Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 20th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 12th Report from the Constitution Committee, 10th Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights
Clause 3: Automatic online conviction and penalty for certain summary offences
24: 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 option 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.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require a review of the potential impact of Clause 3 before it can come into force.
My Lords, Clause 3 of the Bill sets out a new code, which is to become new Sections 16G to 16M of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, which provides for a new procedure. I will summarise it relatively briefly. First, it enables those accused of certain summary non-imprisonable offences to be offered an automatic online conviction option; secondly, it enables such an accused to plead guilty online; thirdly, it provides for such an accused to be convicted as a result of such an online plea; fourthly, it provides for the penalty for such a conviction to be determined at a figure to be specified in regulations; fifthly, it provides for the endorsement of a driving licence with points, as appropriate; sixthly, it provides for compensation to be payable up to a maximum specified figure, the amount to be determined by the prosecutor; and finally, it provides for the payment of prosecution costs and a surcharge of the amount specified for the offence. That is not defined but is to be specified in regulations and could vary for different offences and circumstances. As to the question of appeal, it is intended by new Section 16M that a magistrates’ court may set aside a conviction or penalty under the procedure if it is unjust.
My Amendment 24 calls for an independent review of the potential impact, efficacy and operational issues on defendants and on the criminal justice system of these provisions. That is not prompted by unqualified hostility to the idea of a simple, streamlined online option to deal with low-level offences that are voluntarily admitted by offenders. On the contrary, if that is properly introduced, with suitable safeguards, I see considerable benefits to these provisions.
Rather, my amendment is an expression of concern that the full personal consequences for people likely to be convicted and penalised by these new means have not been sufficiently considered. They need to be fully considered before the new procedures come into operation.
There have been several impact assessments on the Bill, one of which was targeted on its criminal procedure measures, including these—but it is limited in scope. That is not a criticism of the MoJ; it is in the nature of such impact assessments that they explain what the measures proposed will do and consider what they call the “monetised” and “non-monetised” costs and benefits of the measures proposed. But the assessment is, if I may so describe it, extremely clinical.
The non-monetised costs of measures in Clause 3 are described in the impact assessment in fairly stark terms. The first part of the measures, the online pleas, are described as having the following non-monetised costs for legal aid agencies:
“There is a cost for the LAA associated with changing their service design to ensure that legal representation is available for defendants indicating a written/online plea, where duty solicitors will no longer be engaging with defendants at the first magistrates’ court hearing. Currently this cost is not monetised, as the LAA are exploring a number of different change options.”
For the CPS:
“There may be additional administrative costs … as the new processes will mean more activities are moved online. However, until the future service design model for the CPS has been finalised, these costs cannot be quantified.”
On the online conviction and sentence provisions, the assessment states:
“There will be IT costs to HMCTS for the development, operation and maintenance of the online system. However, as it is not possible to isolate these costs from the wider costs of digitisation and modernisation under the HMCTS Reform programme, they cannot be monetised … There may also be a perceived lack of fairness in the new system insofar as it is no longer means-tested, allowing those with higher incomes to reduce the imposition they receive.”
That last paragraph is the only real mention of the personal non-monetised costs of these provisions.
Right at the outset, I accept that a great deal of the impact will depend on the regulations and the way in which the system operates in relation to offenders. The amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, pick out some of the possible pitfalls. He addresses the difficulties faced by disabled and unwell defendants; those with vulnerabilities or disabilities. He addresses the need for legal representation, which might of course mitigate many of the difficulties for defendants involved in this procedure. But will simple legal representation and its availability address not just the question of cost but the difficulty in accessing legal aid? There is also the rather more nebulous question of whether defendants will take the trouble to get representation or land themselves in difficulties by proceeding without it until it is too late. They may decide not to get representation because the new procedures are online and relatively simple.
There are also wider problems of the defendant’s understanding of not just the process but its consequences. How will digitally excluded offenders deal with the process? Later, we will come to the question of digital assistance in civil proceedings, but those who are unable to access online proceedings easily will find this extremely hard. How many people will be accused and plead guilty for convenience only, because they are faced with an online procedure, when they might not plead guilty were they better informed? How far will defendants understand the consequences of the online conviction that will follow a plea of guilty, and how far will they be aware of the financial consequences? At the moment, it is entirely unclear how far defendants pleading guilty will do so without knowing the financial implications of conviction. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether the regulations will require that all the financial consequences of conviction will be spelled out when the option of online conviction is offered, given that penalty, prosecution costs, compensation and surcharge are likely to be determined only after the plea.
There are other consequences that need consideration, which online processes may make more difficult. The court will lose the opportunity, which I regard as valuable, to identify and address problems for the defendants it penalises. In personal proceedings, justices can see the defendant and can consider for themselves any difficulties and consequences. How do we address that?
There will also be problems with how fines, compensation and costs will be paid. How far have the consequences for families been considered? The impact on defendants and their families of having to pay even relatively small sums can sometimes be underestimated. Another issue that arises is the effects on families of enforcement measures when fines have been levied and compensation and costs have been ordered to be paid. These can amount to quite significant sums which, for people in want of means, are very difficult to raise. Enforcement measures can be far more severe than the financial penalties originally imposed.
How far will the convictions, penalties and consequences reduce or eliminate the opportunity for defendants to get assistance from local authorities and other agencies for them and their families? Perhaps the Ministry of Justice has in mind to ensure that these issues are thoroughly addressed before the regulations come into force, but I fear that they may not be addressed at this stage or even then, and this work needs to be done. I invite the Minister to address these issues not just in his response now but over the period pending Report.
Turning to another subject, my Amendment 25 draws attention to a particular issue; I have raised it with the Minister, who kindly said he would consider it. It arises out of new Section 16G(3), which provides that a notification “purporting” to be given by a person, or the person’s legal representative, is to be treated for the purposes of subsection (2) as a notification given by that person. In other words, if the court gets a notification that appears to come from the accused person, it is to be treated as coming from that person. There is at the moment no provision for an unjust conviction or penalty to be overturned before it is in place—so, although the magistrates can overturn an unjust conviction and can do so presumably on the basis that the wrong person was penalised, that does not happen until the conviction has already happened and the penalty has been imposed.
The subsection to which my amendment is addressed would allow a forged or fraudulent notification given by, for example, a vengeful neighbour or anyone who is hostile to the intended accused, to take effect as an intended plea of guilty, exposing the wrong person to conviction and penalty on the strength of it, and to the stress, worry, problems at work and everything else that that can involve. My amendment would permit a person who denies making what appears to be a notification in his name to give notice to the court of that denial, whereupon the court would have an obligation to determine whether the notification was genuine. I would be grateful to hear whether the Minister has had a chance to consider how we might give effect to that purpose.
Perhaps I might raise a point with the Minister. As I understand the scheme of Clause 3, this automatic online conviction procedure is going to apply only to those offences which are set out in regulations made by the Lord Chancellor, as in new Section 16H(3). The Lord Chancellor has a discretion as to which offences are here relevant. That is by contrast with the provisions set out in Chapter 2 for online procedures generally in relation to civil proceedings, where under Clause 21 the Lord Chancellor may make regulations determining which proceedings the online procedure applies to. But under Clause 21(6) he or she may make regulations only with the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice, or the Senior President of Tribunals.
Noble Lords in this Committee may recall—certainly the noble Lord, Lord Beith, will recall—that this was the consequence of amendments which we tabled as a result of a report from the Constitution Committee which stated that it was appropriate for the Lord Chancellor, in the civil context only, to provide for particular matters to be subject to the online procedure if there was the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice. My question to the Minister is whether it would not be more appropriate in this criminal context, in order to provide added protection for individuals for the sorts of reasons indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, if the Lord Chancellor was required to have the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice before specifying the appropriate criminal offences. I say that with the understanding that we are talking only about summary offences, as in new Section 16H(4). Nevertheless, it may be more appropriate to require the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice.
