have strayed into debates and inquiries about matters of fact rather than matters of law. That status quo prevailed for a very long time, but the role of the courts has altered. Furthermore, there has been a change in the application of judicial review in respect of evidence. The courts ought to be focused on the legality of a decision, as the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) said, and whether it stands up to appropriate levels of scrutiny—that is the business of a judicial review. Judicial review is supposed to be a backstop, a check, of the kind he described in his intervention—
The court can take evidence, but what it should not be doing is fishing for further information, of a wider variety, which opens up consideration of the original process, rather than checking whether that process was right and proper; it is a subtle difference but a fundamental one in terms of the change in the way courts have gone about their business.
Our new clause addresses this issue, as the Minister will know. Jonathan Sumption is the judge who perhaps more than any other has set out the proper functions of the courts in relation to Parliament. In his Reith lecture, he said:
“It is the proper function of the Courts to stop governments exceeding or abusing their legal powers.”
That is absolutely what JR should be, but I fear that it is being compromised by the changes that are taking place as a result of judicial activism. So, mindful of the Attorney General’s advice on this and of the fact that the Government clearly are in tune with that advice—otherwise, they would not have introduced this Bill in the first place—I urge them to accept the amendments, in order to make this Bill be as good as it can be. Rather than waiting for another bus to come along, we should get on this one and get to the destination we all seek.
Much of this Bill has no impact on Scotland or our separate courts and legal system, so our amendments and my comments are focused on the parts that do, which primarily deal with judicial review. The parts of the Bill I will address today are not just bad; they are unnecessary and dangerous, and they lay the groundwork for the Government to insulate themselves and future Governments from proper scrutiny and accountability. I am sure that is on their personal wish list given current events, but we ought to make policy for generations, for everyone and not for one iteration of one political party.
I sat through 11 sittings of the Public Bill Committee and waited for the Government to persuade me that, for example, removing Cart JR was necessary, but instead I heard odds and sods of anecdotal evidence, lots of legal jargon and the phrase “three bites of the cherry” a total of 62 times, with the implication that somehow those using Cart JR had greater access to justice—that simply is not true. Cart JR is not about saying, “I don’t like the decision you've come to, let’s try again for a different judgement.” It is about looking at the situation where, first, a serious error of law may have been committed in the first-tier tribunal, and then the upper tribunal has failed to recognise and correct the error. It could be that the first-tier tribunal failed to consider or misinterpreted the evidence, or that the facts are inconsistent with the decision, but the point is: it happens, mistakes are made and Cart JRs provide a vital safeguard to correct these errors in cases where the stakes can be incredibly high. Rather than this being a “third bite of the cherry”, the reality is that the first bite was not even a slither—a mistake was made. Mistakes do not just affect the person in question; the ramifications are wider. Similarly, Cart JRs not only give one person who has appealed the opportunity to have their case considered properly, but they catch out errors and injustices, benefiting the system as a whole. Cart JRs have been used to ensure that disabled people are given the right benefit entitlement; they have stopped people being made homeless; and they have prevented the deportation of people to countries where they faced certain death. I am currently waiting to attend a first-tier tribunal on behalf of a family member. Given my knowledge of her and of the social security system, I am 100% certain of her entitlement and equally certain it will only fail if a mistake is made when considering the evidence. If that happens, surely my family member deserves the right to have it rectified—surely everybody has that right.
The thing is: the Government know that the impact will be far greater on those who are most vulnerable. In their own impact statement for this Bill, they admit that abolishing Cart would mean that
“those who do lose out…are more likely to have particular protected characteristics, for example in respect of race and/or religion or belief.”
So anyone voting for this ought to be aware and be honest with their constituents that they are consciously voting to the detriment of their constituents with protected characteristics. It is estimated that this will save only £364,000 to £402,000 a year. That is the cost of protecting the rights of some of the most vulnerable people. It is not much to ask for, is it? Let us not pretend that this is about being prudent with the public purse after writing off £4.3 billion of fraudulent covid claims last year.
We will vote against this terrible Bill, but if it does go ahead, our amendments 42 and 43 would protect the Scottish courts and tribunals from clause 2. We in Scotland do not want it, the legal profession does not want it, the Scottish Government do not want it, and I guarantee that the people of Scotland do not want it. This Government are trying very hard to demonstrate their alleged respect for Scotland—in words if not in actions—as the Scottish Government lay the groundwork for an independence referendum; some would say, because of the independence referendum. Well, now is their chance. Now is the chance for all the parties in this place to show Scotland just how much respect they have for our separate and distinct legal system and our right to protect it, and ourselves, from this legislation.
My final thoughts on clause 2 relate to the way in which the Government intend to make this happen—the legal framework. The Government say that the use of an ouster clause will set a precedent for removing certain cases or areas out of the scope of judicial review, but what does that mean? It means that in future they intend to cherry-pick areas that they would rather not see judicially reviewed, which sounds every bit as dangerous as it is. The rule of law and the separation of powers are hallmarks of an effective democracy; we cannot allow the Government to pick and choose where and how they face judicial scrutiny. As Liberty reminds us in its briefing, this Bill is passing through Parliament at the same time as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Elections Bill, to name but a few. Now more than ever, we need the ability and deserve the right to hold the Government and public bodies to account.
Clause 1, on suspended quashing orders and prospective-only remedies, does not extend to Scottish courts and will not apply directly, but it will affect UK-wide legislation to which we are all subject. It will also mean that many more people across these islands may choose Scottish courts, and while I am always happy to promote Scotland and our separate legal system, there may be a capacity issue that has not been discussed or even considered.
Along with others, I have raised the landmark Unison judicial review of 2017 a number of times. The Supreme Court agreed that the fees for access to justice via employment tribunals were unlawful, so everyone who had paid them was refunded, and the Government were no longer allowed to charge the fees from the moment of that judgment. Let us consider what would happen if the Bill were passed and if, instead of seeking a judicial review in 2017, Unison did so this year and, crucially, secured the same decision: the decision that the workers were right, and that what the Government were doing was unlawful. The difference is that if this Bill is enacted, no one initiating a judicial review will have their fees refunded and no one who has already been forced to pay up to £1,200 for an employment tribunal will be refunded either, despite the court’s agreeing that they have been subject to something unlawful. Anyone subsequently requiring an employment tribunal will still have to pay the unlawful fees, and in the meantime the Government will be able to tweak the legislation and make the unlawful lawful. Who would or could go to the expense and trouble of seeking a judicial review given the prospect of no remedy, no justice, and no change in their or anyone else’s situation?
The delaying of a quashing order is, in certain circumstances, the appropriate path to follow, and that is why the courts already have that option. The issue is that it is currently an option, and the clause seeks to make it a presumption. The Independent Review of Administrative Law, which has been largely ignored in respect of its recommendations for judicial review, suggested that “giving courts the option” was enough, but here we see the Government determined to fetter judicial discretion and tie the hands of judges. Our amendment would ensure that it would once more be the case that judges “may” rather than “must” use such delays, and if the Government continue to argue that they are not trying to tie the hands of the judges, they will surely support it tonight.
I am humbled today to be standing in this historic Chamber representing the people of North Shropshire. Those who have visited will know that it is a large and beautiful landscape populated with pretty market towns and villages and with a long and fascinating history.
I would like to start by thanking my predecessor, Owen Paterson, for almost a quarter of a century of service to the people of North Shropshire and, in particular, for his recent campaign and charitable work for suicide prevention.
It is impossible to visit North Shropshire without being taken back in time. An iron-age fort at Oswestry starts the story, as the first settlers here pioneered the farming industry that underpins the local economy to this day. In Welsh, the site is known as Caer Ogyrfan, meaning “City of Gogyrfan”, the father of Guinevere in Arthurian legend. The intertwined story of North Shropshire and British politics may have begun there.
The next step in our history is at Whitchurch, an important staging post on the Roman road to Chester. It takes its modern name from St Alkmund’s church, originally built with white sandstone quarried in the south of the constituency at Grinshill. And here the association continues—this fine white sandstone was also used to make the lintels and door surround of No. 10 Downing Street. I am sure the Prime Minister will be reminded of the beautiful constituency of North Shropshire each time he passes through that iconic entrance.
In the medieval period, Ellesmere’s great castle was taken by Llywelyn the Great, not to be reclaimed by the English until after his death. Its remains are now largely confined to the earthworks they were built on, but luckily, the fortifications at Whittington and Moreton Corbet still bear testament to the turbulence of life in the marches of the medieval kingdom.
Internal strife has played its part as well—in the early stages of the wars of the roses, the Yorkist army thundered past Market Drayton and through North Shropshire, eager to link up with reinforcements in Ludlow after its victory at nearby Blore Heath.
In the civil war, the residents of Wem, the town closest to my home, proved that the communities of North Shropshire are not just decent and resilient, but occasionally radical. It was the first town in Shropshire to declare for the parliamentarians in the civil war. The troops garrisoned in the town had not completed their wooden defences and had only 40 musketeers to hold their position in 1643 when the royalist army approached. The royalists, complacent and confident of victory, approached from Soulton to the east, but legend has it that the women of Wem rallied to the parliamentarian cause and the garrison held. So it seems that while I am the first woman to represent this area in Parliament, I am continuing a fine tradition of women in North Shropshire defending our democracy.
I am reminded of the brave women of Wem when I consider the impact of this Bill. I am sure that colleagues on both sides of this House would agree that our democracy, which has evolved over hundreds of years, and since the 17th century largely peacefully, should be protected at all costs. Fundamental to that democracy is that the rule of law is upheld without fear or favour, but this Bill seeks to undermine that principle. It will limit the ability of ordinary people to hold this Government to account through the courts.
Judicial review is working well. It is a powerful tool for individuals to enforce their rights and stop Governments from overstepping their powers. Abolishing Cart judicial review, for example, would remove a safeguard when tribunals make mistakes in cases where the stakes are often extremely high for the people involved. It is completely unjustified and a backward step. That is why my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I are supporting amendment 5 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse).
Threatening to weaken the people’s ability to challenge the Government because the courts sometimes rule against them is the act of dictators and despots, not democrats. The best way for a Government to avoid that situation is to ensure that they act lawfully in the first place, not legislate to ensure that there is one rule for the citizens of this country and another for its leaders. The circumstances of my election suggest that the majority of voters in North Shropshire would agree.
As their representative on these green Benches and in the home of democracy, I will always defend their democratic rights and listen to their concerns, regardless of the candidate for whom their vote was cast. I will not give up on the fight for the issues that matter most to them: better access to health and ambulance services, a fair deal for our farming community, and proper provision of infrastructure and public services in rural areas. I very much look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of this House to achieve that.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her maiden speech; she is clearly going to be a very lively contributor to our debates.
In order to ensure that we fit everybody in, I will have to reduce the time limit to six minutes. I call Paula Barker.
I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on her wonderful maiden speech and welcome her to her seat in this place. She talked about this historic Chamber, but of course she herself has made history by being the first Lib Dem and the first female MP in that seat. I wish her all the very best in her endeavours to represent her constituents.
Opposition Members have studied this Bill closely. There are currently many Bills on the Government’s legislative agenda that give much cause for concern. This Judicial Review and Courts Bill may not occupy as high a profile as others, but nevertheless there is much in it that I and other Opposition Members want to see significantly amended. I fear that this Government’s mantra of obsessing over costs and superficially driving for efficiencies will negatively impact the judicial process. Of course, this may be politically expedient for the Executive, who have demonstrated time and again their desire to avoid accountability, but we cannot do justice on the cheap. The consequences for ordinary people for the processes that deliver just outcomes will be grave.
I want to place on record my support for two significant amendments. First, those on my own party’s Front Bench are right to support amendment 23, which would remove clause 1 from the Bill entirely. Quashing orders are a powerful tool for ensuring that unlawful Government decisions can be overturned and that those who have suffered the consequences of unlawfulness can obtain real redress. There are already limitations on a court’s ability to grant a quashing order, but I suspect the Government know that. To tip the scales even further in favour of the Executive is wholly wrong.
I also want to voice my support for amendment 5, tabled by our Liberal Democrat colleagues, which would remove clause 2 from the Bill. It is essential that we preserve the ability of claimants to seek judicial review of a decision made by the upper tribunal. The Supreme Court recognises that some overall supervision of the decisions of the upper tribunal safeguards against the risk that errors of law of real significance could slip through the system. Doing away with Cart judicial review runs the risk of us getting things wrong on matters of life and death. No matter how infrequently decisions are overturned, a safety net that is rarely used is still a safety net. In the words of Lord John Dyson:
“In asylum cases, fundamental human rights are in play, often including the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture.”
Organisations such as the Public Law Project are clear that Cart judicial review represents excellent value for money, despite the Government’s shallow arguments around cost. According to the Public Law Project, the total cost saved by abolishing the Cart jurisdiction is estimated at between £364,000 and £402,000 a year. Usefully, it has also provided context, telling us that this is less than the amount the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport spent on its art collection in 2019-20.
Part 1 of the Bill represents a very real degradation of the right of citizens and organisations to hold the Executive to account. The last thing our state needs, not least during this time, is to have fewer safeguards in place, especially in the area of justice, with the likes of the Home Office currently pursuing a nonsensical approach to asylum that plays only to the court of political opinion and not to the fundamentals of human rights.
Several of the new clauses have my wholehearted support, particularly new clauses 2 and 4. We will be discussing new clause 2 in the next debate. It goes without saying that, as a Liverpool MP, I enthusiastically support new clause 4. Going up against the establishment is extremely daunting for ordinary working people, even when the gravest of wrongs have been committed, sometimes by institutions that are funded by—and should be accountable to—the public. When looking at legislative matters relating to justice, we must always make justice accessible so that justice can be done, and done in a timely manner. Public institutions cannot rely on their vastly greater resources to deny justice and closure to those who simply seek a level playing field. New clause 4 would rectify that.
There is a lot of bad in this Bill as it stands, and a lot not that is not yet in it. The Government must not be partisan when it comes to justice. Right and wrong supersede political alliances. For that reason, the Government should take seriously many of the amendments before us today.
I commend the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) for her excellent maiden speech, and for her excellent and pretty amazing by-election victory.
I rise to speak to amendments 1 to 3, 5 and 37, which stand in my name and those of other hon. Members. My sponsorship of these amendments arises from the legislative scrutiny of the Bill conducted by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The Mother of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who is the Chair of the Committee and who would normally speak to these amendments, cannot be here today because of her bereavement. I extend my deepest sympathies to her and her family, and I pay tribute to her late husband, the former Member for Birmingham, Erdington, who was a widely respected and loved man.