I am struggling to remember as far back as Second Reading of this Bill, but I did say at the time that Clause 3 was designed to save money in the courts system, and that the main savings would arise from people who pleaded guilty but who should have pleaded not guilty. The risk is so obvious that I am surprised that there are no safeguards or legal protections included in Clause 3. People need to have legal advice; they need to know whether they have a valid legal defence prior to deciding whether to plead guilty or not guilty. Whether someone has a legal defence is not obvious or straightforward; if it were, we would not have lawyers and judges—including lawyers of the huge talent that we have here in your Lordships’ House. The mishandling of all those Covid prosecutions shows how badly the system can get it wrong when things are not clear: there were thousands of wrongly issued fines and wrongful convictions by magistrates.
Defendants need independent, quality legal advice prior to deciding their plea, and the lack of any such safeguards in Clause 3 makes me wonder how it has got so far without this problem being exposed by the Minister, because the risks are even greater for vulnerable groups, such as those with learning disabilities. The pressure of avoiding going to court might make pleading guilty online feel like the safer option, and the cost of getting a lawyer might make the online guilty plea seem like the best option. There is nothing in these proposals to ensure that vulnerable people are supported in making informed decisions. So the potential for disaster is huge, and there should at the very least be signposting by the Government to independent legal advice, screening for vulnerabilities, and checking whether people are eligible for legal aid. I ask the Minister whether the Government are going to bring amendments along these lines on Report. It is potentially a sensible idea, but I would like to see it work well for defendants, and for that there will have to be some changes.
My Lords, I agree with the final sentence of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. We all want to see this system work well, and we all want to see adequate safeguards. It seems to me that the safeguards may be built into the regulations, but of course we can build in further regulations and safeguards through the process we are going through now. We are not hostile to these procedures as such; we are just concerned that proper safeguards are built in, either through primary legislation or the regulations.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, set out fully the broad gamut of issues relating to these types of online convictions, where people plead guilty and receive a computer-generated sentence based on certain summary, non-imprisonable and relatively minor offences. All noble Lords who have spoken raised the point about the ramifications of people making guilty pleas because it seems easier to just get it out of the way, and that the possible consequences of having that criminal conviction, even though it is a non-recordable conviction, are not readily known.
I spoke about this point when I had a meeting with the Minister last week. The wording in the Bill is “recordable offences” and I made the point that there are plenty of offences which are recorded, but they are not recordable in the sense of going on the Police National Computer. For example, when I sit in court as a magistrate and deal with people who have non-recordable offences such as evading train fares, the information is available to me that they have previous convictions for avoiding train fares. I am aware of that information, even though it is not a recordable offence, and that will obviously have an impact on the sentence I give to the person who has not paid their train fare for a second or third time. So there is a distinction between offences which are recorded and offences which are recordable.
I will briefly run through the amendments in my name. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, they are trying to mitigate the possible problems with this approach, to which all noble Lords have spoken. Amendment 26 would require all accused persons considered for automatic online convictions to be 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. Under Amendment 27, the automatic online conviction option would be available only if the prosecutor is satisfied that the accused has engaged a legal representative. Amendment 28 would exclude any recordable offences from the automatic online conviction option. Amendment 29 would raise the age of eligibility for written procedures for entering guilty pleas from 16 to 18 years old.
As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, those four amendments in my name attempt at this point to probe the Government’s response to the potential pitfalls of this approach, to put in adequate safeguards for vulnerable people and children and to make sure that people do not plead guilty out of a sense of convenience. I was particularly taken by the argument used by the noble Lord about ensuring that, when people plead guilty, they know the full ramifications of the possible costs of their guilty plea. As he said, there is the cost of the fine itself, the cost of the prosecution and the cost of the victim surcharge, and all those numbers add up. When one sits as a magistrate, one has discretion over the fine and the costs but no discretion over the victim surcharge, so it is not a straightforward calculation. Depending on the means of the person one is dealing with, one would make a suitable adjustment.
After one has put the fine in place, one puts in place a collection order. This is where you give a specific and direct warning to the person you have just fined that, if they do not pay the money, there is a power for debt collectors or bailiffs to come to their house to collect goods to the same value. I go on and warn them that that makes things more expensive because the bailiffs also charge their costs. So there is quite a bit of procedure that one can adjust when one is sentencing, according to the nature and means of the person in front of you. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, asked a good question: how will this online procedure have the flexibility that the in-court procedure has to make sure that a fair disposal is reached?
My Lords, I will first deal with the general argument for Clause 3, not least because the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, gave notice that she would oppose the Question that Clause 3 stand part of the Bill.
As we have heard, Clause 3 creates an alternative new automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty procedure for some single justice procedure cases. I should say at the outset that it comes with a number of safeguards. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, fairly said, we all want to see the system work well. This is about putting in place a system that is appropriate and fair.
The procedure would provide defendants aged over 18 and companies that wish to plead guilty to specified offences the additional option of accepting a conviction and pre-agreed standard penalty online without the involvement of the court. Importantly, prosecutors will offer this to defendants only in cases that they consider can be dealt with appropriately through this procedure. It is unlikely even to be offered in cases where, for example, there are aggravating factors or the defendant is a habitual offender.
The procedure is entirely optional on the part of the defendant. Defendants can choose to have their case heard in court at any time before they accept a conviction. Defendants who opt in to using this procedure will be guided through the process and provided with all the information they need to make an informed decision, including—the noble Lord, Lord Marks, made this point—the consequences of accepting a conviction and the full details of the prospective fine. I will say a little more about that in a moment.
Finally, the Criminal Procedure Rules will make provisions for a short cooling-off period to allow defendants to withdraw their conviction if they later change their minds. Separately, the court will have power to set aside a conviction or penalty if it is unjust, for example, in the event that the defendant plainly did not understand the consequences of their decision to accept the conviction.
With that background, let me turn to the amendments. First, I will pick up the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. He raised a number of aspects and asked whether these measures have been properly considered. I assure him that they have. I will try to respond to his points now, but I am conscious that we have had some engagement on these matters before today and I am happy to continue with that if specific questions remain after today, but I will try to deal with them.
The noble Lord asked whether the defendant will receive information about the consequences of a conviction. The answer is yes. Defendants will be provided with all the information they need to make an informed decision, including details of the evidence against them, the potential consequences of choosing this route and the full details of the prospective fine and additional elements, such as the surcharge, costs, compensation and, if appropriate, penalty points. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, mentioned, they will also receive the details of the enforcement regime, which is part of the decision-making process.
Amendment 24 would require the Secretary of State to commission an independent review of the potential impact of the new automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty process on defendants and the criminal justice system. Although I recognise people’s concerns about making sure that this works properly, I suggest that we need to see the process work before we can assess its impacts. We are proceeding with caution. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, only three offences will initially be selected for Clause 3: failure to produce a ticket for travel on a train; failure to produce a ticket for travel on a tram; and fishing with an unlicensed rod and line. These offences have been carefully selected because they are relatively straight- forward and simple to prove, with no complex grounds and a high degree of consistency in sentencing. Against the background of those offences, this enables us to monitor the way the procedure works and look at it carefully before we consider applying it to any other offences. I will come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, a little later but I have it.
Amendment 25 aims to provide for an additional safeguard against fraud for convictions accepted under the new automatic online conviction and standard statutory penalty procedure. It has always been the case that someone could submit a guilty plea while claiming to be the defendant; in fact, there are examples of this even under the current procedures. Defendants who are offered the option of having their cases resolved through this new online procedure will receive a notice that is similar to the existing single justice procedure notice. That will include a unique case number that defendants will be asked to provide when logging on to the online system alongside various personal details, such as their postcode and date of birth. Whenever any of those details are subsequently altered, the case will be flagged for an HMCTS adviser to check. Turning to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, in the event that a malicious third party managed to obtain a defendant’s case number and personal information, pled guilty and accepted the conviction all without the defendant’s knowledge, the court would have a statutory power to set aside that conviction.