I remind hon. Members that the Joint Committee is a cross-party Committee, with half its members from the Commons and half from the other place, and we undertake legislative scrutiny of all Bills for their human rights implications. We have taken evidence from a number of people on this Bill, and we have been advised by our own legal experts. On 7 December last year we published a report, which was unanimous, so it had cross-party support from across both Houses. We concluded that if clause 1 were enacted, it would
“not guarantee that an individual would receive an effective remedy for a violation of their human rights.”
We recommended that the Government remove the requirement in the clause
“as it amounts to an unnecessary…intrusion into judicial remedial discretion.”
As I say, that is an informed view reached on a cross-party basis after taking evidence, and that would be the effect of amendments 1 to 3 if they were passed.
If amendments 1 to 3 are not passed, there is a fall-back position. We also recommended that the Bill be amended so that the courts would have to have regard to the convention rights of any person who would be affected by such a decision and the duty to provide an effective remedy for a human rights violation under article 13. That would mean that when courts decide to make a quashing order with suspended or prospective-only effects, convention rights would be required to be taken into account. That would be the effect of amendment 37, which I reiterate that we see as a fall-back if amendments 1 to 3 are not passed.
I turn to clause 2. The Joint Committee shares the view articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) about Cart judicial reviews. We reached the conclusion that judicial supervision of the upper tribunal protects against legal error. Only a small proportion of Cart judicial review applications are successful, but in some of them, individuals could be prevented from being wrongly removed from the United Kingdom to face the most heinous human rights violations in other countries.
We said that rather than taking a hammer to crack a nut in that way, the Government should
“introduce procedural reforms, such as changes to the time-limits for bringing Cart judicial review, and assess their impact, before pursuing the ‘nuclear option’ of ousting judicial review from Cart cases.”
We also said that
“every effort must be made”
to ensure that the initial decision-makers and the first-tier tribunal
“make the best possible decisions when cases are before them”.
That would limit the need for asylum seekers to rely on a third opportunity to have their application for permission to appeal considered, and it would be the effect of amendment 5.
Generally on ouster clauses, which other hon. Members have spoken about this afternoon, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said in our report:
“We are concerned by the Government’s indication that the ouster clause designed to reverse Cart will be replicated in other legislation”.
Clearly, we are concerned about the possibility of undermining the rule of law, which is essential for the protection and enforcement of human rights.
Before I sit down, I want to give my personal support to the amendments tabled on behalf of the Scottish National party, and to reiterate what I said on Second Reading. It is not constitutionally appropriate for the exclusion of review of upper tribunal permission to appeal decisions to extend to Scotland. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who is in his place, has conceded to me in a letter dated 10 November that clause 2 will alter the jurisdiction of the Court of Session. It is not for this place to alter the jurisdiction of the Court of Session—that is a contravention of not just the devolved settlement, but article 19 of the Act of Union.
The Minister will say, “Oh no—it is not a contravention of article 19 because it’s a regulation for the better administration of justice.” I am sorry, but in Scotland we do not see regulations that circumscribe the availability of justice to individual members of the public as something for the better administration of justice. The Law Society of Scotland has been clear that a legislative consent motion is required; none has been sought, and none would be granted for an interference with the jurisdiction of the Court of Session.
Finally, as I said on Second Reading, there is no evidence base for there being any mischief in Scotland in relation to Cart judicial review; we actually call it Eba judicial review because of our case. The evidence base that the Government presented was completely confined to cases in England. If clause 2 passes, that will just be another example of this Government overriding the devolved settlement, undermining the Union. Please, Minister, leave Scotland’s legal system to Scotland’s Parliament, where it belongs.
There has been a lot of turmoil on the Government Benches over the past few weeks—partygate, allegations of blackmail and now Islamophobia. But one thing remains consistent and there is one thing we can count on: the Government have their eyes set on authoritarian rule.
Just look at the recent legislation brought before this House. The Nationality and Borders Bill grants the Government power to strip citizenship without notice. The Elections Bill imposes mandatory voter ID, discriminating against deprived and disadvantaged communities. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives the Government the ability to suppress protest that they deem too noisy.
The Government’s own manifesto promised to protect the individual from an overbearing state, yet this Bill does the opposite, fortifying the Government’s power grab. Judicial review enables individuals to challenge the legality of decisions made by public bodies. It ensures that decisions are made in the right way. When honoured, it is a vital process in checking the power of the Government and it is often the sole key to justice for the most vulnerable.
Without judicial review as it stands, EU citizens would have been deported for rough sleeping, innocent NHS staff would have lost their pensions and a child’s cardiac surgery clinic would have been unlawfully shut down. But instead of strengthening judicial review, this Bill strangles it.
Clause 1 incentivises the use of prospective-only quashing orders. That would mean that when a judge overturned a decision that they deemed illegal, justice would be available only for subsequent claims going forward. The judgment would no longer be retrospective. Past victims hurt by illegal decisions would receive no compensation. That does not sound fair or right to me. This measure hollows out the power of judicial review and inevitably means that more justice will be left unaddressed. In fact, as the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said, the proposals
“tip the scales of law in favour of the powerful.”
Is that not the story of this Government—more money for the wealthy and powerful and an absent hand for those who need it the most? The whole point of a democracy is that the state should not be able to steamroll its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable.
I take this opportunity to welcome my new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan), to these Benches. I congratulate her on the excellent speech she made today.
I rise to speak to the Liberal Democrat amendments 1 to 5. The Government claim that the Bill will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of individuals against an overbearing state, but it will have quite the opposite effect. As Amnesty International and others have pointed out, the Bill will tie the hands of the judiciary in respect of what remedies they can order when public authorities act unlawfully. It will weaken the courts’ ability to ensure that justice is done and that human rights violations are remedied.
Judicial review is a powerful tool for people to enforce their rights and is often used by the most vulnerable when no other form of legal redress is available. Clause 1 introduces prospective-only remedies in judicial review, which could be hugely harmful for those seeking justice and is opposed by the Law Society, JUSTICE, the Public Law Project and Liberty. It would not only deny redress to someone who has been harmed by unlawful action by a public body, but actively serve as a disincentive to those seeking justice through judicial review.
Let us imagine a person who has been incorrectly deemed ineligible for welfare benefits who has successfully challenged that decision through judicial review. A prospective-only remedy would mean that they would not receive the back payments that were unlawfully denied to them. They would not receive justice, which should never be the outcome of our judicial system.
Prospective-only remedies would also have a damaging effect on good governance. As Liberty rightly says:
“Being able to challenge those in power when they get things wrong is at the heart of our democracy.”
If public bodies are spared the risk of retrospective legal consequences, the motivation for good decision making is lower. I urge hon. Members to support amendments 1 to 4, which would remove that damaging aspect of the Bill.
Clause 2 is particularly concerning, because it would permit the courts to abolish Cart judicial reviews, as we have already heard this afternoon, which removes a vital safeguard in situations where tribunals make mistakes. The vast majority—92%—of Cart judicial reviews are immigration and asylum cases, and many of the remaining cases concern access to benefits for disabled people and those facing destitution. In all those situations, the stakes are incredibly high for the people involved.
Cart judicial reviews are not about having a third bite at the cherry, as many Conservative Members have claimed—far from it. They are granted only in situations where the claimant was never given a proper first bite, when a serious error of law was committed in the first tier tribunal and not corrected by the upper tribunal. There can be no justification for abolishing them and amendment 5 removes the provision from the Bill completely. I urge hon. Members to back it.
I will quickly touch on the clauses that introduce the automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty. Liberal Democrats support the aim of reducing backlogs but, as JUSTICE argues, there are better ways of deploying technology in the criminal justice system. We therefore need an independent review of the likely impacts of the AOCSSP before it is introduced. Elements of the Bill are hugely concerning. I hope that through these amendments, we can remove its most damaging provisions.
I warned on Second Reading that the Bill is, by the Government’s own admission, the thin end of the wedge that opens the door to more restrictions on judicial review in future. New clauses 8 and 9 in the name of the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) show what the thick end of the wedge would look like. We oppose those new clauses, which would make the Government’s bad Bill even worse.
This is just another Bill in the Government’s programme of constitutional reform that weakens the institutions and rights that hold the powerful to account. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill attempts to restrict the right to peaceful protest and the Elections Bill disenfranchises thousands of people from marginalised backgrounds in the name of preventing voter fraud, when there is no evidence of that happening on a large scale. That is not to mention the Government’s contempt for the Human Rights Act. Nobody, not even Governments, is above the law. The Liberal Democrats will continue to stand against any attempt to weaken the institutions and rights that hold the powerful to account.
I rise to speak to a number of amendments and new clauses, in particular new clause 4, which corresponds with the commitment in the 2019 Labour manifesto to ensure legal aid for inquests into deaths in state custody—a commitment first announced in February 2019 by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) in his former role. Closely linked are new clauses 5 and 6, which I also want to mention. The justice charity Inquest has been campaigning for decades for bereaved families to be granted automatic non-means-tested funding for legal representation following state-related deaths.
I support amendments 1, 2, 3 and 23, which are about removing the provision to make quashing orders suspended and prospective only. I place on the record my strong opposition to the removal of Cart judicial review and, as such, I support amendment 5 to delete clause 2 entirely. Amendment 25 speaks to the problem that campaigners have with the prospective-only remedies that the Government are proposing, in that they leave many successful claimants with no effective remedy. On amendments 27 to 30, I agree with Liberty, who argue that, although it supports the amendments, the very fact that so many changes are required to mitigate the harm of the provisions, alongside the lack of any need for their introduction, shows they would be better off discarded altogether.
That brings me to the thread that runs through the amendments, and the crux of the dangers of the Bill as a whole. The legislation before the House today removes vital safeguards that protect often marginalised people, especially migrants, from mistakes being made by public bodies—mistakes that could have a catastrophic impact on their lives. I want to highlight an example of what I understand that to mean and to flesh out one of the many human consequences at stake by talking about disability benefits.
Around four out of five cases where a claimant has been denied disability benefits are overturned on appeal. Why? As we know, serious concerns have been raised about the key measures introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2012—the replacement of the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment, a new sanctions regime and new assessment processes for employment and support allowance. Even a United Nations inquiry said there were “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people, in reports to the Information Commissioner concerning the deaths of claimants following their work capability assessment finding them fit for work.
It has been clear for many years that the assessments in particular are not fit for purpose and in many cases are actively harmful to the people who are subjected to them. In some cases, a decision not to award a PIP has been overturned by a tribunal after it had taken account of medical evidence from doctors about the claimant’s condition that had been ignored by officials during the initial assessment.
I am conscious that each of the many thousands of incorrect decisions about what support a disabled person should be getting causes real suffering to that person and to their family and friends. I support the growing calls for an independent inquiry to investigate why claimant deaths are happening, and for the scale of such deaths to be properly understood. The Conservative austerity program of cutting costs through so-called welfare reform has been brutal. We need to scrap the dehumanising work capability and PIP assessments and pursue the social model of disability, removing the barriers constructed by society and ensuring that disabled people can participate fully and equally in our society.
During the covid-19 pandemic we have seen further failures in providing proper financial and practical support to disabled people and their families, which have led to many being denied the support needed. The Government’s strategy in responding to the pandemic has led to many thousands of avoidable deaths, and it is important to recognise that disabled people form a large proportion of those deaths. Yet, perversely, and with a heartless callousness that is breath-taking, the Government’s answer is not to address the widely recognised abomination that is their treatment of people with disabilities, but to seek to further attack their rights—to obscure scrutiny, truth, and justice.
It is no coincidence that as the Government look to water down people’s power to challenge the state, a number of groups are using that power to hold them accountable. Indeed, a host of high-profile court cases, on disability rights, as I have addressed in my comments today, to police violence and climate change, are seeking to challenge the Government’s decisions. I wonder whose side history will come down on in the end—those who challenge injustice and power, or the perpetrators of injustice and power seeking to avoid accountability? We will resist this Government’s attacks on our communities and our rights, and we will overcome.
May I start by picking up a point that the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) made in her excellent maiden speech, on which I congratulate her? If nothing else, recent events reassure us that our constituents quite rightly do not like the Prime Minister, the Government or any public authority operating as if they were above the law or as if the rules that we all have to follow do not apply to them.
Although the Bill may not attract as many headlines as the various partygate stories, it raises the same issues, but in a much broader and more profound way. The Conservative Government are once again trying to put themselves above the law and make sure that basic principles of administrative law and rules passed by this Parliament do not constrain them. That will be the impact of the first two clauses, so I fully support all the amendments that seek to leave out or ameliorate them. I adopt all the arguments that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and all Opposition MPs have put forward today.
I would like to take on the argument made by the Attorney General and others that the Bill is about parliamentary sovereignty, as troubling and overrated a concept as that is. The Bill does not assert the sovereignty of Parliament; it promotes untrammelled Executive authority. It is not about ensuring that Parliament’s will is respected, but about Government and public authorities being able to exceed or ignore the rules and restrictions that Parliament has placed on them. For us to vote for the Bill would be not so much an exercise of parliamentary sovereignty as an exercise in parliamentary stupidity, inviting the Government to ignore the limits we place on them and helping to exacerbate what Lord Hailsham called elective dictatorship.
My main point relates to Scotland and to amendments 42 and 43, which I support. To build on points made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), it is absolutely not for this Parliament to impose clause 2 and changes to Cart and Eba judicial reviews on Scotland’s legal system. As the independent review of administrative law made clear, judicial review is a devolved matter. The review’s report was absolutely clear that it would be for the institutions of devolved government to decide whether to follow its recommendations. Without exception, every single submission from a devolved jurisdiction was opposed to, or at least not persuaded of, the need for reform.
Scotland has undertaken its own reform of judicial review in recent years. For this Parliament to interfere with it risks setting up two parallel systems of review in our jurisdiction, whereby someone challenging a devolved social security decision might face totally different obstacles from someone challenging a reserved social security decision. Again, the independent review was clear, describing such a two-tier system as “highly undesirable”. As my hon. and learned Friend alluded to, the analysis of judicial review in Scotland in the review is limited, as its authors acknowledge, but none of the overall judicial review figures cited—less than 400 cases commenced each year, of which less than 50 make it to a hearing, with 30% successful—justifies these rather obnoxious proposals.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Law Society of Scotland have both concluded that there is “no evidence” of any problem in Scotland that needs this Government to interfere. They, too, confirm that this is a devolved issue. In its briefing on the Bill as long ago as Second Reading, the Law Society of Scotland set out that, unusually, there are two grounds for arguing that the Government should not bulldoze these provisions through: not only are they legislating on a devolved matter, Scots private law, but they are narrowing the competence of the Scottish Parliament because clause 2 creates a rule special to a reserved matter and the Scottish Parliament does not have the competence to abolish or modify such a rule. It is a double whammy.