With respect to the amendment, I mentioned earlier there is also the cooling-off period. That will give defendants who have either pleaded guilty or find out that somebody else has done so in their name, the opportunity to withdraw their agreement to accept a conviction. That, plus the general power of the court to set aside a conviction where it is unjust, is a sufficient response to and protection for that scenario.
Amendment 26 would require all defendants considered eligible for this new automatic online procedure to undertake a physical and mental health assessment. Prosecutors will offer defendants this option only once they have considered all the facts of a case and the circumstances of the defendant. As I said, the court also has the power to set aside a conviction if a defendant did not understand the consequences of their decision to accept it.
This amendment would be completely at odds with current practice. There is no obligation or requirement for a physical and mental health assessment under the single justice procedure or for a traditional hearing in court. One thing that we know about mental health in particular is that a person can seem perfectly okay between 10 am and 11 am but they are actually suffering from a significant mental health issue. We therefore do not have that built into our procedures in every case at the moment. The unintended consequence of this amendment would be to make it more difficult to access what is meant to be a simpler and more straightforward way of resolving a case.
Amendment 27 would require all defendants to have engaged a legal representative. Our intention here is that the procedure should be sufficiently simple for people to use without legal assistance. I suggest that the amendment is unnecessary. It would contradict current practice. Generally, cases of this type do not qualify for or attract legal aid and the vast majority of defendants in these cases already represent themselves, whether under the single justice procedure or in court.
I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that defendants will be advised of their right to obtain legal advice under this procedure and will be entitled to request a full trial and obtain legal representation—usually at their own expense if there is no legal aid—at any time during the process.
Amendment 28 would restrict the application of this procedure to non-recordable offences, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said. In this context, “recordable offences” means an offence for which the police are required to keep a record on the police national computer. We have already specified in legislation that for an offence to be eligible under this new procedure it will have to be summary-only and non-imprisonable. It would also have to be relatively straightforward and simple to prove, with no complex grounds and a high degree of consistency in sentencing.
We have no intention of extending this procedure to any recordable offences, which are inherently unlikely to be suitable to meet these criteria in any event. The three offences initially proposed are all non-recordable offences. The appropriate place for specifying further eligible offences is secondary legislation, which would need to be debated and approved in Parliament.
This might be a convenient moment to respond to the point from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about concurrence with the Lord Chief Justice. The short answer to that point is that, as with the single justice procedure, it is for the Government and not the judiciary to determine which offences are included under the new procedure. However, when it comes to implementation, we will continue to work with the judiciary on this and many other matters in the Bill. I respectfully do not accept that it would be right to pass the pen either on a concurrence or any other basis to the Lord Chief Justice when deciding which offences to include.
I am grateful to the Minister. That was the point that I was seeking to make. The last time the online procedure Bill came before Parliament, in 2019, this Committee debated very carefully whether it was appropriate to allow the Lord Chancellor to determine which civil matters should be dealt with online. Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee recommended that it was inappropriate for the Lord Chancellor to decide such matters. This House debated and the Government gave way. The Minister’s predecessor —not quite his predecessor—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, who was speaking on behalf of the Government, accepted that it was appropriate for the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice to be required. Why does the Minister think it is different in the criminal context? I suggest that there is even greater sensitivity in the criminal context than in the civil context and that the concurrence of the head of the judiciary is required.
My Lords, I am grateful for that further explanation of the point and will happily reflect on it. At the moment, I stand by the point I made a moment ago, which is that it is right in principle for the Government to be able to decide which offences are included under the new procedure. Of course, we discuss with the Lord Chief Justice and other elements of the judiciary how these offences will be managed in practice. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, knows, the operation of the courts is run essentially under a concordat agreement between the Lord Chancellor and the judiciary. I will look again at Hansard and go back to the discussion which somebody who was not quite my predecessor was involved in. For present purposes, that is my answer to the noble Lord.
Just on that—and by the way, I did not speak earlier because the case was made so well by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and I think it is a kindness to the Committee at this stage not to duplicate concerns and comments—to develop the point from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and to comment on his conversation with the Minister, it is not for the Government to decide, is it? It is not actually the Government’s position that it is for them to decide which offences are covered by the new procedure, because mercifully the Government have said that there will be parliamentary procedure and regulations. It is for Parliament to decide.
Is not the point that when Parliament looks at these regulations that are made in the future, by a future Lord Chancellor who may not take such a measured approach as the Minister is taking now in relation to which offences are to be included, Parliament would benefit from regulations that come with the advice and endorsement not just of the Government of the day but of the senior judiciary?
I should say, first, that when I mentioned the noble Baroness in my speech, I was not making the point that she had not risen. I wanted her to appreciate that I had taken on board that she was opposing the clause. When I say “the Government”, of course I mean “the Government with the authority of Parliament”. We are looking at a Bill and that is taken as read. Ultimately, the question is: is it necessarily right for Parliament to say that we cannot proceed unless we know that the LCJ is on board? I suggest that it is quite proper in this case for Parliament and the Bill to say, “This is a power which can be exercised by the Lord Chancellor and no concurrence is necessary.” As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, I am happy to look at this point, but that is the current position which I adopt.
I was going to make one more point on Clause 4 and Amendment 29, which seeks to raise the age of eligibility for the Section 12 procedure—often referred to as “pleading guilty by post”—from 16 to 18. This procedure has been available as an alternative method of summary-only prosecution for defendants aged 16 and over since 1957. I am not aware of any issues of concern being raised in relation to under-18s during the whole of that time.
The purpose of Clause 4 is to ensure that prosecutors can also offer this long-established procedure for suitable cases initiated by charge in person at a police station. It maintains the age criterion that already exists. That comes with an array of safeguards for children, which I will not read into the record because I apprehend that members of the Committee will be well aware of them. I suggest that the amendment would therefore create confusion by applying different rules to a well-established procedure since 1957 simply because the defendant is being charged in a different way. I do not think that that is a distinction with a difference, if I can use that legal phrase. It also fails to take into account the special safeguards in place to ensure that the rights of children are protected.
For those reasons, I urge noble Lords not to press the various amendments.
Before I consider our position, can I just ask when the cooling-off period is likely to kick in. In other words, does it start immediately upon the indication of a plea of guilty or will it be following the conviction that is a consequence of the online plea?
My Lords, I will give an answer, but I will check it and if I get it wrong I will write to the noble Lord. I think the way it works is that it will be immediately after conviction. The conviction is almost instantaneous with submitting the online form because it is an online procedure. Therefore, the cooling-off procedure would start immediately after conviction and would run from that time. Indeed, I have just received a message to say that that is correct.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification; I will consider it.
I will of course withdraw the amendment at this stage, but I see the process that we have had today as calling for continuing discussion. Although it is helpful to know from the Minister that the financial consequences will be spelled out precisely in the offer, he did not address the non-financial consequences—the personal consequences—in enough detail. Of course I take his point that, at this stage, this procedure will apply only to travelling on trains without a ticket, what used to be called riding on trams without a ticket or unlicensed fishing. In those circumstances, limited to those three offences, the consequences might not be as serious as they otherwise might be, but since the statute refers to all summary-only, non-imprisonable offences, it potentially goes very much wider. It would be very helpful if, during continuing discussions, we were assured about the criteria that would be applied in much more detail for its application to future offences because one can see the distinction simply from the offences that he mentioned and we cannot be sure what will happen.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, seems to have a great deal to commend it. He raised it as a query to the Minister. If there were an amendment to that effect on Report I rather expect that it would have a lot of support in the House. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24 withdrawn.
Amendments 25 to 28 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4: Guilty plea in writing: extension to proceedings following police charge
Amendment 29 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 agreed.
30: After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause—
“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 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,(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.”
My Lords, in introducing this group, I thought I would tell the Committee about my experience of sitting as a single justice magistrate dealing with Covid emergency legislation about a year ago. I dealt with fixed penalty notices handed out to people who broke the emergency legislation. The fine was £60, but if it was paid within 14 days it was £30. If that was not responded to the defendants received a letter saying that they should either turn up to court or respond to the letter or the matter would be dealt with by the single justice procedure.
I sat at my dining room table as a magistrate and I dealt with 30 trials in the morning. I convicted 29 of the 30. The prosecution case was the police officer’s note, which I had up on my screen so I could read it. There was no defence case because the defendant had not turned up. I then went on to sentence, which was a £100 fine, £100 in prosecution costs and a £34 victim surcharge, so £234 to pay and a collection order. That is what I did 29 times out of 30 last summer. It was a special time. It was a difficult procedure to go through, but we need to be very conscious of the difficulties and potential pitfalls with these types of procedures. Having said that, and given that example, I believe there are occasions and types of cases where it is appropriate.
Both my amendments make the same point in trying to build in suitable reviews of the procedure to ensure it acts fairly. Amendment 30 states:
“Within two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must commission a review and publish a report on the effectiveness of the single justice procedure.”
My noble friend will speak to her Amendment 37. Amendment 54 says:
“Before section 43 may be commenced, the Lord Chancellor must—
(a) undertake a consultation with relevant stakeholders regarding the proposed abolition of local justice areas under that section, considering in particular the impact on the principle of local justice,
(b) lay before Parliament the Report and the findings of such consultation, and
(c) provide a response explaining whether and how such issues which have been identified would be mitigated.”
To say a few words on Amendment 54, magistrates arrange themselves in local justice areas. There are nine local justice areas in London. It is a historical way of organising magistrates, if I can put it that way. I understand that there are arguments on both sides. I also understand, from talking to the Minister and his officials last week, that there will be extensive consultation and further legislation on this matter if it is taken forward. Nevertheless, I beg to move.
My Lords, before I speak to Amendment 37, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Ponsonby on everything that his public service outside this Committee and your Lordships’ House brings to our deliberations about criminal justice. The Committee needs no reminders from me of all that the eminent silks, retired Law Lords and former members of the senior judiciary bring to your Lordships’ House. The magistracy is a very important part of the criminal justice system. My noble friend brings an experience, a humility and an anxious scrutiny of the system to our deliberations which is incredibly helpful and always illuminating.
Amendment 37 is purely a probing amendment, and I hope the Minister received that message via his office. I have unashamedly taken this opportunity to put issues concerning women and girls in the criminal justice system on the map. As the Committee and the Minister will know, this is ultimately a shared responsibility with his noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford and her department. These two great departments of state—the Home Department and the Ministry of Justice—are responsible for the whole system, including matters well beyond the scope of this Bill, such as the police and the CPS. They also have responsibilities that are dealt with in this Bill, such as for the court system.
Just last year, both Secretaries of State felt the unprecedented need to issue a public apology to women and girls for their experience of the handling of sex offences in our criminal justice system. To some extent, that has led to the resignation of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis. Perhaps more importantly still, it has led not just to terrible attrition rates for sex offences in particular, but to a real crisis of trust and confidence in the system on the part of women and girls that none of us on either side of your Lordships’ House wants to see.
I do not want to say that there should be an inquiry on the narrow grounds that happen to fit into the scope of this Bill. Rather, I want to give the Minister the opportunity to update the Committee and therefore the country on where the Government are and where they propose to be, and how quickly they can rebuild trust and confidence in relation to sex offences in particular and criminal justice in general for slightly more than half of the population.
My Lords, I will make two separate points. First, Amendment 54, tabled by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, relates to Clause 43, which abolishes local justice areas. It says that the Lord Chancellor must,
“by regulations, make consequential or supplementary provision in relation to the abolition of local justice areas.”
I assume that the thinking behind this is that it would be convenient if all justices were appointed, say, for England and Wales and not to a local justice area, and training, deployment and other issues should be dealt with on a national basis.
I do not know what is planned, but I do know from my experience as Lord Chancellor that being a Justice of the Peace in a particular area is of very considerable importance. I also know that people are appointed as magistrates because they are committed to their local community, and that people being trained and deployed together over a period of time in a particular area is also incredibly important to local justice.
This looks to be a very wide-ranging provision which may well have been thought out in full, but I should be grateful if the Minister explained the thinking, and what is being done about recruitment, deployment and training.
I see merit in the proposal of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby that there be an inquiry or investigation of some sort into what is going to happen. I do not know what form that might take, but it is well worth looking into. I imagine that his is a probing amendment, in order to see that this issue is best thought out. There may be other methods by which one can ensure that, before this wide-ranging proposal is made and implemented, we know where we are going and it does not demoralise the magistracy, where morale is not necessarily that high at the moment. I should declare an interest, in that my wife is a judge who is responsible for training and, in part, deployment in Bedfordshire.
Secondly, and separately, I strongly support the proposition from my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti. She has tabled a probing amendment to give the Minister the opportunity to put the Government’s position: what are they doing about the lack of confidence in the criminal justice system, particularly but not only in relation to the prosecution of sexual offences? Everybody in this Chamber knows that the figures for prosecutions of serious sexual offences against women are lamentable and have got worse. A few days ago, the Director of Public Prosecutions said that reforms have been made and things are going to be much better. People are doubtful about this. As with local justice, it is really important that the Government set out what they are doing. If there is a widespread sense that this is not enough, even though my noble friend says that hers is simply a probing amendment, a proper, across-the-board inquiry into how crimes against women are dealt with may well be appropriate.
My Lords, as a former magistrate, I warmly support the first point made by my noble and learned friend. The differences in offences, their nature and conduct vary enormously in general, from area to area and region to region. To understand not only the offence but its cause and, therefore, what a suitable disposal might be is really important.
My Lords, the amendments in this group seek reviews or consultations in three quite disparate areas. The first, in Amendment 30 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, concerns the single justice procedure. The second, in Amendment 37 from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, concerns a call for an inquiry into the treatment of women and girls in the criminal justice system. The third, in Amendment 54 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, concerns local justice areas.
First, as to the single justice procedure, there is no reason in principle to oppose Clause 5, which is the related provision in the Bill. It simply extends the procedure to corporations—and it is probably an anomaly that it did not apply to corporations in the first place. Many of the points that I made during consideration of the first group, relating to a review of the new online procedure, also apply in respect of the single justice procedure. It would be sensible for the single justice procedure to be the subject of the same review, consultation and consideration as the new online procedure.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his helpful account today, and the help that he gives to the House generally as a practising magistrate and with his very important experience in the magistrates’ court. The magistracy is an extremely important part of our criminal justice system. I forget the precise statistic, but magistrates’ court deal with some 96% of all criminal cases. They are a crucial point of disposal.
I accept, as he did, that the single justice procedure has been of considerable use in minor cases generally, but he also pointed to the impersonality of that procedure and the lack of flexibility that it has in dealing with particular cases. It is valuable in minor cases and in cases such as television licence evasion, which I understand is one of the areas for which it is used. It has been particularly helpful with Covid regulations during the pandemic. However, we should not forget that imposing financial penalties remotely—for example, in the case of television licence evasion—can end up with people being severely penalised for failure to pay and even sent to prison. There is also significant evidence that that particular offence and its enforcement affect women disproportionately.
This brings me to the second area in which a review is sought in this group, Amendment 37, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which seeks a judicial inquiry into the criminal courts’ treatment of and service to women and girls. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, spoke to it too. In debates on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, now back in the other place for further consideration of our amendments, I moved an amendment seeking the establishment of a women’s justice board. It had significant and widespread support around the House, and for me it is a matter of great regret that despite having the personal support of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, the Labour Party was not prepared to vote for the measure. If the measure had been supported by the Labour Party, we might have succeeded on that Division. That is a major reform for which I will continue to press. I hope that the support of those who supported it across the House in that Bill will continue to be forthcoming in future attempts, because it is one way to have a significant effect on addressing the difficulties of women and girls within the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, I of course support the noble Baroness in her Amendment 37.