Indeed, for reasons that my hon. and learned Friend set out, it is a triple whammy. As was pointed out to the Government review panel, the Scottish competence of judicial review derives from article XIX of the Acts of Union of 1706 and 1707. The Law Society of Scotland warned the panel that
“care always has to be taken so as not to render the Court’s”—
the Court of Session’s—
“jurisdiction in judicial review ineffective”,
and that if reforms in the area go too far, they may
“be in breach of the Acts of Union”.
I object to the whole purpose of part 1 of the Bill, but even if the Government insist on pressing ahead, the overwhelming view from Scotland is “Get your hands off our judicial review laws.” That is why everybody in this House should support amendments 42 and 43.
I am grateful to all Members who have contributed to the debate so far. In particular, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Helen Morgan) on an excellent maiden speech. I know that part of the country well and she described it aptly: it is both historic and beautiful. I wish her well in the months ahead.
Let me turn to the amendments, of which there are a great many so I shall have to try to canter to some degree. I shall start with new clauses 4 and 5, on coroners inquests. As Members will know, and as I set out in Committee, I am sympathetic to the difficulties that face all bereaved families, and the Government believe that affected families should be at the heart of any inquest process that follows. The coroner’s investigation, including the inquest, is an inquisitorial fact-finding process—a narrow-scope inquiry to determine who the deceased was and how, when and where they died. That means that for the vast majority of inquests, legal representation and legal aid are not necessary.
New clause 4 seeks to expand access to legal aid at inquests, which would run counter to the approach I just set out. There is a risk that having additional lawyers at an inquest will not provide an overall improvement for the bereaved and could have the unintended consequence of turning an inquisitorial event into a complex defensive case, thereby prolonging the distress of a bereaved family.
On new clause 5, legal help for advice and assistance in relation to inquests is already within the scope of legal aid, and the Legal Aid Agency already has the discretion to waive the eligibility limits if it considers it equitable to do so.
On new clause 6, for bereaved families who need legal help, advice and assistance is already available under the legal aid scheme, subject to a means-and-merits test. That provision includes relatives by marriage or civil partnership, cohabitants and those who have parental responsibility.
In respect of the new clauses, which relate to important areas of law, I stress that the Government have been working on several measures to make inquests more sympathetic to the needs of bereaved people. So far we have engaged with the Chief Coroner on training for coroners and their investigating officers; we have published new guidance on coroner services for bereaved people; we have developed a protocol that, among other matters, ensures that when the state is represented it will consider the number of lawyers instructed so as to support an inquisitorial approach; and, building on the protocol, we have supported the legal services regulators—the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority—in their work to develop inquest-specific information to guide lawyers who represent at inquests.
As I said, for bereaved families who do need legal help, advice and assistance is always available under the legal aid scheme, subject to a means-and-merits test. For legal representation at an inquest, legal aid may be available under the exceptional case funding scheme if certain criteria are met. The Government are of the view that when those criteria are met, the process should be as straightforward as possible, not least given the stressful circumstances that bereaved families face. With that in mind, as of last month there is no means test for an exceptional case funding application in relation to representation at an inquest, or for legal help at an inquest if representation is granted.
We are also carrying out a review of the legal aid means test as a whole, and that review will be published shortly. Given the ongoing work that the Government are undertaking to support the bereaved at inquests, I urge the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) to withdraw the new clauses.
Let me turn to the important matters of judicial review. I agree with the sentiment behind amendment 30: judicial review is indeed an integral part of the UK’s constitution and no Government of any colour should seek to make changes to the way the law on judicial review operates in a way that is unnecessary or disproportionate. However, I assure the House that nothing in the Bill limits judicial review in such a way and the amendment is unnecessary.
Will the Minister comment on the assessment that the judicial review on the shortages of personal protective equipment for health workers would not have taken place had this legislation been in place?
The point is that these matters are entirely for our independent judiciary. The judiciary will make the judgment on whether the powers in the Bill should be used. I would not want to speculate on whether they would have been used in individual cases; that is not my role as a Minister. We have to have faith in how the judiciary will deploy what are, after all, new flexibilities—as we say, new tools in the judicial toolbox.
Let me move on to the new clauses tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). New clause 8 seeks to re-establish the ouster clause, in response to a 2019 Supreme Court judgment that asserted that certain decisions of the investigatory powers tribunal would not be subject to judicial review by the High Court. My right hon. Friend knows that we are sympathetic to and see merit in what he says, but we think this is not the right Bill or time, given the complexity involved. We want to look into the matter further, though. I was pleased to discuss it with my right hon. Friend in Committee and would be pleased to meet him further.
There are two new clauses, and I am sure the Minister is going to deal with the second one, but the issue of evidence is particularly important, as he will know. Allowing cross-examination on the introduction of new material that was not pertinent to the original decision is not about checking matters of law, but about rehearsing matters of fact and perhaps even going on a fishing expedition for new facts. On investigatory powers, he knows how important it is that the tradition maintained for 19 years is maintained and that the courts simply do not get involved in those matters.
My right hon. Friend makes his point, but given what happened with the Supreme Court, I am sure he would agree that, if we did legislate, we would have to get it right. We feel we want to take our time and ensure that that is the case, but I sympathise with the broader point he makes.
On new clause 9, I would like to reassure my right hon. Friend that the Government are keen to ensure that the duty of candour is not invoked by claimants to rouse political debates or to discover extraneous information that would otherwise have been kept confidential. However, we are not entirely persuaded that primary legislation is the best way of tackling any issues that there might be. As we have said, we are attracted to the independent review’s recommendation that, should it be necessary, the issue could be addressed through changes to the Treasury Solicitor’s guidance. Although that is of course a matter for the Treasury Solicitor, the advantage of using guidance to address some of the issues that have occurred with the duty of candour in the past is that it can be more flexible and dynamic than legislation. On that basis, I am afraid I cannot accept my right hon. Friend’s new clause, but, as I say, we do see merit in what he says.
Turning to amendment 23, which seeks to remove clause 1 of the Bill, the intention behind clause 1 is to address the very practical issues of the courts currently not having sufficient flexibility in deciding on remedies in judicial review. To remove it from the Bill would be to uphold the unsatisfactory status quo, ignoring the findings of the independent review of administrative law, and the Government fundamentally believe that that would be a mistake.
Amendment 1 and amendments 2 and 3, which are consequential on amendment 1, would remove one of the new tools we are proposing—namely, prospective-only quashing or quashing with limited retrospective effect. Let me remind the House of an example I have used previously of a real situation where the existence of the remedy could have been useful. It occurred when Natural England, in response to a threatened judicial review, decided to revoke general licences enabling farmers, landowners and gamekeepers to shoot pest birds. The revocation created immediate chaos for licence holders. I do not seek to re-litigate this case in the Chamber, but as I have said before, had the proposed remedies been available, Natural England may have been more willing to contest the judicial review, knowing that even if the existing licensing scheme was found to be unlawful, the court had the ability to protect past reliance on old licences. Such cases provide a tangible example of how more flexible remedies will allow courts to respond pragmatically and assist our constituents, rather than detract from their interests.
Amendment 31 would remove the ability of a court to make a suspended or prospective-only quashing order subject to conditions, and the ability for courts to give conditions can be important and is not unusual.
Amendments 4, 27, 38 and 25 all seek to remove or weaken the presumption in some way. Characterising the presumption as seeking to control the courts or remove their discretion is misleading, as I said back in Committee. My view is that including the presumption, combined with the list of factors in clause 1(8), will make the decision-making process consistent and thorough. That will assist in the speedy development of jurisprudence on the use of the new remedies, which has to be in the interests of justice for all the parties.
Amendments 28, 32, 33 and 35 all relate to the factors courts must consider in applying these new remedies. I would like to reiterate that the list of factors is there as a useful guide to the courts when considering the new remedies. It will help the jurisprudence to develop in a consistent manner. It is a non-exhaustive list, and not every factor will be relevant in every case. We trust the courts will understand that and apply the factors appropriately.
Turning to the remaining amendments to clause 1, amendment 34 proposes that there should be a specific requirement for a court to consider the effect these new remedial powers have on a claimant receiving a timely remedy. In fact, subsection (8)(c) already requires the courts to take into account the interest or expectations of those people who would benefit from a quashing, and I would submit that includes considering timeliness. Likewise, on amendment 24, the protections built into clause 1 mitigate the risk of a court being compelled to use the new quashing order powers where to do so would be against the interests of justice. Subsection (9)(b) of proposed new section 29A of the Senior Courts Act 1981 makes it clear that the court is only obliged to use the new modified quashing orders where it
“would, as a matter of substance, offer adequate redress in relation to the relevant defect”,
and is not obliged to use them where
“it sees good reason not to do so.”
I submit that the concerns raised in amendment 26 are already mitigated by the drafting of the provision. The list of factors includes
“the interests or expectations of persons who would benefit from the quashing”
“any other matter that appears to the court to be relevant.”
Additionally, having considered those factors, the court can add any conditions to the quashing order. It could be, for instance, that the Government do not take any further action to enforce the unlawful decision.
Amendment 29 seeks to clarify that the principle of good administration includes the need for administration to be lawful. We would have thought that that was fairly obvious, and should always be the case.
Amendment 37 seeks to ensure that the courts take into account affected people’s rights under the European convention on human rights, including the right to an effective remedy under article 13 of that convention. I would argue that the requirement in the Bill for the courts to have regard to the interests or expectations of persons who would benefit from the quashing of the impugned act would include having regard to any remedy and its appropriateness.
I now turn to clause 2, and amendment 5 which seeks to remove clause 2 from the Bill. I remind the House of the arguments that I made in support of this necessary and proportionate measure in Committee. First, the Cart JR route essentially equates to a third bite at the cherry—a phrase that we probably have overused, but which I think to the uninitiated explains it very well—after both the first-tier tribunal and the upper tribunal have refused permission to appeal. Secondly, it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that judicial resource is efficiently distributed. The success rate of Cart JRs is very low—around 3.4%, compared with 30% to 50% for other judicial review cases—indicating that it may not be the best use of judicial time.
Those matters should be determined with—I hate the phrase—two bites at the cherry, which is common across most areas of law. That is perfectly adequate. The process takes up 180 days of High Court judges’ time on case with almost no chance of success. High Court judges’ time, in the context of the backlog we have, is very precious indeed.
I now turn to the amendments 43 and 42, tabled by the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). Just to be clear, the unified tribunal system, created by the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007, is a reserved matter where it relates to matters of reserved policy. The measures on Cart and, particularly in relation to Scotland, the Eba case will apply to the unified tribunal system within the UK, but it will not apply to matters heard that would fall inside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament and it will also not apply to devolved tribunals.
I am sorry; I have one more important Government amendment that I wish to cover. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
If the measure did not extend to Scotland even on matters that are not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament, that would create an inconsistency within the unified tribunal framework based purely on geography.
Finally, the group also contains Government amendment 6 to clause 2. Subsection (4) of new section 11A sets out a number of exemptions, circumstances in which the supervisory court could still review a decision of the upper tribunal to refuse permission, or leave, to appeal the decision of the first-tier tribunal. One of those exemptions, subsection (4)(c)(ii), is if the upper tribunal acts in
“fundamental breach of the principles of natural justice”.
Clarifying the meaning of the natural justice exemption is the intent of the amendment. The Government accept that the meaning of natural justice is currently established in case law and relates to procedural impropriety. However, the understanding of the term has developed over time through common law and could develop further in the future.
As our intention is for substantive procedural errors to remain reviewable but errors of fact or law to be ousted, it is the Government’s view that the wording would be clearer if the amendment referred to procedure in the context of natural justice. That is not a change of policy; it is how the Government, and I am sure the majority of right hon. and hon. Members present, understood the clause during our previous debates and votes. However, this clarification should confirm to the courts exactly how Parliament intends the ouster clause to be interpreted.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).
Amendment proposed: 25, page 2, leave out lines 24 to 32 and insert—
“(9) Provision may only be made under subsection (1) if and to the extent that the court considers that an order making such provision would, as a matter of substance, offer an effective remedy to the claimant and any other person materially affected by the impugned act in relation to the relevant defect.” —(Andy Slaughter.)
This amendment would remove the presumption and make it a precondition of the court’s exercise of the new remedial powers that they should offer an effective remedy to the claimant and any other person materially affected by the impugned act.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Exclusion of review of Upper Tribunal’s permission-to-appeal decisions
Amendment made: 6, page 3, line 36, after “in” insert—
‘such a procedurally defective way as amounts to a’ —(James Cartlidge.)
This amendment clarifies that the ability preserved by clause 2 to challenge the Upper Tribunal’s permission-to-appeal decisions for breach of natural justice relates only to procedural defects.
Amendment proposed: 43, page 4, line 19, at end insert—
‘(8) This section does not extend to Scotland.’.—(Anne McLaughlin.)
This amendment would ensure that the exclusion of review of Upper Tribunal’s permission-to-appeal decisions did not extend to Scotland.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
New Clause 1
Maximum term of imprisonment on summary conviction for either-way offence
‘(1) In section 224 of the Sentencing Code (general limit on magistrates’ court’s power to impose custodial sentence)—
(a) in subsection (1), for the words after paragraph (b) substitute “for a term exceeding the applicable limit in respect of any one offence”;
(b) after subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) The applicable limit is—
(a) 6 months in the case of a summary offence, or
(b) 12 months in the case of an offence triable either way.”;
(c) in subsection (2), for the words from “more than” to the end substitute “a term exceeding the applicable limit”.
(2) In Part 8 of Schedule 23 to the Sentencing Act 2020 (powers to amend the Sentencing Code in relation to custodial sentences), before paragraph 15 insert—
“General limit on magistrates’ court’s power to impose custodial sentence—
14A (1) The Secretary of State may by regulations amend section 224(1A)(b) (general limit on custodial sentence for either-way offence in magistrates’ court)—
(a) if for the time being it refers to 12 months, to substitute a reference to 6 months for the reference to 12 months, or
(b) if for the time being it refers to 6 months, to substitute a reference to 12 months for the reference to 6 months.
(2) An amendment under sub-paragraph (1) has effect only in relation to an offence for which a person is convicted on or after the day on which the amendment comes into force.
(3) Regulations under sub-paragraph (1) are subject to the negative resolution procedure.”