Amendment 54 mandates consultation with relevant stakeholders about the abolition of local justice areas before that abolition under Clause 43 can come into effect. I see the merits of abolishing local justice areas. It will remove the boundaries between such areas, which—as the Explanatory Notes suggest—are largely artificial. That ought to enable magistrates’ courts to work on a more unified or at least a more collaborative basis and manage their work more logically. However, I listened with care to the note of caution introduced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. If it is intended by the abolition of local justice areas to destroy the local base of the magistracy, that would be a great step backwards. It is very important that magistrates are dispensing, are seen as dispensing, and understood as dispensing, local justice. While I am completely understanding of the proposal to alter the artificial boundaries so that courts can collaborate on wider areas or narrower areas as appropriate, so that the artificiality is removed, it is very important to preserve the local justice principle. I expect that we will hear more from the Minister about the consultations that have already taken place on this issue in response to the amendment, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I hope that he will address that point with care.
I strongly agree that the magistracy is essentially a local service built up by knowledge of the area in which magistrates are asked to administer justice. It would be an extraordinary development to cut that out, because the knowledge of what is going on in their area is a source of strength to the magistracy in issuing judgments which, as has been pointed out, are a very high proportion of the total number dispensed throughout the country. On the other hand, I can see that sometimes a technical relief from the particularity of the boundary may be important. Perhaps that can be done without losing the principle of the locality of the magistracy.
I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said about the help that we are getting in this respect, having here a practising magistrate who knows the difficulties that arise and can be dealt with by personal experience. I also support the idea that we must have some system for noticing what the difficulties of different people are in relation to the courts, particularly women and girls. I imagine that this has to do with the treatment given by the courts, not particularly the question of certain types of crime that may not always be getting the result that we might expect in various situations.
My Lords, the amendments in this group, Amendments 30, 37 and 54, all deal with reviews of the criminal justice system or criminal court procedure. I will take them in turn.
Amendment 30 would require the Secretary of State to commission a review and publish a report on the effectiveness of the single justice procedure. The review would consider the transparency of the procedure and its use in the prosecution of Covid-19 offences. Let me begin by allying myself to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his service as a magistrate, and for what that service gives us in these debates: a real, from-the-front-line addition on how things are going. Since that has been raised, I also thank more generally all magistrates. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said, they are the backbone of our criminal justice system. During the pandemic, they went above and beyond to keep the wheels of justice turning.
On the substance of the single justice procedure, I should first make it clear that a case dealt with under the single justice procedure is dealt with in the same way as any other case, except that a single magistrate can deal with it and, as we have heard, the hearing need not be in public. The magistrate must comply with the same legislative safeguards as all other proceedings, and the Sentencing Council’s sentencing guidelines apply in the same way. Importantly, as with the previous group, the single justice procedure is entirely optional. Also, all processes are reviewed regularly to ensure that it is easy to navigate and accessible. Following consultation, the single justice procedure notice has recently been revised to make it even clearer for users.
We have also worked closely with the media to ensure that this procedure is accessible and open, because justice in this country is public justice. While the criminal procedure rules require all courts to give certain additional information on individual cases upon request from the media and other interested third parties, courts are currently obliged to give more information on cases prosecuted under the single justice procedure. That would include the prosecution’s statement of facts and the defendant’s statement in mitigation if there was one.
In addition, a list of pending single justice procedure cases is published each day online and is available to the public. The media also receive a more detailed list of these cases so that they can report on them if they so wish. So, actually, the media receive more information about cases dealt with under this procedure than traditional proceedings, where they get the information only if they actually turn up to the hearing. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would confirm, it is now quite rare that local newspapers turn up. So, far from reducing transparency, the online procedure actually increases it, and I am sure that everyone in the Committee would agree that that is a very good thing.
On the suitability of the single justice procedure, I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that the error rate is higher under the single justice procedure than under traditional court proceedings. Of course there is an error rate, but the question is whether it is higher. As with all cases dealt with by the magistrates’ courts, safeguards are in place to address errors where they occur—people are human, and there will always be errors, I am afraid. If an error is made by the court, whether upon conviction or upon sentencing, the court will always reopen the case, notify the defendant and correct the error as quickly as possible. I know that work was done at speed with both police forces and court staff to reduce error rates in Covid-19 prosecutions.
Amendment 54, on the local justice review, would require the Lord Chancellor to undertake a consultation on the proposed removal of local justice areas,
“considering in particular the impact on the principle of local justice,”
and lay a report before Parliament. There are currently 75 local justice areas, and we think that these restrict efficient operation of the criminal justice system because work and magistrates cannot be easily moved between them.
Therefore, the removal of local justice areas will ensure that magistrates’ courts have the flexibility to assign cases and magistrates in a way that best meets local needs. But I underline “local”, because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, made some very valid points about the importance of the local magistracy, which my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern echoed. I confirm that magistrates will still be assigned to a home court, which will ensure that there is a close nexus between the magistrate and the locality.
The change will give magistrates the flexibility to work in other courts, should they wish to do so. But, so far as listening is concerned, proximity between the courthouse and the offence will continue to be the primary consideration for where the trial will take place. But the change will allow for other factors to be taken into account where it is appropriate to do so; for example, the relative speed at which a trial could be arranged or the convenience of the location for other court users.
There will be full consultation with HMCTS, magistrates and other relevant criminal justice and local authority partnerships to discuss and agree new arrangements that are specific to local areas and better suited to local needs. Indeed, HMCTS is already discussing this with the Magistrates’ Liaison Group. The changes will not be enacted until that consultation has taken place.
Ultimately, it will be for the Lord Chief Justice and the judiciary to determine what new arrangements are to be put in place and to what extent they will differ, if at all, from the current arrangements. Under Section 21 of the Courts Act 2003, the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor already have a statutory duty to ascertain the views of lay magistrates on matters affecting them.
Without unduly delaying the Committee, I will say a word about the magistracy. On recruitment, I hope that noble Lords have seen a recent campaign, this year, to recruit magistrates, trying to dispel preconceptions about what a magistrate does and, I respectfully say, what one looks like. People have a preconception about what magistrates look like; they should look like the people in this country. We have sought to recruit 4,000 more magistrates, which would be the largest recruitment in the 650-year history of the magistracy. We have also increased their retirement age so that, if they want, they can sit up to 75.
We think that these measures provide the opportunity to improve and enhance the magistracy and its leadership structures, which will now more closely align with the Crown Court. There will still be local training, but, where appropriate, we may have national training as well. But magistrates will be involved in the development of all these areas—
I am grateful to the Minister. Does he think that he ought to consider the impact that would flow from removing local justice areas, when we already find that taking cases to the furthest point within a local justice area—because there is a particularly well-equipped courtroom there, say—means that magistrates are finding that most of the cases they will be asked to sit on are taking place 50 or 60 miles away? It is extremely difficult to recruit magistrates who are prepared to accept that distance, and it does not do much for local justice.
Of course I accept that point as a matter of principle. That is why consultation is really at the heart of this. There has to be a balance. For example, there could be a case where you have a number of very disabled witnesses and a particular courthouse is more accessible for them than another one. There could be cases, as in the pandemic, for example, where some courthouses have been more easily adapted than others. But, as I hope I have made clear, we will make sure that there will be full consultation on this. But we want to build in the legislative flexibility to allow that to take place in cases where it is needed. If I may say—
The legislative form that this is taking, in Clause 43(1), is:
“Local justice areas are abolished.”
The Minister referred to things on the edges, such as greater flexibility between areas and particular courthouses being suitable, all of which sound quite sensible. But it is very hard to think that that requires the wholesale abolition of local justice areas. Echoing what the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, said, could the Minister tell us what consultation has taken place already and led to the conclusion that the solution to, and the right way to deal with, what appear to be problems around the edges is to abolish local justice areas altogether?
First, the legislative architecture, so to speak, is not just Clause 43: I have already mentioned other statutory provisions that require consultation. There has been consultation on this, although I do not have all the details of it to hand. If I may, I will drop the noble and learned Lord a note setting that out.
I was just about to thank my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, and I apologise for standing up when he was about to speak. I respectfully say that he summed up perfectly the balance that is required between the need for a local link and for flexibility when it is useful.
Finally, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, explained—I received the message—Amendment 37 essentially a probing amendment for me to explain what is going on. It would formally require an inquiry into the adequacy of the criminal courts in relation to women and girls. We are doing significant work in this area, both to improve the experience of women and girls in the criminal justice system—or, in some instances, the justice system more broadly—and to better scrutinise the agencies involved. As she said, a number of agencies are involved, and this is a cross-government issue.
We are already taking specific actions. I shall set out some of them now, although it is a non-exhaustive list. We know that pre-recorded cross-examination can help to improve the experience of victims, so we are rolling out the use of this measure, known as Section 28, for sexual violence and modern slavery complainants to all Crown Courts nationally. We have introduced a single source of 24/7 support for victims of rape and sexual violence. We are working with the police and the CPS to reform approaches to disclosure, and I am sure that the noble Baroness has heard the DPP talk about that in particular. In July last year we launched a violence against women and girls strategy that contained a number of commitments to keep women and girls safe. I will not read those into the record, but I know the noble Baroness is familiar with them.
On a cross-government basis, we have cross-system governance structures to hold criminal justice system partners to account. We published the first criminal justice system scorecard for adult rape in December last year. Publishing and monitoring that data will enable us to improve how adult rape cases are handled at each stage of the criminal justice system, focusing on key metrics such as—I apologise for using this phrase because I hate it, but it is the phrase that is used—“victim attrition”. It sounds terrible but we know what it means.
Finally, there are reviews and inquiries, similar to the one proposed in this amendment, already in place. On 5 October last year the Home Secretary announced the Angiolini inquiry to investigate the issues raised by the conviction of Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard. Among other issues, the inquiry is looking at what police forces are doing to identify and deal with misogynistic and predatory behaviour.
In October last year, the Metropolitan Police announced that it had commissioned the noble Baroness, Lady Casey, to lead an independent review of its culture and standards following Sarah Everard’s murder. The review will assess the extent to which the force’s leadership, recruitment, vetting, training, communications and other practices effectively reinforce the standards that the public should expect. Finally, the Victims’ Bill consultation, which recently closed, explored how to amplify victims’ voices, improve the accountability of criminal justice agencies and generally improve support for victims, and we will of course be responding to that in due course.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the issue. I hope she will forgive me for not mentioning everything in response, given that her amendment is a probing one, but obviously I can assure her that this is right at the top of our priorities across government. Formally, though, I respectfully ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I have to admit that Amendment 54 provoked more comment than I was anticipating. I particularly thank my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer for his observations about the importance of local justice areas, and my noble friend Lady Whitaker for her experience of local justice areas. The same point was made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay.
I understand that there needs to be a balance between getting rid of artificial boundaries and recognising the importance of locality. While the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beith, about rural local justice areas is absolutely right, where people have to travel a great distance, in a big conurbation such as London I personally feel very much connected to the area where I sit as a magistrate.
I want to add one extra point to this debate, which I understand will be going on, about the importance of the pastoral role of the Bench chairman. I sit as a chairman for the Greater London Family Panel, and quite literally every day I deal with pastoral matters for my magistrate colleagues. It is a very important role and one that my colleagues appreciate. I think it is important that that role should continue in some way, because it is a way of maintaining the morale of magistrates within a particular area. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 30 withdrawn.
Clause 6: Written procedure for indicating plea and determining mode of trial: adults
31: Clause 6, page 11, line 13, at end insert—
“and has received the advice of a legal representative prior to submitting a plea.”
My Lords, in this group of amendments we are dealing with offences triable either way and determining the mode of trial. I will go through all the amendments one by one and then make some rounding-up comments at the end.
In Amendment 31, the provisions in Clause 6 would apply only to persons charged with an offence who had received the advice of a legal representative prior to submitting a plea. In Amendment 32, the provisions in Clause 6 would apply only if the court had been provided with a physical and mental health of the accused, confirming that the written procedure would not impede the ability of the accused to understand or effectively participate in proceedings.
Amendment 33 would ensure that an accused person was informed about not only the consequences of giving or failing to give a written indication of a plea but the potential legal and practical consequences of pleading guilty. Amendment 34 would remove cases involving children and young people from the provisions of Clause 9. In Amendment 35, Clauses 6 to 9 would expire two years from when the Bill was passed, unless Parliament passed a resolution to retain those clauses.
Amendment 36 is in the name of my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti, and I will leave her to speak to it. Amendment 36A would ensure that the new increased magistrates’ sentencing powers were subject to regular reporting on their impact, including with respect to those with protected characteristics, every four months.
Clause 8 stand part would delete Clause 8, removing from the Bill the written procedure for children for indicating a plea and determining the mode of trial. Clause 14 stand part would delete Clause 14. That would be consequential to opposing the question that Clause 8 stand part of the Bill and would remove from the Bill the involvement of a parent or guardian from the proceedings conducted in writing. These are all probing amendments.
What I shall say in the round is that allocation decisions are often quite technical. It is often the case that defendants do not particularly follow the niceties of the argument when one is making allocation procedures. That is true with both adults and youths. Nevertheless, it is certainly my experience that a contested allocation procedure really focuses the mind of the court and of the defendant on the severity of the matter that you are dealing with. So, while one could argue that it is a procedural matter that does not require someone to be present in person in certain cases, that is true sometimes, but in my experience there are some closely contested allocation procedures where the full engagement of the defendant is vital in order to make a decision appropriately.
Particularly when it comes to people with mental health problems or vulnerabilities and the like, I have certainly been in court when, if I may use the expression, “the light goes on” and they understand the seriousness of the position that they are in, and it is because of the allocation procedure. So we ought to be very careful about doing a lot of these procedures administratively or online, without the defendants present or without them being fully involved in the process. If you do that, you lose an opportunity to fully engage the defendant in the process that is happening in court. My experience, in both adult and youth courts, is that one of the greatest problems is making sure that defendants fully engage in the process. In my experience, allocation decisions are an example of where people sometimes fully engage and, as I said, the light goes on and they understand the seriousness of their position. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 36 in my name. I also support Amendment 36A in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby. I declare an interest as a member of the council of JUSTICE, the all-party law reform organisation, and a British agent of the International Council of Jurists, along with many other Members of the Committee and your Lordships’ House.
Notwithstanding the praise that we all rightly heaped on my noble friend and his fellow magistrates in the earlier group, I am a passionate believer in the right to jury trial. I suspect I am not alone in that in this Committee. Juries are not perfect; however, I have defended jury trial, sometimes against Governments of both stripes, for at least 20 years. I hope I do not need to rehearse for too long why it is such an important right. It is not just because people believe in it. People want to be tried for serious matters that will send them to prison for a long time and destroy their reputations, and lives in many cases, not just because they want to be convicted by their peers; it is also important for trust and confidence in the justice system that it is not always seen as primarily about more-deprived and working people in the dock being adjudicated over by middle-class professionals like this Committee. As a third point, my experience of people who have served on juries is that it is a really important part of public service and engagement that people from a broad range of communities can ideally participate in. It is a very important glue for our country and the rule of law. I hope that did not need rehearsing, and I will stop on it there.