(3) In Schedule 1 to the Interpretation Act 1978, after the entry requiring the definitions relating to offences to be construed without regard to section 22 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 insert—
“In relation to a term of imprisonment in respect of an offence triable either way under the law of England and Wales, “general limit in a magistrates’ court” means the limit laid down by section 224(1A)(b) of the Sentencing Code (as it has effect from time to time).”
(4) In section 32(1) of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (maximum penalty on summary conviction for certain either-way offences), for “12 months” substitute “the general limit in a magistrates’ court”.
(5) In section 282(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (maximum custodial term on summary conviction for certain either-way offences)—
(a) omit “maximum”;
(b) for “12 months” substitute “a term not exceeding the general limit in a magistrates’ court”.
(6) Subsection (7) applies to relevant legislation—
(a) which provides for a maximum term of imprisonment of 12 months on summary conviction for an offence triable either way, and
(b) in relation to which section 282(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 does not apply.
(7) Relevant legislation to which this subsection applies is to be read as providing for a term of imprisonment not exceeding the general limit in a magistrates’ court (in place of the term referred to in subsection (6)(a)).
(8) Subsection (9) applies to relevant primary legislation that confers a power (in whatever terms) to make subordinate legislation providing for a maximum term of imprisonment, on summary conviction for an offence triable either way, of—
(a) 6 months, in the case of an enactment contained in an Act passed on or before 20 November 2003, or
(b) 12 months, in the case of any other relevant primary legislation.
(9) Relevant primary legislation to which this subsection applies is to be read as conferring a power to provide for a term of imprisonment not exceeding the general limit in a magistrates’ court (in place of the term referred to in subsection (8)(a) or (b)).
(10) The Secretary of State may by regulations—
(a) amend relevant legislation in relation to which section 282(3) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 applies, to spell out the effect of that provision (as amended by subsection (5));
(b) amend relevant legislation to which subsection (7) applies, to spell out the effect of that subsection;
(c) amend relevant primary legislation to which subsection (9) applies, to spell out the effect of that subsection;
(d) amend relevant legislation in consequence of an amendment under any of the preceding paragraphs.
(11) In this section—
“relevant legislation” means an enactment contained in—
(a) an Act passed before or in the same Session as this Act,
(b) an Act or Measure of Senedd Cymru enacted before the passing of this Act,
(c) subordinate legislation made before the passing of this Act, or
(d) retained direct EU legislation, not falling within the preceding paragraphs, made before the passing of this Act;
“relevant primary legislation” means an enactment falling within paragraph (a) or (b) of the definition of “relevant legislation”;
“subordinate legislation” means subordinate legislation within the meaning of the Interpretation Act 1978 (see section 21(1) of that Act) or any equivalent instrument made or to be made under an Act or Measure of Senedd Cymru.”’—(James Cartlidge.)
This new clause enables the maximum custodial term that a magistrates’ court may impose for an either-way offence to be reduced to 6 months, and subsequently restored to 12 months, by regulations.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Online Procedural Assistance—
‘(1) Online Procedural Assistance, must be made available and accessible to any party or potential party to proceedings governed by Online Procedure Rules that requires it. In delivering this duty, the Lord Chancellor must have due regard to the intersection of digital exclusion with other factors, such as age, poverty, disability and geography and deliver support services accordingly.
(2) It must include assistance to enable such a party or potential party to have a reasonable understanding of the nature of the proceedings, the procedure applicable under Online Procedure Rules and of how to access and navigate such procedure. To this effect, it will provide both advice and technical hardware, as appropriate, and will provide assistance to such individuals throughout the course of their proceedings.
(3) Anyone who requires Online Procedural Assistance must have the option of receiving it either via remote appointments or in-person appointments at a site local to them.
(4) Online Procedural Assistance must include, for a party or potential party whose first language is not English, assistance, by interpretation or translation as appropriate, in a language that is familiar to the party or potential party.
(5) The delivery of Online Procedural Assistance must be evaluated at yearly intervals by an independent evaluation team. To assist in these evaluations, data must be routinely collected relating to the protected characteristics of those using the service, outcomes of cases that used Online Procedural Assistance and the frequency and location of the appointments provided. This must also be made publicly available.’
This new clause clarifies the nature of online procedural assistance.
New clause 3—Review of the single justice procedure—
‘(1) Within two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must commission a review of and publish a report on the effectiveness of the single justice procedure.
(2) A review under subsection (1) must consider—
(a) the transparency of the single justice procedure in line with the principle of open justice,
(b) the suitability of the use of the single justice procedure for Covid-19 offences, and
(c) prosecution errors for Covid-19 offences under the single justice procedure and what redress victims of errors have.
(3) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the report before Parliament.’
New clause 7—Compatibility with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights—
‘(1) This Act must be construed in accordance with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
(2) If a court or tribunal has found a provision of this Act to be incompatible with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it may, on application, make an order to that effect and that provision shall cease to have effect.’
This new clause would ensure the compatibility of the Act with Article 6 of the ECHR (right to a fair trial).
Amendment 36, clause 3, page 4, line 28, at end insert—
‘(1) Before this section may come into force, the Secretary of State must—
(a) commission an independent review of the potential impact, efficacy, and operational issues on defendants and the criminal justice system of the automatic online conviction and penalty for certain summary offences;
(b) lay before Parliament the report and findings of this independent review; and
(c) provide a response explaining whether and how such issues which have been identified will be mitigated.’
This amendment would require a review of clause 3 before it can come into force.
Amendment 20, page 5, line 34, at end insert—
‘(e) the prosecutor is satisfied that the accused does not have any vulnerabilities and disabilities that impede the ability of the accused to understand or effectively participate in proceedings, having undertaken a physical and mental health assessment.’
This amendment would require that all accused persons considered for automatic online convictions are subject to a health assessment, and that only those who do not have any vulnerabilities or disabilities are given the option of being convicted online.
Amendment 21, page 5, leave out lines 35 to 37 and insert—
‘(4) An offence may not be specified in regulations under subsection (3)(a) unless it is—
(a) a summary offence that is not punishable with imprisonment; and
(b) a non-recordable offence, which excludes any offence set out in the Schedule to the National Police Records (Recordable Offences) Regulations 2000/1139 (as amended).’
This amendment would exclude any offences which are recordable from the automatic online conviction option.
Amendment 22, clause 9, page 26, line 1, leave out subsection (5).
This amendment would remove cases involving children and young people from the provisions of clause 9.
Amendment 40, clause 21, page 39, line 13, leave out “(3) and (4)” and insert “(3), (4) and (4A)”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 41.
Amendment 41, page 39, line 30, at end insert—
‘(4A) The Lord President of the Court of Session is to appoint one person with experience in and knowledge of the Scottish legal system.’
This amendment would require the Online Procedure Committee to include a person with experience in and knowledge of the Scottish legal system, appointed by the Lord President of the Court of Session.
Government amendments 7 to 19.
The Government’s new clause 1 will provide powers to vary the maximum prison sentence that magistrates courts can give for a single offence. Court recovery remains a top priority for the Government. We have considered all options to support recovery in the criminal courts and have already taken several steps, such as investing £250 million in court recovery in the last financial year. The most recent spending review settlement provides £477 million to improve waiting times for victims and to reduce Crown court backlogs caused by the pandemic.
I have spent 16 years of my professional life trying to keep people out of prison. I have also worked within the current sentencing guidelines of six months. I support the Minister. Although I appreciate that this is a technical amendment, the magistrate should have increased sentencing powers—it is in the interests of justice. All my constituents welcome this, and we should be imposing deterrent sentences rather than the incredibly lenient sentences that are often handed out by magistrates because they do not feel that they have sufficient powers or length of sentence to replicate the seriousness of the offences that they are facing.
My hon. Friend has put his point on record, not least as someone who speaks with huge experience as a criminal solicitor—a voice of which we do need to hear more in these debates. It is an excellent point.
Magistrates play a vital role in our justice system. I would like to put on record, as I have done previously, my immense gratitude to our magistrates, our volunteer judiciary, for their work in tackling the backlog. They put in a herculean shift to bring down the backlog and make extra capacity, which we can now utilise.
I will explain very shortly what impact we expect this to have on the delays, which my hon. Friend is quite right to raise.
Just to be clear, in the coming months, we will be extending magistrates court’s sentencing powers from a maximum of six months to 12 months imprisonment for a single triable either-way offence by commencing existing provisions in the Sentencing Act 2020 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Extended sentencing powers will allow for more cases to be retained in magistrates courts, allowing these cases to be heard more quickly and with the intended effect of reducing the backlog of outstanding cases in the Crown court. Just to be clear, we estimate that this will save nearly 2,000 Crown court sitting days per year. Magistrates are also fully capable of hearing these cases. They make sound legal decisions, which is supported by the fact that there is very low appeal rate of only 0.7%, 50% of which are dismissed or abandoned.
I, too, support this amendment. My hon. Friend will remember, or will perhaps know, that the Justice Committee has raised this in the past when we did an inquiry in relation to magistrates. A concern was raised by his predecessor that this might have an impact on the levels of those going into custody, but we were never able to find any evidence to support that. It seemed, essentially, anecdotal. Has any hard evidence been found to suggest one way or another?
The short answer is no. That is certainly my impression. The reason that we are making this change is that we have faith in our magistracy. I have spoken about the huge shift that they put in during the pandemic to get the backlog down in the magistrates courts. When it comes to trying to make guesses about what impact this will have, the key thing is to simply trust our magistrates to look at the case before them, to take into account sentencing guidelines, to take the advice of their legal advisers, and to make their sentence according to the circumstances of the case before them, which is how they always behave.
We want to make this change as quickly as possible, so that we can ensure maximum benefit for court recovery. That is why we will be implementing the policy on a national basis from the outset, rather than first running a pilot in select courts. This clause supplements the provisions to extend the sentencing powers of magistrates courts by introducing a power to vary the limit on the length of sentence that the magistrates courts may give to either six months or 12 months in the future. This will ensure that there is the ability to return to the current position in the event that any unsustainable adverse impacts materialise—of course, we sincerely hope they will not.
Taken together, this amendment and the magistrates’ recruitment campaign launched this week shows that this Government are committed to our magistracy and understand how important they are for court recovery.
I also support this amendment and the efforts being made by my hon. Friend’s Department and across Government to increase the ability of magistrates to hear and deliver justice. Can he confirm that, through this Bill, the raising of the magistrates’ retirement age from 70 to 75 will include those who have already been forced to retire at 70, so that, where there is local demand, they can come back and serve some of the justice that we now want to see being brought forward?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, because, of course, we do want to achieve precisely that. Just to be clear, it is not in this Bill. It is in the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill that is going through at the same time—I spoke on its Second Reading. The key point, as my hon. Friend has said, is that it raises the mandatory retirement age to 75, and we think that that will have a significant impact. In fact, we have estimated that it could lead to 400 additional magistrates coming in at a time when we really need that resource because of the backlog.[Official Report, 1 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 2MC.]
We have tabled other amendments on employment tribunals. Amendments 7 to 19 to schedule 5 are minor and technical, and ensure that terminology used in employment tribunal procedure is up to date, and that it correctly reflects terms used in employment tribunal procedure regulations. There are of course a number of non-Government amendments in this group, and I will respond to them once we have heard from the Members who tabled them, towards the end of the debate.
Let me first thank the Minister and other colleagues on the Bill Committee for their kind comments on the last day. Sadly, I was unable to join them because I had tested positive for covid Double vaccinations protected me well, and I got off lightly. I am also grateful to the Minister for his helpful engagement with many of our concerns in Committee.
The Opposition understand the need to modernise our court and tribunal proceedings, and we appreciate the potential of online and digital procedures to increase the efficiency of our courts for those who use them and work in them. However, we also recognise that alongside any innovative changes, appropriate safeguards must be introduced to ensure that access to justice and engagement in our justice system are not inadvertently hampered for anyone. I am concerned that the criminal procedure and online rules procedure sections of the Bill as drafted do not sufficiently safeguard access to justice, particularly for young people and children and people with vulnerabilities.
On Second Reading, the Lord Chancellor said:
“Physical hearings will always be available for those who need and want to use them, so that those who are uncomfortable or cannot access the digital and online applications will not be prejudiced.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 195.]
While I welcome that commitment from the Lord Chancellor, I do wonder why the Government would not go so far as putting such safeguards in the primary legislation, instead choosing to vote down every Labour amendment that tried to secure the rights of young and vulnerable individuals to engage with the justice system in the way most suitable for them. Today we are giving the Government a second chance, and I hope that the Minister uses it well and supports the amendments we have tabled.
Before I come on to the Opposition amendments, I will address new clause 1 and its consequential amendments, as we were not able to scrutinise these proposals in Committee. At this stage, I join the Minister in praising the work of our magistrates up and down the country. They do a grand job, often in very difficult circumstances. However, I do not understand why we did not have the opportunity of full legislative scrutiny of these proposals in Committee, rather than their being tabled at this late stage. Indeed, in response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) on Second Reading, the Lord Chancellor confirmed that the proposals were already being considered at that time.
Ministers have explained that new clause 1 is intended to provide additional capacity to help decrease the burgeoning backlog of cases in the Crown court. In the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics, released just last week, it has been revealed that delays in the criminal justice system have hit a record high. It takes an average of 708 days from the commission of an offence to the completion of a criminal case in the Crown court, so we need action. The Opposition want to see dramatic decreases in these numbers, and will support the Government in measures that will genuinely contribute to a reduction in the backlog. However, I seriously doubt that increasing sentencing powers of magistrates will have the measurable impact that all those involved in the criminal justice system are crying out for.
According to the Government, the measures could
“save 1,700 sitting days in the Crown Courts by enabling 500 jury trials to be switched to magistrates”.
It appears, however, that that estimate presumes that defendants will not exercise their right to opt for a jury trial. Will the Minister tell the House on what basis the Government have made this presumption? It strikes me that one of the primary reasons for not electing for a trial in the Crown court is in fact the lesser sentencing powers of magistrates, but as this cap is increased, I imagine that a trial by jury may seem a more appropriate option for more defendants and so they will still end up in the Crown court. Even if all defendants did choose not to exercise their right, the Government’s plan would represent a tiny saving overall.
I see that Jo Sidhu QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, has also suggested that the increase in magistrates’ sentencing powers will not have the effect that the Lord Chancellor hopes, as it will lead to more cases being appealed in the Crown court, thereby potentially increasing rather than reducing the workload.
That assessment is completely at odds with my 16 years of working in this field. When a case is committed to the Crown court, it is on the basis of the maximum sentence that could be imposed in the circumstances. The increase in sentencing powers will bring many more cases—burglary, affray, first-time offenders—back into the magistrates courts and avoid the ridiculous situation whereby straightforward cases that can be dealt with in a magistrates court are committed to the Crown court for no reason.
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly), one of the main reasons for cases going to the Crown court is that magistrates refuse jurisdiction and send them there. There is no certainty that higher sentences will be given to individuals who are found guilty. They may well get exactly the same sentence in a magistrates court as they would get in a Crown court. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) is confusing the issue. The fact that magistrates can now keep a case in their court without having to refer up to a higher court will reduce the backlog in Crown courts.
We believe the potential is there, but we want to understand the statistics on which the Government have based the proposal. However, I will move on now.
Have the Government taken into account the potential increase in appeals? I imagine that could quickly offset the 1.6% saving in sitting days. The increase in sentencing powers is interesting in the context of existing provisions in the Bill, particularly in relation to the new allocation procedure.
As Justice points out, there is a risk that more serious cases
“could proceed without defendants being physically present for a hearing, and as such without the defendant’s informed input as to whether the case should be heard in the Magistrates’ or Crown Court.”
It is also important to consider the proposal in the light of clause 9, which will allow hearings to take place in the absence of the defendant in many circumstances. Can the Minister share any assessment that the Department has made of the potential impact on appeals to the Crown court of introducing the increase in sentencing powers at the same time as the new allocation procedure and clause 9?
As the Minister outlined, new clause 1 will enable the Government to switch off and back on the maximum custodial term that a magistrates court may impose for an either-way offence—in other words, he is taking the power to reverse these new sentences when it suits the Lord Chancellor. I am interested to hear in what circumstances the Minister would want to reduce magistrates’ sentencing powers in future. Will that be triggered by the backlog reaching a certain level, or does he think there is a high risk that there will be unintended consequences, such as those that the CBA, Justice and I have described?
The whole approach suggests that the Government are not too confident that the proposal will be the success that they hope. Until Ministers address the shortages in judges, criminal practitioners and appropriate court space, victims and defendants will continue to suffer excessive waits until their cases are concluded.
I will now move on to the Opposition’s amendments and new clauses, which, as I explained earlier, aim to introduce a number of safeguards into the Bill to ensure that access to justice is not hampered in the drive towards efficiency that online and remote processes can offer.
Clause 3 creates an automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty procedure, which will provide automatic online convictions as an alternative to the single justice procedure. Through this process, a defendant could opt to plead guilty online, which would result in an automatic conviction without the need for a hearing.
The process rightly already has some limitations. For example, the defendant must consent to use of the process, so they retain the right to opt for an in-person hearing instead. Furthermore, the procedure is only available in respect of non-imprisonable summary offences where the accused was aged 18 or over when charged. The Opposition agree with those limitations, but we think they need to go further. Amendment 20 would require that all accused persons considered for automatic online convictions, as introduced by clause 3, are subject to a health assessment, and that only those who do not have any vulnerabilities or disabilities are given the option of being convicted online.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recognised that remote justice is unsuitable for disabled people, such as those with learning difficulties, cognitive impairments or mental health conditions. The commission identified that remote proceedings reduced chances to identify a court user’s additional needs and make the appropriate adjustments. I know the Minister will share my anxiety that further roll-out of remote processes without the right safeguards may compound those inequalities even further. A recent criminal justice joint inspectorates report emphasised the need for default screening of all criminal suspects and defendants for disability, including neuro-disability. That proposal was supported by the former Lord Chancellor, who promised action on this issue. I sincerely hope his successors will uphold his promise by supporting this amendment.
I am aware that it is the Government’s intention for online pleas to be entered via the common platform, which potentially provides at least one instance where a court user’s needs can be identified so that adjustments can be made. However, the ongoing chaos with the common platform demonstrates why that would not be a sufficient safeguard in this regard. The pilot and early adopter sites have established that in its present form, at least, the common platform is not fit for purpose. The experience of the pilot courts has been widely reported to the Public and Commercial Services Union as disastrous. Their members have been working late into the evenings in an attempt to record case outcomes, with work often disappearing into thin air. Case outcomes that took a matter of seconds to record in a paper file are now taking in excess of an hour to record, provided the system is even working. Although Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has taken steps to address slowness and instability since the intervention of the senior presiding judge in pausing the roll-out last year, PCS does not accept that those steps have addressed the fundamental design flaws. Results still routinely disappear from the court record.
I am told that confidence in the common platform at the Crown Prosecution Service—the common platform was initially a joint CPS and HMCTS venture—is so low that the CPS has retained its case management system and is using that in preference to the platform. Given the low level of confidence in the system among the professionals who use it, I am sure the Minister can recognise why I do not believe it should be relied on as a safeguard as more remote justice procedures are introduced and rolled out. Instead, he should listen carefully to the EHRC’s findings and introduce meaningful screening measures.
I turn to amendment 21, which would introduce a further safeguard to the automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty procedure by excluding recordable offences from its purview. When I raised my concerns in Committee about the application of the AOCSSP to recordable offences, the Minister confirmed:
“There is currently no intention to extend the procedure to any recordable offences.”––[Official Report, Judicial Review and Courts Public Bill Committee, 9 November 2021; c. 228.]
The Opposition welcome the Minister’s words, but we would prefer to see that confirmed in primary legislation. The Bill already limits the use of the procedure to summary and non-imprisonable offences, but the consequences of a recordable conviction, even for such an offence, can still be serious. Many people will not understand the impact that a conviction can have on their lives. For example, it can have a detrimental impact on employment prospects in certain sectors.
In its current format, it seems as though the AOCSSP will incentivise people to plead guilty out of convenience, regardless of whether they have an arguable case. I am sure the Minister will agree that it is vital that no one is adversely impacted by pleading guilty without recognising the full impact. If the Government agree with that point, I hope the Minister will confirm that support by limiting the procedure in primary legislation to non-recordable offences.
I now consider amendment 22, which would remove children from the provisions of clause 9. Again, in Committee the Minister provided me with additional briefing on this point, for which we were very grateful. It was not, however, enough to quell my concerns about the fact that courts will be able to proceed if a child defendant is absent from a plea and allocation hearing. In Committee, the Minister confirmed that he recognises that
“in the majority of cases, the courts may not deem it appropriate to proceed”––[Official Report, Judicial Review and Courts Public Bill Committee, 16 November 2021; c. 271.]
in the absence of the child. Given that, I do not know understand why the Government insist on keeping the provision in the Bill. I have spent much time in this role trying to unpick Government proposals that treat children more and more like adults in the justice system, in both this Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It is extremely worrying to me that here we have yet another example of the Government failing to treat children in an appropriately distinct way. It is the position of the Opposition that they should be removed from the scope of the clause entirely.
I now turn to the Opposition’s new clauses and, first, to new clause 2, which clarifies the nature of online procedural assistance. We discussed the Bill’s proposals on online procedure at length in Committee, but again the discussions did not completely allay my concerns, which is why the Opposition have tabled this new clause. Some 16% of the UK population lack basic digital skills and are unable to participate in a digital society. There need to be clear assurances that those individuals will not be left out of the justice system by the Bill. As it stands, there is only a vague duty for the Lord Chancellor to provide digital support
“for those who require it”.
Labour believes that a specific commitment to assist digitally excluded individuals would offer better protection to that 16% of society, and the new clause adds the details that the Bill lacks on who exactly needs to be covered by the Lord Chancellor’s duty.
Finally, Labour’s new clause 3 would mandate the Lord Chancellor to undertake a review of the single justice procedure and, in particular, its appropriateness for use in prosecuting covid-19 offences. I am grateful again for the Minister’s engagement on the issue, which is one I have been particularly interested in over the past year. We have met to discuss some of my concerns about the single justice procedure, and I can confirm that he can expect a follow-up letter very soon. However, Labour felt it was important to bring the clause back for discussion on the Floor of the House, given the topicality of the issues it deals with. There are a number of allegations that members of the Government and those who work with them may have broken covid rules, having met for parties during lockdowns. The allegations are well known and numerous, and I do not intend to go over them again at this time, as we are now aware that there is an ongoing police investigation into some of them.
The allegations have, however, certainly been detrimental to public trust in not only the Government, but the justice system’s handling of covid-19 breaches more generally. Members may have seen the reports from Evening Standard court reporter Tristan Kirk on those cases. Last Wednesday, he tweeted:
“In the latest batch of Covid-19 prosecutions, a magistrate considered 68 cases on a single day, behind closed doors, and within just five and a half hours...The court recorded receiving a plea in just 11 of those cases. Defendants denying the breach were adjourned for trial, guilty parties were sentenced, the rest went through a mini-trial. In all, the magistrate imposed more than £15k in fines.
All these cases were dealt with behind-closed-doors, in the Single Justice Procedure. Details of the allegations are, as yet, sparse. There was no open court hearing, so it’s impossible to say how much care was taken over each case.”
The allegations of Government parties have pushed those prosecutions back up the agenda, as it appears that the rules have not been applied equally. I am not questioning the legality of convictions in individual cases or trying to impugn the decisions of the magistrates, who were applying the law, but I think it will assist in the consideration of the new clause if I share what some of the defendants wrote.
A 66-year-old man from Brockley wrote:
“I am a sick person with heart failure and other problems. I went to the allotment to get some greens as I don’t eat meat. I am a pensioner struggling to pay my way and in debt already. I did not wish to break the law and if you check I have no criminal record since school over 50 years ago”.
He was given a £100 fine. A woman was fined £250 for accidentally breaking the rules when trying to drop off a birthday card at the house of a friend, with whom she was in a bubble. She said:
“I did not realise there would be other people present. I did not enter the property.”
The review mandated by new clause 3 will assess how compatible the single justice procedure is with the principle of open justice. The review would also consider the appropriateness of the SJP for the prosecution of covid offences. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has stated:
“We are concerned that the single justice procedure is an inadequate tool to provide the necessary fair trial protections for people accused of offences that are so poorly understood and lacking in clarity and where so many mistakes have been made by enforcement authorities.”
It is not just members of the public who have a poor understanding of the offences. The Prime Minister himself does not understand them—and he made them up. He does not seem to know when he is at his own birthday party.
I certainly share the concerns of Big Brother Watch, which has pointed out that, in an unprecedented step that acknowledged the complexities of the new offences, the Crown Prosecution Service committed to reviewing all charges made under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 and the Coronavirus Act 2020. Those monthly reviews have overturned hundreds of unlawful charges—18% under the regulations and 100% under the Act.
However, the majority of charges made under the regulations and the Act have not been reviewed as they have been brought using the single justice procedure. As we know already, some are incorrect. For instance, 37 people have been prosecuted under schedule 22 to the Act through the single justice procedure. Given that the offences were in relation to a schedule dealing with events and gatherings that has never been activated in England, those prosecutions simply cannot be lawful.
There are errors in about 10% of prosecutions brought under the SJP generally, and I imagine that that number is much higher for covid-19 offences. How we handle the criminalisation of certain behaviours in the pandemic will inform future emergency responses, so it is important that we reflect fully on how the criminal law was used and what lessons there are to be learned. I am sure that many Members will agree with me that the action of the Government on covid rules demonstrates that there is much for them to learn.
To finish, I emphasise again that Labour supports measures that will streamline and build efficiency into the justice system; it is vital that we do so to bring the backlog down. But we cannot compromise access to justice in the name of efficiency, so I hope that the Government will accept the new clause.
All in all, this is a valuable Bill and I welcome the Government amendments. I practised criminal law for the better part of 30 years before I came into the House—in both magistrates courts as a younger barrister and then predominantly in the Crown court, both prosecuting and defending. It never seemed logical that the legislative provision introduced by the Labour Government in 2003 had not actually been brought into force.
Much has changed since that time in the way magistrates operate—and for the better, frankly. It seems to me that there have been real efforts to make the bench more diverse, and those recruitment activities are continuing. As a Select Committee in the previous Parliament, we wrote a report about the magistracy—the first for a number of years—that recognised the value of the work that magistrates do. Since 2003, the sentencing guidelines have been developed to a high degree and they are available now to all benches as well.
I salute my hon. Friend’s work as a magistrate over many years. What he says is absolutely true, and the Justice Committee report picked the point up at the time. When I practised in parts of east and central London, magistrates benches used to have a very high number of what we would now term blue collar workers—frequently trade union officials and public sector workers. They were given time off. Some of the major employers—Ford at Dagenham in the old days, for example—used to allow employees time off to serve as magistrates. The courts were much the better for that. I hope that that can be encouraged and we should make it easier to achieve.
We should also look at magistrates’ expenses, which have not been updated for very many years. We do not need legislation to do that, but we should make it worth people’s while to serve and not leave them out of pocket. That is important.
When the Committee published the report and considered why the provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 had not been brought into force, we questioned the evidential basis. At that time, the Ministry of Justice’s line was that there was a risk of an adverse impact on the prison population, but we were never able to find any evidence to establish that. I think there is a bit of an urban myth that magistrates are heavier handed in sentencing than the Crown court would be. In fairness, when I first started, there might have been a bit of anecdotal evidence that I came across to support that view, but things have moved on over the years. The benches have a more sophisticated approach to sentencing and the guidelines have developed to such a degree that that dimension has changed.
I truly wish that my hon. Friend had come to Bury magistrates court, then he would know a bench of magistrates who were willing to impose the stiffest possible sentences. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the backlog, on which this debate is framed. I am a member of the Justice Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill). We should be considering the measures in terms not just of the backlog, but of the new offending that comes into the system. I believe the measures will give confidence to the police and to other partners in the criminal justice system that, instead of creating more backlog, by releasing more people under custody we can get them before the magistrates, sentenced and dealt with at the earliest opportunity.
I agree with my hon. Friend and recognise his experience in the field. I do not think this needs to be framed as a backlog-reducing measure. There is merit in the measure in its own right, as there was in 2003 when the Labour Government introduced it. With all due respect to the Minister, it does a bit of disservice to the measure to say it is done to reduce the backlog, and that it can be reversed. I would hope it would not be reversed; it is desirable in terms of a better allocation of case time, and it is a better use of court arrangements to keep lower level cases in the magistrates court.
A powerful point was made about the reduction in the number of committals for sentence and those cases when the magistrates refuse jurisdiction in relation to either-way offences. I do not think that will be eaten away by people electing that course of action needlessly, particularly if they have good and sound early legal advice.