I note that in more controversial debates, for example around the Human Rights Act and its survival or not, some of the Minister’s colleagues—and indeed the current Justice Secretary—have said that one of the ways in which the Human Rights Act might be improved on would be with greater entrenchment of the right to jury trial. That is said on the one hand yet, on the other hand, provisions are taken to extend the sentencing powers of magistrates, which is ultimately a significantly broad back door to undermining jury trial.
I understand that the Government are concerned about the backlog. I certainly understand that the backlog in the system has been exacerbated by the pandemic. But if the Government did not share some of my concerns, they would not have added the so-called off switch in the other place that is now to be found in Clause 13. I am concerned not just in principle because of my belief in jury trial, but in practice as to whether the measures in the Bill will actually do what the Government are hoping. First, will these measures really save 1,700 sitting days in Crown Courts by enabling 500 jury trials to be switched to magistrates? Is that really a credible figure? Even if it is, we think that it would represent a saving of only 1.6% according to recent courts service estimates. Secondly, there is a presumption that defendants will not exercise their right to opt for a jury trial, which they are more likely to do if the benefit of a lesser sentence is not a temptation to take the magistrates’ court option. Thirdly, I am really concerned about whether there will be sufficient and appropriate training for magistrates if we are to double their sentencing powers. That is the rationale behind Amendment 36 and, quite possibly—I will not speak for my noble friend Lord Ponsonby—part of the rationale for Amendment 36A as well.
My Lords, I express my support for Amendment 36A. When I was a member of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee we looked into the impact of the pandemic on the criminal courts. What was striking about our activity was the difficulty we had in extracting from the Ministry of Justice any valuable, reliable statistics on what was happening in the criminal justice system. To have a specific statutory obligation to produce data on this important subject is essential if Parliament is to know what the impact of these new provisions will be.
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group. My support comes from my experience as a magistrate, and I appreciate the endorsements of the role of the magistrate from all around the Committee. As those who frequent magistrates’ courts will know, they are places where invariably vulnerable and some other defendants are simply not able to understand or cope with the requirements of the legal system, as my noble friend Lord Ponsonby described, so effectively they do not have a fair trial. With regard to increasing the powers of magistrates in Clause 13, magistrates too are not experts, and that is partly the point of them. In my view, the safeguards in Amendments 35 and 36 would be very useful against inadvertent injustice.
My Lords, I have very considerable concerns, which have also been expressed by the Delegated Powers Committee, about the Secretary of State being able in effect to double the length of time that a prison sentence can last in relation to both summary offences and either-way offences. How long a person goes to prison for as a result of a magistrates’ court sentence is a considerably important factor in determining which cases are tried by a jury and which are tried by the magistrates’ court. If there is to be a change in the powers of the magistrates’ court of this dimension, it should always be done by primary legislation and not by regulatory powers. I oppose the proposal that the Secretary of State could in effect double the sentencing power of the magistrates’ court and think that should be left to primary legislation. For that reason, I support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.
My Lords, as a non-lawyer, I have listened to much of this debate before and today and I think this Government are going too far in taking into ministerial powers decisions which should come before Parliament. This is another example of that. I do not want the Secretary of State to be able to do this without Parliament discussing seriously what it means. Parliament ought to be much tougher about its powers being taken into the Executive.
I was first elected to the other place in 1970. Since then, Parliament has become increasingly less powerful and increasingly the Executive have increased their power. I do not believe that the Secretary of State should have this power. I believe it should be Parliament. What is more, I believe that the public think it should be Parliament. Only with the consent of the public does the legal system work.
I usually come here to ensure that lawyers do not do things a bit on their own in legal matters, and I think I am the only non-lawyer here, but I wish to say—I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, a fellow recalcitrant individual. It seems to me that we have to be much tougher about things that look small because, in aggregate, they become very dangerous, because the public will lose their belief in the fact that the legal system is independent except that it is dependent on the good sense of the elected Parliament and the House of Lords in ensuring that the Executive do not overstep the mark. I do not want this Government to overstep the mark in this or any of the other things they seem to wish to take unto themselves.
My Lords, the first two amendments in this group, Amendments 31 and 32 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would add requirements that an adult accused should have received legal representation and had a physical and mental health assessment confirming their capacity to understand the meaning and consequences of a guilty plea in order to participate in proceedings before the court seeks an indication of a guilty plea in writing. Amendment 33, also from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would require information to be given to the accused as to the consequences of a guilty plea. These are similar to some of the issues we have canvassed before this afternoon. But, again, I support the principle of these amendments. They are directed at the proposition that before a court proceeds to accept a guilty plea, it must be satisfied that the accused has full capacity and understands the consequences.
These are complex proposals, and the consequences of a guilty plea are challenging to understand. They may, for example, include the consequence of being committed to the Crown Court for sentencing under new Section 17ZB of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980. It is important to understand how these points are going to be addressed in practice, and I hope the Minister will help us with that.
As for the next amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I agree with him that taking a guilty plea from children, as proposed by Clause 8, is unacceptable, and I support him in opposing that clause and, consequently, in opposing Clause 14, which would, independently as well as consequently, water down the involvement of parents and guardians in child cases. That involvement is, I suggest, extremely important. There are two principal reasons for my opposition. First, it is extremely difficult to guarantee that a child of whatever age under 18 will fully understand the proceedings or consequences before giving an indication of a guilty plea. Secondly, a criminal charge often brings matters, risks and difficulties that are faced by particular children to the attention of the court when they attend court. That gives the court and other agencies an opportunity to address those difficulties, and that opportunity ought to be available and taken as soon as possible and before any question of indicating a guilty plea arises. For the same reasons, I support Amendment 34 in relation to Clause 9, which would permit allocation hearings in respect of children or young people to proceed in the absence of the accused. That does not seem appropriate.
These are difficult provisions for indicating a guilty plea in writing, and as I have said, it is difficult to see how they will work in practice. While they may prove to be inoffensive if introduced, the sunsetting provisions in Amendment 35 are surely sensible. If our concerns turn out to be groundless, Parliament can revisit the procedures on the basis of evidence of how they have worked out in practice and make them permanent or extend them. Otherwise, they ought to lapse after two years, as is suggested in the amendment.
I turn next to Clause 13, permitting the extension of a magistrate’s sentencing powers. I cannot, at the moment, for the life of me see why the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, are not right to say this is a matter that ought to be considered discretely and independently by Parliament, rather than having delegated powers enable the Secretary of State to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers at a later date by executive action. That does not seem appropriate, and no good reason has been advanced for why that should be right.
As to the threat to jury trial considered by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I share her belief that increasing sentencing powers is likely to lead to more, rather than fewer, defendants opting for jury trial. The greater sentencing powers of magistrates would lead only to defendants taking their chances with a jury trial rather than staying in a magistrates’ court, and forfeiting what has been traditionally the incentive to stick with the magistrates—that they are likely to impose a shorter sentence and unlikely to commit for sentence.
As a matter of principle, I am instinctively opposed to increasing the sentencing powers of magistrates. At the same time, along with many who have considered the evidence, we are strongly opposed to short prison sentences. Against that, there is a serious risk that a move to permit 12-month sentences, when previously six-month sentences were the maximum that could have been imposed, will increase the use of custodial sentences of a longer period where community sentences would be more appropriate. I find that a difficult issue to face. We should be concentrating on increasing the use of community sentences; and increasing magistrates’ powers to 12 months for a single offence is entirely wrong. But I wait to see how the Minister approaches this change and justifies it.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It covers a number of different points, but, essentially, it focuses on the procedure for triable either-way cases and the recent announcement that the Government intend to extend magistrates’ courts’ sentencing powers from six months to 12.