That is where I think we can improve the system. Doing so does not require our legislating in this Bill, but we should make sure that when we revise the legal aid system, we front-load it so that there is proper legal advice available from solicitors at a very early opportunity to get informed pleas and early disclosure into the system. That will of itself be likely to keep more cases down at the magistrates court level, and would get more pleas. When they are confronted with the reality of the evidence, and with sound advice, more people will accept that they should enter a guilty plea when they have committed an offence.
That is the right way to deal with the issue, which is why I think the amendment is entirely justified in any event. Of course, it has to be applied on a national basis. The idea of a pilot never seemed realistic and would be against the principle of natural justice. It could not be right if there was a postcode lottery and someone could get a higher sentence in Bury than they could in Bromley because one was in the pilot. We either do it nationally or not at all, and the Government have made the right call.
I hope we will continue to invest in training and professional support for the magistracy, which again our Committee report called for.
We have to remember that magistrates sit not only in the criminal courts, but in the family proceedings courts. Support and advice, and the recruitment of magistrates, will be really important in making sure that children and families are also getting justice through the family court system.
That is entirely true. We know that there is sometimes a struggle to get sufficient magistrates to sit in the family jurisdiction. They are absolutely crucial. There is a separate piece of work that needs to be done, so that, as with early legal advice, informed decisions and choices are made. That applies in the magistrates court in the criminal jurisdiction and also to decisions that have to be taken in family court proceedings. I am a great believer that the lawyer is the best route into mediation in many family law cases. Having the magistrates end of the family jurisdiction treated seriously is really important for doing justice and for the early resolution of issues for the benefit of the parties and the children involved.
The Chairman of the Justice Committee, as always, talks very clear sense. If we are going to have all these training programmes, attract people to the magistracy and everything else, we will need resources, so will he join me in encouraging the Lord Chancellor to go banging on the door of the Treasury to say that it is time that we took this matter seriously?
I understand the spirit in which the shadow Minister makes that point. He will know that the Justice Committee has said on a number of occasions that we cannot get justice on the cheap. I accept that we cannot write blank cheques, but the fact is that the proportion of total public spending that goes on the court system is a fraction of a fraction. We get justice for a very small amount of overall public spending in this country and a modest increase in that could be entirely justified, even within the existing budgets. With the increase in the Department’s allocation in the last spending, there is scope to do that. However, in terms of a greater reprioritisation of Government spending, more weight ought to be given to the importance of an effective justice system. It is a fundamental part of a democratic society and of the rule of law, and the magistracy are a key part of that.
I understand the spirit in which the shadow Minister spoke to a number of his amendments. I have sympathy with a lot of the thrust behind them and I hope that the Government will take them on board. I do not think that they need to be written in legislation, but there are issues relating to the way in which the single justice procedure operates. I am not against this—I think we have all seen what happens in magistrates courts when a bench sits in an entirely empty court going through a whole list of TV licence defaults or road traffic offences where nobody has attended. That is not a good use of time.
A fair point was raised with the Justice Committee about this issue in relation to open justice. More needs to be done to improve, for example, publication of the lists online so that people can be aware of what is happening and what can be done in relation to the publication of the results. That does not require legislation, but it should be invested in. Again, it is a small amount in the overall scheme of things.
I also share some of the concerns about the operation of the Common Platform. We have to accept that that is not necessarily a silver bullet; virtually no public sector IT system ever is. We have to continue to invest in it, but we cannot ultimately get around the fact that criminal justice—in fact, all justice systems—ultimately depends on the quality of the individuals in it. The technology is there to help, but ultimately, it is the good-quality lawyers, good-quality judges and good-quality probation professionals who help.
I know we are straying towards the edge of the topic, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think this is germane, because to make these reforms to the court system work, we have to invest in the professionals who operate in it. I welcome Sir Christopher’s report; it is immensely well researched and immensely well written. The truth is that within the uplift in the Department’s funding, there is scope, I say to the Minister, to implement Bellamy over the period of the spending round. I know that he has had constructive engagement already with Sir Christopher, and I urge him and his colleagues to continue to do so. We should thank Sir Christopher for his work.
I hope, therefore, that we will support the Government amendments. I hope that the Opposition will not press their amendments to a vote, but they raise legitimate issues that the Government should take on board. We all want to co-operate on having a court system that works. Efficiency should not be a matter of partisan debate, because justice must continue to be there, and the more settled arrangements we have across the House, the better confidence will be.
Finally, I express my thanks to magistrates. I have many friends who have served as magistrates. They do a very great public service, but the more magistrates we can get who are younger, the better. We have done pretty well on gender diversity, but we need to do more about recruiting magistrates from ethnic minority communities. That must continue to be a priority. I hope that that will be done by valuing the job; by giving them the resources, and that includes the physical resources and the buildings they sit in, many of which are pretty woeful; by a more imaginative approach to local justice—to where custody cases, for example, are not necessary and to listing cases nearer to people’s homes—by making it easier for witnesses to get to courts, because that was a concern that we raised in our report on access to justice some years ago; and by encouraging the best-quality people to go into the work that is done at the sharp end. That work, actually, is largely in the solicitors’ profession—I say that as a member of the Bar—because they are the people who do the police station call-outs, the early advice and the first appearances in front of magistrates. That is why Sir Christopher’s report, in that regard, is very important.
You will be pleased to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that most of the SNP’s objections are around judicial review, so I have only two amendments that I want to speak to and I can do that within a couple of minutes to give other people time to speak.
The online procedure rule committee will potentially cover wide areas of law and will sometimes make rules applicable in completely distinct legal jurisdictions. The SNP is concerned about the lack of representation on the committee from Scotland. Amendments 40 and 41 would therefore ensure that someone with knowledge and experience of the Scottish legal system will be appointed to the committee and that appointment should be made by the Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland. I cannot see any reason to say no to that. That would address the imbalance in the representation of the Scottish legal system and allow the Government to keep up their pretence about respect for Scotland ahead of an independence referendum.
I say to Labour colleagues—I do so gently because the Labour Members present were on the Committee and we very much enjoyed working collaboratively with them—that I was a little disappointed that, with one notable exception, they abstained on amendments that would in effect have allowed Cart judicial reviews, or Eba judicial reviews as we call them, to remain in Scotland. I ask them to consider voting for this simple little measure so that we would have someone with experience and knowledge of the Scottish legal system to represent our system on the committee.
New clause 7 in my name would ensure the Bill’s compatibility with article 6 of the European convention on human rights: the right to a fair trial. To return to the example I gave earlier about the employment tribunal fees judgment in 2017, if the Bill had been in place when that landmark ruling was handed down, no one would have had fees refunded, everyone would have continued to pay the unlawful fees and, going forward, the Government could have simply changed the unlawful so that it was lawful: in other words, there would be no point whatsoever in taking the Government or other public bodies to court. The chilling effect would be widespread. That is surely a breach of article 6, which gives people the right to a fair trial and an effective judicial remedy. The new clause would allow judges a way to disapply the Bill if they considered there was a breach.
Let me give one more example of a group of people who may be refused their rights to a fair trial if the Bill passes: those who require legal aid. To secure legal aid, applicants must be able to demonstrate a tangible benefit if their case is successful. As I and others have demonstrated, if the Bill is enacted, there will regularly be no tangible benefit. If the Government are trying to keep people on average and low incomes away from being able to bring judicial reviews and access justice, they are doing a very effective job, but they should at least be honest about that. They have said and will keep saying that the Bill is compatible with article 6, but surely that begs the question: why do they continue to resist any amendment to ensure compatibility?
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate in support of the Government’s new clause. The Minister and hon. Members will know that I continue to sit in magistrates courts; I am on the Merseyside bench at courthouses in Sefton in north Liverpool, in Liverpool city centre, in Birkenhead and occasionally in Chester and Crewe. I decided to do so because I felt that, as a Member of Parliament, it would be incredibly helpful and informative to continue to go into courts to understand the issues that magistrates and members of the legal profession face, as well as to hear and see those experiencing the criminal justice system from the other side.
In the last 10 years, I have seen tremendous change in the operation of the courts, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) mentioned, all of which has been designed to make the system more efficient. I think it is fair to say that some of the changes—closing court buildings in particular—have been pretty unpopular with members of the judiciary and members of the legal profession. After Dale Street magistrates court in the centre of Liverpool closed—a wonderful old building that had proper courts—and magistrates moved into the Queen Elizabeth II law courts where the Crown court is held, I wondered for a time what that would do to our magistrates courts. On reflection, knowing that four other buildings contained courthouses in Liverpool, I could completely understand why those decisions were taken. The waste that we were seeing within the system was unjustifiable. Our ability to reduce the amount of buildings and focus on developing technology and investing in courthouses to improve the facilities is critical. The ability to invest in the number of professional judges sitting as district judges has enabled a swifter and more effective process in the magistrates courts.
Many members of the magistracy have seen the number of magistrates in the courts continue to fall, which is one of the concerns. and I am pleased that the Government are taking steps to address that. Another area of concern was the centralisation of certain types of cases in certain courthouses. Let me give the House an example. On Merseyside, all motoring offences are now dealt with in Birkenhead, so if a magistrate regularly sits only in Liverpool city centre, they will never come across a motoring case. It can sometimes be a bit of an issue for magistrates to get their head around such issues if they are faced with an appeal, or an issue that has been referred back to their court, and they have not dealt with a motoring offence for some time. I say to the Minister that the ability for all magistrates to deal with all issues is really pertinent in the criminal court.
As the Minister said, magistrates play a fundamental role in our society, covering the overwhelming majority of criminal cases that appear in our courts. I want to join hon. and right hon. Friends in paying tribute to the 13,000 magistrates in courthouses across England and Wales, and to recognise and put on record the sacrifices that they have made throughout the covid pandemic. The overwhelming majority of courthouses stayed open. The magistrates, who were all volunteers, turned up to do their public duty. We should recognise the value that that has given to local society up and down the country. They have ensured that speedy justice has been delivered. I saw magistrates adapting and moving into Nightingale courts in Liverpool, in the historic St George’s Hall, where they continued to provide an outstanding service to the people of Merseyside and Cheshire.
The news this week that the Government are promoting a recruitment drive for 4,000 new magistrates is very welcome. They truly are the unsung heroes in our justice system. We need to ensure that people from every part of our society are represented in their ranks. I urge the Government to look at the recruitment process and the length of time it takes from applying to becoming a magistrate to actually sitting. I know many people who have applied to become a magistrate but who have fallen off during the process because it seems to be endless. The local advisory councils have historically been responsible for selecting magistrates. The Government need to consider that process carefully. The regular meeting of those advisory panels needs to be focused on.
I welcome the news that magistrates’ sentencing powers will be increased from six months to 12 months to help drive down waiting times and bring the criminal justice process to a speedier resolution. As the Minister and the Opposition spokesman mentioned, I have raised this in the House on numerous occasions, and I am delighted to see that it is now moving forward. I thank the Minister for taking this forward and making it happen. Ministry of Justice figures show that victims are waiting more than 600 days for justice after crimes are committed to the Crown court, a rise of more than 50% in the past year. Such delays increase the pressure on defendants, witnesses and victims of crime. The increase in sentencing powers will mean that less serious crimes can be heard much more speedily in magistrates courts, freeing up around 2,000 extra days in Crown courts.
Based on his long experience in the magistracy, does my hon. Friend agree that the increase in sentencing powers is not going to have a great impact on the magistrates? They are not suddenly going to decide to send to prison everybody they previously would not have sent to prison because of that increase; it simply expands the sentencing range open to the court. I join my hon. Friend in praising our magistrates, who are experienced, common-sense people from their own communities who make decisions in the interests of justice.
My experience is that the overwhelming majority of magistrates will do everything they can to avoid passing a custodial sentence, and if a custodial sentence is required, a primary consideration is to look to suspend that sentence. Of course, all magistrates, no matter their length of service, sit with an experienced legal adviser who guides them through every step of the process from a legal perspective, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it will not make a significant difference in that respect.
I know that the idea of changing magistrates’ sentencing powers has polarised opinions, with some saying that lay members of the judiciary should have no powers at all to impose custodial sentences. I am afraid I do not agree: magistrates play an important part in the sentencing process and the role of legal advisers in the courts ensures that the right sentence is given in the overwhelming majority of cases. The Minister mentioned that less than 1% of cases that go into magistrates courts appear in the Crown court for an appeal. I serve on a Crown court appeals panel and there are very few occasions on which I feel that something is wrong and the sentence given should be overturned.
The Minister mentioned that the increase in the retirement age for magistrates is covered in another Bill, but it is important that all these steps are taken together. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) introduced an excellent private Member’s Bill to address the issue, which the Magistrates Association has looked at carefully. Many good, experienced magistrates —presiding justices who chair the benches—are approaching 70 or have gone over that age but can contribute significantly to the work of the courts.
I am delighted that the Government have addressed the issue and look forward to welcoming back colleagues with whom I have served who can bring their experience back into the courthouse. We must remember that when new magistrates are recruited they can sit as wingers for the first five years of their time in the court, and it is important that they sit with experienced magistrates. If we did not address that issue and all the magistrates were reaching retirement age, we would have a serious problem in respect of experienced presiding justices in the magistrates courts, so I am pleased that that increase is to happen.
I wish to touch for a moment on the proposal to make changes to local justice areas. I recognise the importance of local justice and defendants, victims and witnesses not having to travel too far to attend a courthouse, but from a magistrate’s perspective there are some perverse issues with local justice areas. Let me give the House a couple of examples. I live on the border of Greater Manchester but operate in the Cheshire and Merseyside area. The courthouse in Greater Manchester is closer for me to get to, but because I am not in the Greater Manchester local justice area, I cannot sit in that court. That makes no sense at all, so I urge the Minister to look into new ways of thinking about local justice areas for magistrates so that they can sit in whichever courthouse is closest to them, no matter what local justice area might apply.
I was recently given another example by a magistrate who sits in Highbury but lives in Hertfordshire. His court in Highbury does not sit at the weekend—it has no operation at the weekend at all—so he is a working magistrate who is available to sit in the courthouse on Saturdays but, because he does not operate in the Hertfordshire local justice area, he is not able to sit at the weekend, when he is most available. It would be really valuable to create the flexibility for magistrates to sit in areas that are convenient for them and where they understand the pertinent local issues.
As I said, it is important that we recognise that defendants, victims and witnesses should not have to travel long distances and rack up travel costs. It is really important that justice is done locally and I would not want to see trials and cases listed for courts many miles away from the local area.
I want to talk briefly about technology. I have seen a number of different technologies used in courtrooms, and a number of different systems trialled—Common Platform has been mentioned—and one thing I have seen is that, whatever system is put in place, the legal advisers are brilliant at adapting how they operate, particularly in magistrates courts. I know that magistrates courts have had to make some changes recently and that some things are not quite as quick as they used to be, as legal advisers are recording cases at the same time. I think the Opposition spokesman talked about paper files. Any suggestion that we want to go back to using paper files in courthouses is really not the way forward. When I first started as a magistrate, we all had a big book containing all the sentencing guidelines. Everything is computerised now, and the ability to look up sentencing guidelines or to calculate fines on a laptop is really valuable. I think that all magistrates would recognise that, despite some early hesitancy, we now have a far better system.
My final comments on the changes in magistrates courts reflect the point I made earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst about younger magistrates. The Young Magistrates Network has made some really good inroads into understanding the perspective of being a JP while holding down a full-time job. I welcome the extension of the retirement age, but we also need to think about how we have as wide a talent pool as possible. We should have on the bench hard-working members of society who are in employment. If we are getting to a situation where only retired people have the time to sit on the bench and are selected, that is really dangerous.
Importantly, I also think that parents should be encouraged to sit on the bench, particularly in youth courts, because the knowledge and experience of being a mum or dad can be so very valuable when talking to a young person appearing before a youth court.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the youth courts. Does he agree that it is often not appreciated that the youth courts deal with very serious matters which, if they involved adult offenders, would undoubtedly go to the Crown court, and that requires not only the best possible lawyers, but the most experienced and diverse magistracy available to deal with those important cases, just as we would expect for a jury, with the same level of experience of the world that is brought to bear across the piece?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The sentencing powers of youth courts are already far greater than those in magistrates courts for criminal offences. I do not sit in youth courts, but I have observed them and I know that the conversation and dialogue that takes places between the bench and the young person who finds themselves in court is very different. We do need a really broad, balanced bench in the youth court. I encourage the Minister to look at what support he can give to encourage employed people and young people to come into the magistracy.
The Young Magistrates Network—it is co-ordinated by a young magistrate, Luke Rigg, who has done a marvellous job of looking at this area—has made some very good recommendations, which I think HMCTS is now considering as part of its review. We need to ensure that any recruitment campaign is targeted, using social media, in the right places. I encourage the Minister to look at the school governors’ network, which has done a really good job of talking to employers about the value that somebody who is a school governor can bring to their business. I think that magistrates can also bring a tremendous amount to a business.
Since coming to this House, I have pushed for a number of things to happen in relation to the magistracy. I have raised three or four issues many times, so it is absolutely brilliant that the Minister is putting them all in the Bill. It is like all my birthdays coming at once: everything is happening on the right day. I am very supportive of the Bill. I thank the Minister for engaging with the magistracy and the Magistrates Association, for listening to JP colleagues and for the progress that we are making.
It is always a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Deputy Speaker. I fully support the Opposition amendments and the safeguards that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) outlined so eloquently, especially new clause 2 on online procedural assistance and new clause 3 on the review of the single justice procedure.
I will speak mainly about case backlogs and the online procedure rules in the Bill, but may I first say a few words in response to my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee? I was on the Justice Committee when it was looking at magistrates, and I remember many magistrates coming to meet us on the estate before covid.
I agree that we need to continue to appreciate our magistrates and make sure that they have the support they need to do their job extremely well. We also need to recognise that they have been vital during lockdown as key workers, in situations made extremely difficult by the backlogs that they have had to endure. I agree that we need younger magistrates and magistrates from more diverse backgrounds; as hon. Members may or may not know, there are also many judges from diverse backgrounds who want to be promoted up the ranks. We need to be mindful of ensuring a diverse bench of judges.
Mr Deputy Speaker, our
“criminal justice system is at breaking point.”
Those are not my words, but the words of Derek Sweeting QC, the then chair of the Bar Council. The backlog of criminal cases had pushed past 60,000 by June 2021 and is still increasing. To address it, we need to modernise our court systems. New technology can bring efficiency and help to address the backlog, but our drive to improve the court system should never come at the cost of safety or justice. For example, the online procedure rules set out in the Bill will enable more work to be completed remotely via the internet; one can see the immediate time-saving benefit, but the new rules risk excluding those without internet access or those who are less digitally literate. It is also vital that the online procedure rule committee that will shape the digital rules should reflect the diversity of Britain, which will help to protect the criminal justice system from further bias or any discrimination.
To ensure that all adequate safeguards are put in place, will the Minister commit to an independent pilot of the new technology before its general application? People in poverty do not necessarily have access to new technology, so we cannot take that access for granted or even assume that they are able to use the systems.
While it is important to explore modern solutions, we must not let that task distract us from the reality that our legal system simply needs more funding. There is no silver bullet to solve the crisis in our courts, and no magical technology will appear over the horizon to wipe away the vast number of backed-up cases. New technology and increased funding must go hand in hand. The National Audit Office recommended that £500 million of extra funding would be required between 2021 and 2024 to keep the backlog below 50,000. The Minister should follow that advice and promise that extra funding for our overburdened court systems.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), who makes a very good point about diversity. The new recruitment campaign that we have launched for magistrates this week is very clearly focused on attracting a more diverse audience of potential participants to consider joining the bench.
In fact, the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), said that the increase in sentencing powers must not just be a backlog measure—and it is not. I will give a good example of that: on the day that we announced the change, I am reliably informed that “How do you become a magistrate?” was one of the trending searches on Google. The serious point is that the very fact of raising those powers shows our commitment to the magistracy and, in my view, will help to attract more people, because it shows how seriously the Government are taking it.
I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) many happy returns. I am delighted that, for his birthday present, he had the chance to talk about the realisation of one of the main measures that he has been calling for, which is the extension of sentencing powers. I have very much appreciated my engagement with him and other MPs who are or have been magistrates, and with the Magistrates Association. I will continue to engage on the many aspects that he talked about in terms of recruitment and how we work with employers. They were all excellent points.
To turn to the specific amendments that have been tabled, I will begin with the new clauses and amendments to the online procedure rule committee. New clause 2 relates to those who are digitally excluded and sets out duties to provide assistance to litigants or prospective litigants. We recognise that some users may have problems accessing digital services and may need help in starting or progressing their case online. I am committed to ensuring that access to justice remains available to all.
The measures in the Bill aim to direct most users through digital channels in the first instance, but I recognise that some users may experience challenges with accessing and using digital services. Paper forms and offline routes will therefore remain available and HMCTS is undertaking work to review those routes.
Support will be provided through We Are Digital’s network of partners, through a range of channels, to provide digital support. Users can even attend in-person appointments, as well as receive in-home face-to-face support where a trainer in the relevant region can attend the applicant’s home with any relevant equipment. Support is also available over the phone, as well as remote video support. There are also one-to-one video appointments to give support with navigating services to those who already have online access to them. I appreciate the point about safeguards when bringing in new measures online. I have taken that to heart and we discussed it at length in Committee. I hope that that assures hon. Members that significant support is in place.
Amendments 41 and 42 are related to the membership of the online procedure rule committee and seek to require the appointment of a dedicated member of the committee with specific knowledge of the Scottish legal system to be appointed by the Lord President of the Court of Session. To be clear, in the event of it being deemed necessary to have a dedicated member of the committee who is experienced in Scots law, the power in clause 23 enables the Lord Chancellor to amend clause 21 to change the specified membership of the committee. That makes more sense than requiring a member who is experienced in Scots law from the beginning as, under current plans to devolve employment tribunals in Scotland, the OPRC may never actually need to make any rules that cover Scottish tribunals before they become devolved.
On the amendments to the measures on criminal courts, new clause 3 would require the Government to commission a review and publish a report on the effectiveness of the single justice procedure within two months of the Bill being passed. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) has taken a great interest in that and I enjoyed meeting him to talk in detail about it.
The single justice procedure is a more proportionate way of dealing with straightforward uncontested summary-only non-imprisonable offences, which almost exclusively result in a financial penalty. It is a matter for prosecutors to decide whether it is appropriate to prosecute a defendant under this procedure and magistrates will have the option to refer a case to open court if they consider that it would be inappropriate to deal with it in this way.
The procedure is entirely optional: defendants can choose at any point prior to their case being considered by a magistrate to have their case heard in court instead. Defendants have an automatic right of appeal to the Crown court against conviction and sentence. We are consistently working to improve the service provided under the procedure. Following consultation with users, we recently revised the single justice procedure notice to better identify vulnerable users and make the process even clearer.
We also work with the media to ensure that the process is accessible and open. One could argue that there is greater transparency for cases dealt with under the SJP, because while the criminal procedure rules oblige courts to give certain additional information on cases on request from the media and other interested third parties, courts are obliged to give more information on SJP cases to the media. Given the safeguards in place and our ongoing commitment to continually review and improve the single justice procedure process, I believe that a formal review of its effectiveness is unnecessary.
Amendments 36, 20 and 21 all deal with the new automatic online procedure and standard statutory penalty, which I will call the automatic online procedure. I do appreciate that this is a very new type of procedure for dealing with certain minor offences, and I recognise that hon. Members are concerned that it should be used appropriately. We all agree on that, and this is why, as I have said before, we have built a number of safeguards into clause 3. For instance, it is an entirely optional procedure, and it will remain the defendant’s choice as to whether they wish to proceed with an automatic online conviction or opt for a traditional hearing in court, and they will be guided through the process so that they can make an informed decision.
Amendment 36 would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent review on the operation of clause 3 before it can be commenced. This report would need to address the potential impact, efficacy and operational issues of the new automatic procedure. As this is a new procedure, we cannot be certain of its impacts at this stage. That is why we are proceeding with caution and limiting its scope to three offences initially that clearly meet the criteria for eligibility.
Amendment 20 would require all defendants charged with an eligible offence, and considered appropriate to be offered the option to proceed with this new automatic online procedure, to first submit to an assessment of their physical and mental health. Only those defendants who do not have any vulnerabilities and disabilities would then be given the option of using this new procedure. It is worth mentioning that there is no requirement for a mental or health assessment under existing criminal court procedures such as the single justice procedure. As a result, the effect of this amendment would be to considerably diminish the impact of this new procedure, which is intended to provide defendants with the option of having their case dealt with quickly online. There would be little or no reason for defendants to opt for this new procedure if the resolution of their case would be swifter under existing procedures.
Clause 3 already provides that only summary-only, non-imprisonable offences will be eligible under this new procedure. Amendment 21 would further restrict the use of this new procedure to non-recordable offences. Recordable offences are those for which the police are required to keep a record on their system. However, the vast majority of eligible offences in scope of this new procedure are non-recordable. Indeed, there are only two summary-only, non-imprisonable offences prosecuted under the single justice procedure that are recordable. As I have said, for an offence to be deemed eligible under this new procedure, it will have to be relatively straightforward and simple to prove, with no complex grounds and a high degree of consistency in sentencing.
I do recognise, however, that this is a novel approach for dealing with certain minor offences, which is why we are proceeding with caution and why we are committed to reviewing the operation of clause 3 before extending it any further to other similar non-recordable offences. Any such extension in the future would have to be done by regulations and would have to be debated and approved by Parliament.
Finally, amendment 22 seeks to prevent clause 9 from applying to criminal prosecutions against children. Subsection (5) has been specifically drafted for children in a way that recognises their increased vulnerability in the criminal justice system and provides additional safeguards for them. The clause creates one additional clearly defined set of circumstances in which it would be possible for the court to allocate a child’s case in their absence. The conditions that will need to be met will be more stringent than those prescribed for adults, even though children do not share the same right as adults to elect for a jury trial.
As an addition to the pre-existing power to proceed in a child’s absence due to their disorderly conduct in court, the clause will provide that the court can decide to proceed to allocate in absence where a child has been invited, but failed, to provide an online indication of plea, and either the court is satisfied they were served with a notice of the hearing or the child has already previously appeared at court to answer the charge. The court must then consider whether there is an acceptable reason for the child’s absence, and it must be satisfied that it would not be contrary to the interests of justice for the hearing to proceed in the child’s absence.
This provision must be viewed in the context of other existing safeguards in primary legislation that seek to ensure that child defendants and their parents have prior engagement with proceedings. We recognise that, in the majority of cases, the courts may not deem it appropriate to proceed with an allocation hearing in a child’s absence—that will be an informed decision for the court—but where a court does consider it appropriate and in the interests of justice, this clause provides an important means of progressing cases and avoiding unnecessary delays.
On the European convention on human rights, new clause 7 would require the Act to be compatible with article 6 of the ECHR, and if a court finds a provision of the Act is not compatible, then the court can make an order to prevent that provision from having any effect. As I said in Committee, I assure all hon. Members that none of the measures in the Bill contravenes article 6. When the Bill was introduced, the previous Lord Chancellor signed a statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 to confirm his view that the provisions in the Bill are compatible with the convention rights.
On all these measures, I hope I have reassured hon. Members that other than those tabled by the Government, the amendments in this group are not necessary and I urge hon. Members not to press them.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time and added to the Bill.
We now come to amendment 20, which has been selected for separate decision.
Automatic online conviction and penalty for certain summary offences
Amendment proposed: 20, page 5, line 34, at end insert—
“(e) the prosecutor is satisfied that the accused does not have any vulnerabilities and disabilities that impede the ability of the accused to understand or effectively participate in proceedings, having undertaken a physical and mental health assessment.”
This amendment would require that all accused persons considered for automatic online convictions are subject to a health assessment, and that only those who do not have any vulnerabilities or disabilities are given the option of being convicted online.—(Alex Cunningham.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).
Powers to proceed if accused absent from allocation hearing
Amendment proposed: 22, page 26, line 1, leave out subsection (5).—(Alex Cunningham.)
This amendment would remove cases involving children and young people from the provisions of clause 9.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Online Procedure Rule Committee
Amendment proposed: 41, page 39, line 30, at end insert—
‘(4A) The Lord President of the Court of Session is to appoint one person with experience in and knowledge of the Scottish legal system.” —(Anne McLaughlin.)
This amendment would require the Online Procedure Committee to include a person with experience in and knowledge of the Scottish legal system, appointed by the Lord President of the Court of Session.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Amendment made: 7, page 55, line 27, at end insert—
“(za) section (Maximum term of imprisonment on summary conviction for either-way offence)(6) to (11);”. —(James Cartlidge.)
This amendment provides for the free-standing provision in NC1 to extend only to England and Wales.
Commencement and transitional provision
Amendment made: 8, page 56, line 2, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) The following provisions of this Act come into force on the day on which this Act is passed—
(a) section (Maximum term of imprisonment on summary conviction for either-way offence);
(b) paragraphs 16 to 20 of Schedule 2, and section 17 so far as relating to those paragraphs (but see, in relation to the amendments made by paragraphs 19 and 20 of that Schedule, section 336 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and section 417 of the Sentencing Act 2020 respectively);
(c) this Part.” —(James Cartlidge.)
This amendment provides for NC1 to come into force on Royal Assent.
Criminal procedure: consequential and related amendments
Amendment made: 9, page 72, line 18, at end insert—
“Amendments in connection with section (Maximum term of imprisonment on summary conviction for either-way offence)
16 In section 133 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (consecutive terms of imprisonment)—
(a) in subsection (1), for ‘6 months’ substitute ‘the longest term that could be imposed in respect of any one of the offences for which a term of imprisonment is being imposed’;
(b) in subsection (2), for ‘6 months’ substitute ‘the longest term otherwise permitted by subsection (1) (if less than 12 months)’.
17 In section 141(5A) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (maximum terms for offences under regulations about waste imports and exports), in paragraph (b), for ‘twelve months’ substitute ‘the general limit in a magistrates’ court’.
18 In section 113(10A) of the Scotland Act 1998 (maximum terms for offences under subordinate legislation under that Act), in paragraph (b), for ‘twelve months’ substitute ‘the general limit in a magistrates’ court’.
19 (1) The Criminal Justice Act 2003 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 155(2) (amendment of section 133(1) of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980), for ‘“6 months”’ substitute ‘the words from “the longest” to “being imposed”’.
(3) In section 283 (power to amend powers to make offences punishable with imprisonment)—
(a) in subsection (1)—
(i) omit ‘or (3)’;
(ii) omit paragraph (b);
(b) omit subsection (3).
20 In Part 5 of Schedule 22 to the Sentencing Act 2020 (prospective amendments of the Sentencing Code in relation to custodial sentences)—
(a) omit paragraph 24;
(b) before paragraph 25 insert—
‘24A In section 224(1A)(a) (general limit on custodial sentence for summary offence in magistrates’ court), for “6 months” substitute “12 months”.’” —(James Cartlidge.)
This amendment inserts technical amendments in connection with NC1.
Employment tribunal procedure rules: further provision
Amendments made: 10, page 83, line 5, at beginning insert “Reconsideration or”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 11.
Amendment 11, page 83, line 6, after “to” insert “reconsider or”.
This amendment allows the terminology of “reconsideration” to be used as an alternative to “review” in employment tribunal procedure.
Amendment 12, page 85, line 33, at end insert—
“(1A) For the heading substitute ‘Preliminary hearings’.”
This amendment is consequential on Amendments 13 and 17.
Amendment 13, page 85, line 36, leave out “pre-hearing review” and insert “preliminary hearing”.
This amendment and Amendment 17 rename “pre-hearing reviews” as “preliminary hearings” in employment tribunal procedure.
Amendment 14, page 86, line 2, leave out “pre-hearing review” and insert “hearing”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendments 13 and 17.
Amendment 15, page 86, line 6, at end insert—
“(ai) for ‘pre-hearing review’ substitute ‘preliminary hearing’;”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendments 13 and 17.
Amendment 16, page 86, line 14, leave out sub-paragraph (5) and insert—
“(5) For subsection (2A) substitute—
‘(2A) Procedure Rules may not enable a power of striking out to be exercised in a preliminary hearing on a ground which does not apply outside a preliminary hearing.’”
This amendment is consequential on Amendments 13 and 17.
Amendment 17, page 86, line 22, leave out “’pre-hearing review’ means a review of” and insert “‘preliminary hearing’ means a hearing in”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 13.
Amendment 18, page 87, line 10, at end insert—
“9A In section 12A(9) (subsequent award of compensation not to necessitate review of financial penalties), in the words before paragraph (a), after ‘be’ insert ‘reconsidered or’.”
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 11.
Amendment 19, page 88, line 20, at end insert—
“(b) in subsection (3), in paragraphs (a) and (b), after ‘being’ insert ‘reconsidered or’.” —(James Cartlidge.)
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 11.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill has received careful and sometimes impassioned scrutiny from Members on both sides of the House, and I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed. Were I to summarise the Bill in a nutshell, I would say that its common thread was streamlining our courts, not least so that we can bear down on the backlog that has built up during the pandemic.
The Minister says that the Bill has received careful scrutiny. Does he agree that it is unfortunate that this Bill, which seeks to limit the jurisdiction of the Court of Session in Scotland, to use his own words from his letter to me dated 11 November, has not received the scrutiny of the Scottish Parliament, within whose purview the jurisdiction of the Court of Session and judicial review lie?
I respect the hon. and learned Lady’s considerable expertise in these matters. I did write to her on that, and I think I answered that question earlier. We scrutinised the Bill in great detail in Committee, but I accept the strength of her view on that point.
Part 1 of the Bill strengthens judicial review, ensuring that it continues to serve justice and good public administration. This would not have been possible without Lord Faulks and his panel, who produced an independent review of administrative law. Their thorough work in this area is of great importance and laid the foundations for the measures in the Bill. As it stands, the Bill delivers on commitments that we made ahead of the last general election. It offers more flexibility to judges and puts more tools in the judicial toolbox.
The reforms in part 2 modernise and improve aspects of the court and tribunal system. The measures support court and tribunal recovery, and deliver improvements to the criminal justice system and to coronial processes. They build on the lessons of the pandemic and will increase the efficiency, adaptability and resilience of our justice system.
Today we have also included provision in the Bill for a power to vary the maximum sentence that the magistrates court may give for a single triable-either-way offence. This is part of our plan to extend the sentencing power of magistrates, so that we can keep more sentence hearings out of the Crown court, freeing up capacity to help us to tackle the backlog more quickly. That extension will help us to retain more cases in the magistrates courts, reducing the flow of cases into the Crown court, and will help to support recovery in the Crown court, where it is so important. It is estimated that it will save around 2,000 Crown court sitting days per year, which is the equivalent of 500 jury trials, allowing us to reduce the backlog more quickly.
I thank all hon. Members who contributed to debate on the Bill, particularly the members of the Bill Committee, during which time we made some clarificatory amendments to the Bill. I also thank the witnesses who joined us in Committee; the range of contributions from experts of considerable esteem greatly enriched our debates. Finally, it would be remiss of me not to thank the excellent officials from the Ministry of Justice, whose support has been invaluable throughout. I commend the Bill to the House.
This has been an interesting Bill in process, although we still do not really see the need for many of the sweeping changes that the Government are proposing. I reiterate that the Minister has worked collaboratively with us, but sadly could not agree the changes that we proposed, which would have vastly improved this largely unnecessary Bill. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) for partnering me through the Bill, and my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Luton North (Sarah Owen) for helping to hold the Government to account. Thanks, too, to all the others who were involved in the process.
Let me be clear: there is simply no need to change the judicial review process. The Ministry of Justice is trying to fix something that is not broken. The Government should instead be spending their time tackling the record backlog and protecting victims of serious crime. The Government’s changes to judicial review will have a chilling effect on justice, deterring members of the public from bringing claims against public bodies and leaving many other victims of unlawful actions without any redress.
The proposed reforms go beyond what was recommended by the expert panel set up to advise us, with no evidence to back up this overreach. The proposals are also based on figures that the Government have accepted were completely inaccurate. With the Government’s review of the Human Rights Act on the horizon, this is only the latest proposal to make it harder for ordinary members of the public to hold public institutions to account.
It is always useful to have a current example to illustrate what the impact of the Government’s draft legislation is likely to be. This afternoon—I hope the Minister is aware of this—there was a judicial review result, after disabled people challenged the Work and Pensions Secretary for failing to properly consult on the national disability strategy. The Government lost—yet again, another judgment lost. Does the Minister wish to intervene on me and tell me whether that particular challenge, and correction of an injustice, would have been possible if the provisions in the Bill had been in play today? Clearly, the Minister does not want to intervene.
We had high hopes for the coroner aspects of the Bill, but sadly it does not address the existing problems with the coroner service. Even more sadly, the Government have missed the opportunity to introduce automatic support for bereaved families at inquests where the state is represented. That is not justice; it is justice denied. On Report, I talked about the Government’s drive to apply more and more processes originally intended for adults, to children and young people. They set a precedent in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, failing time and again to safeguard one of our most vulnerable groups.
More generally, I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government are fighting shy of protecting vulnerable people from the provisions of the Bill. The Government have refused to instigate health checks and other measures to ensure that, when people do engage with online justice, they know exactly what they are doing and the potential consequences. Again, that is not justice.
We did not want to stand in the way of improving our courts system—we know it needs massive improvement—but overall, this is a bad Bill and we shall vote against it.
I have great respect for the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), but I am afraid I have to disagree with his characterisation of the Bill. It makes modest reforms, which seem sensible. Although I accept that the changes to judicial review are not uncontroversial, they are not a wholesale attack. I would not support them if they were. It is important to recognise that judicial review is fundamental. We need to get that on the record. It is an absolutely necessary part of the checks and balances. It can be refined, but it must never be undermined in principle. I do not believe that the Bill does that.
It is important that we properly fund the system that enables the courts to deal with judicial reviews and other matters. In fairness, there is a missed opportunity. I agree with the shadow Minister about funding for families of bereaved persons at inquests. The Justice Committee’s report advocated that and I hope that the Government will not give up on it, but revisit it because there is an equality of arms argument here. That is not a reason to vote against the Bill, but I think that the Government have missed a trick and I hope they will reconsider that.
The changes to the criminal justice system are worthwhile in themselves, but it is important that the Government did not go greatly beyond the report by Lord Faulks, whom we should congratulate again. I hope the Government will adopt the same approach to the review by Sir Peter Gross. Sometimes less is more.
I reiterate that we vehemently oppose much of the Bill. Nothing that has been said today or during the Bill’s passage has done anything to allay my fears or those of my party.
I thank the people who were involved in the proceedings because a lot of hard work went on. I thank hon. Friends in my party who spoke and my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) who sat on the Bill Committee with me. Despite my ticking-off earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed working with Labour colleagues on the Committee. The Clerks did a fantastic job. The Clerks in the Public Bill Office could not be more helpful in walking and talking us through each of the different stages. It does not matter how many times we do it—maybe it does matter, but at my stage, it is important that there is someone there to guide us, and I thank the Clerks. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) for all his guidance and advice, the researchers from the SNP team, Aaron Lukas and Matt Hamill, and my own researcher, Michael Bannister, who I relied on heavily to get through much of this. I mean “get through” in terms of what we were talking about, not just getting through mentally, although he helped with that as well.
It is not over. We just need to look back to last week and what happened in the House of Lords. I never thought I would hear myself saying this, but come on the Lords and let us see what they will do with the Bill. [Laughter.] Maybe my friends on the Labour Benches will not be laughing at my next point, but there is another option for Scotland.
Scotland will soon be given the opportunity to take the option of saying, “If you’re going to disrespect the Scottish legal system, the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland, on you go, but we will take our own path and choose independence.” I do not expect many “Hear, hear”s from my Labour friends there, but Scotland has another way and we will choose that path. Of that I have no doubt.
Today I gave the Government the opportunity at least to pretend that they had a bit of respect for Scotland. They did not take it and they have just given us more grist to the mill. That is about the only thing I can thank them for.
Again, I thank everybody for the experience and we will see where the Bill goes from here.
Tributes should be paid to the judges and legal professionals who have kept our courts operational during the pandemic to the best of their ability, using technology to do so, much as we have during the last two years. It must be our priority to break through the backlog in the criminal courts, partly caused by the pandemic. Just yesterday, I received details of an awful assault in 2019 in my constituency that will be heard in court only in 2023. That delay prevents victims from receiving justice in a timely manner, does not allow closure and can delay access to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority.
The Bill Committee, of which I was a member, heard evidence from specialist witnesses that implementing the Bill would save time and make our courts more efficient and effective. If I have learned anything during the pandemic, however, it has only entrenched my belief that the Opposition seek to hold us back: they voted against the Bill, they have just said that they will do so again, and they claim that there is no need for reform of judicial review. As with everything they do, there is dithering and delay. Our justice system and our constituents would be far worse off if they were in charge.
There is no area of the law that allows individuals, families, local government, business and so on to have more than two bites of the cherry in court—with one exception, namely illegal immigration appeals. That is another reason why the Opposition disagree with the Bill: because they are quite happy for the country to continue being a magnet for illegal immigration. When challenged in Committee, not once did an Opposition Member explain why illegal immigration should benefit from a third bite.
The Bill includes provision to ease the backlog in criminal courts and introduces measures to reduce the strain on magistrates courts. It also introduces a new online common platform, which will allow those who so wish to conduct all pre-trial proceedings online. Just as our parliamentary activities have benefited from being supplemented by virtual alternatives—I emphasise that they have been supplemented, not replaced—so can our legal sector benefit.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I will speak only briefly, but it is so important that I do. I was elected on the Government’s promise to take back control. With this Bill and the Nationality and Borders Bill, I think we are moving in the right direction to make sure that that happens.
I want to speak about two points. I had a third point to make about magistrates, but my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) has already spoken excellently about the issue.
And at length, yes.
My first point is about allowing adult defendants to plead guilty to, and accept a pre-determined penalty for, minor offences online. Over the past two years, an increasing number of services, from schools to banking, have moved primarily online, at least temporarily. Although some people have found the online experience frustrating at times, and although in most cases I believe that in-person services should resume, in this instance I support going online.
My main point is about Cart JR. It is a question of court resources, but it also relates to an issue about which my constituents frequently contact me: immigration. Most judicial reviews against the upper tribunal relate to immigration cases. I understand that some cases are quite complex, but others appear to be no more than an abuse of the judicial process through endless, meritless appeals. As the Justice Secretary has noted in previous debates on the Bill, the success rate is hardly above 3%—an appalling statistic.
It is difficult to defend the UK’s immigration system to my constituents as fair and effective when they see in the news that hundreds of people arrive via the channel every week, yet the processes that we have in place seem to allow anyone to stay, regardless of how well-founded any claim is. The message that they are getting is that it does not matter whether someone is a genuine refugee: as long as they are prepared for a protracted legal battle, with legal aid at the taxpayer’s expense, they can stay for years, if not indefinitely. As I know from my casework, that does not incline my constituents to see all asylum applicants as potential refugees; on the contrary, it leads them to see all asylum applicants as willing to abuse the legal system. That perception may not be well founded, but it is understandable.
I am sure that such behaviour can be justified, but when the entire judicial system is under unprecedented pressure after nearly two years of the pandemic, it is especially ridiculous. We need every hour of the judiciary’s time that we have. I therefore commend the Bill and will happily support it.
Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
Bill read the Third time and passed.