Let me start with amendments to Clause 6 —Amendments 31, 32 and 33. They all seek to add further safeguards to Clause 6, but I hope to explain why the Government consider them to be unnecessary. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, to ensure that defendants are able to seek legal representation in criminal proceedings at the earliest opportunity. The central point here is that a defendant is unable to proceed with the new online procedures without the support of a legal representative. That is because the online procedures we are dealing with here are made possible through the common platform, which is currently not accessible by individual defendants. So, as currently, legal representatives would be needed to access the platform, and they will then be able to help identify whether a defendant has particular vulnerabilities or does not understand the process even after explanation.
Defendants, as in a previous group, will be under no obligation to accept an invitation to proceed online. They can choose to discuss these matters at a traditional court hearing if they should so wish. Where a defendant fails to take up the offer of engaging online, the proceedings will simply default back to a normal court-based procedure. Furthermore, the court itself will be able to stop an online proceeding and call an in-court hearing if it has any concern or would like the defendant, for whatever reason, to attend court in a contested case. That would include cases where, for example, the court had concern about a defendant’s mental health or mental capacity, or where, for any other reason, the court considered online proceedings inappropriate.
Amendment 33 would require that defendants are informed about the real-world consequences of pleading guilty to a crime at court and what it could mean to get a criminal record. Of course, getting a criminal record is not something that should ever be taken lightly, but Clause 6 already ensures that the court must provide important information about the consequences of giving or failing to give an online indication of plea.
Where a defendant does decide to proceed with the online procedure, all the communication that would take place between the parties and the court to facilitate effective case management, which would otherwise take place in court, can take place online. A defendant will, for example, still be able to seek an indication of whether a custodial sentence would be likely if they were to plead guilty and were dealt with at the magistrates’ court. Further, any online indication of plea—and that is what we are dealing with, an indication of plea—will remain just that, an indication. A defendant is able to withdraw it at any time before their first appearance at a hearing in court. They will still need to enter a binding formal plea before the court at that hearing and any online indication of plea cannot be admitted as evidence in later proceedings. So I suggest that we have enough safeguards in place to ensure that defendants are appropriately supported.
Given that there has been some recent press coverage of the online procedure, I reiterate the important point I made earlier: the principle of open justice will be maintained for cases dealt with under this new online procedure. Magistrates’ courts will publish the result of these proceedings in the usual way and, and I said earlier, various measures in the Bill will actually mean that the press get more material here than they would from a traditional format.
Amendment 34 to Clause 9 would prevent the courts having a power to proceed with trial allocation decisions for children who fail to appear at their hearing without an acceptable reason and where it would have been in the interests of justice to progress the case. It is important that all cases, but particularly cases involving children, are progressed as expeditiously as possible, so that interventions to tackle offending are not delayed. This provision recognises that with the increased vulnerability of child defendants there will need to be additional safeguards.
Clause 9(5) creates a new, but clearly defined, set of circumstances that would enable a court to allocate a child’s case in their absence. A point to underline is that these conditions are far more stringent than those prescribed for adults, even though children cannot elect for jury trial.
There are essentially five conditions. The first is that the child has been invited, but failed, to provide an online indication of plea and that, in accordance with Clause 14, the court should, where appropriate, have made sure that the child’s parent or guardian was aware of the written proceedings. The second condition is that the child has then also failed to appear at the subsequent allocation hearing. The third is that the court must be satisfied that the child was served with adequate notice of the hearing or had previously appeared at a hearing and was therefore aware of the proceedings. The fourth condition is that the court does not consider that there is an acceptable reason for the child’s failure to appear. The fifth is that the court must be satisfied that it would not be contrary to the interests of justice to proceed to allocate the case in the child’s absence. There are a number of other existing safeguards—I will not go through them all—for example, when a child is arrested, the law requires that a parent or guardian must be notified as soon as possible. For prosecutions initiated by summons or postal requisition, the notice is also sent to the child’s parents or guardian.
Amendment 35 would add a sunset clause, which would essentially switch off the provisions in Clauses 6 to 9 two years after Royal Assent, unless Parliament passed a resolution to prevent it. I understand that the intention is to ensure that defendants are not disadvantaged, but I suggest it is unnecessary for three reasons.
First, as the Committee will appreciate, magistrates’ courts already have powers to allocate in the defendant’s absence. The online procedures are already used effectively in magistrates’ courts; we are simply extending the circumstances in which these powers can be used. Secondly, these measures do not replace current tried and tested procedures; they offer more options to defendants to save time and reduce the number of unnecessary appearances at court. If a defendant does not want to go online, the proceedings simply default to the usual court-based proceedings on their allotted hearing date. Thirdly, as I have said, there are safeguards to protect defendants who need protection, particularly children but also others, recognising that we have a distinct youth justice system.
Like all procedures, these measures will be closely monitored and subject to regular review by the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that it is essential that the defendant is fully engaged with all stages of the criminal justice process, and we think these procedures will enable that still to happen.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, spoke to Amendment 36 on magistrates’ court sentencing powers. I have read the briefing from Justice on this and the other measures in the Bill. Amendment 36 would remove Clause 13, which provides a power to vary the limit on the length of sentence that a magistrates’ court may give in the future to either six months’ or 12 months’ imprisonment. This amendment seeks to prevent the extension of magistrates’ court sentencing powers through existing provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the Sentencing Act 2020.
The extension of magistrates’ court sentencing powers will enable more cases to be retained in magistrates’ courts, enabling those cases to be heard more quickly. We estimate that this will free up around 1,700 sitting days in the Crown Court each year. Since I was asked, I will say a little more about that. First, we estimate it will move up to 8,000 sentencing hearings from the Crown Court to the magistrates’ court, resulting in a reduction in the Crown Court backlog of about 1,700 cases. Secondly, because those 8,000 cases no longer have to be heard in the Crown Court, it would free up for other work over 1,700 sitting days a year, which, if used for trial work, would provide for an extra 500 jury trials a year. I am conscious that I used the number 1,700 twice in different contexts, but I have checked and that is deliberate and correct. The modelling is based on the number of sentencing hearings that would now be retained in magistrates’ courts, estimated at about an hour each, which amounts to about 1,700 sitting days. That is based on current election and appeal rates. Further detail will be published in the impact assessment when the extension is switched on.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that nothing here undermines jury trial. We had a separate discussion in the human rights context about the importance of jury trial, and I have made my and the Government’s position clear. Just as I thanked the magistracy, I should also thank all those people who turned up during the pandemic to sit as jurors and the court staff who enabled those trials to take place. They went above and beyond. This jurisdiction was one of the first—perhaps the first—in the world to reinstitute jury trials during the pandemic. We should be proud of that in our criminal justice system, and a lot of people put a lot of work into that to make it happen—court staff, judiciary, jurors and legal professionals.
Clause 13 allows the flexibility to reduce the maximum sentence that may be given by the magistrates’ court back to six months, if it looks like there are adverse impacts. We are not pressing ahead regardless. I listened carefully to the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Deben, but let us put this in context. As outlined in the allocation to Crown Court guidance and good practice, magistrates, subject to issues of complexity, can already keep the cases affected by these measures for trial. The extension of sentencing powers will therefore serve primarily to increase the number of cases the magistrates’ court can sentence. Because we are increasing magistrates’ powers only in relation to individual triable either-way offences, tried summarily, there is no change to the maximum penalty available for these offences, just to which court can give sentences between six and 12 months in length.
As to the Secretary of State’s powers to switch it on and off, we believe that it is necessary to take this power to ensure flexibility in the future should significant unsustainable pressures arise as a direct result of extending the sentencing powers of magistrates’ courts. We set out in the delegated powers memorandum that we think it is appropriate to take a power to increase the limit back to 12 months again to allow the benefits of the policy to be maintained if solutions can be found to address any pressures.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, asked about training for the new powers. I assure her that we will revise sentencing guidelines for magistrates’ courts, and magistrates, district judges and legal advisers will also receive additional training. That is, of course, designed by the Judicial College, not by government Ministers, and is rolled out by HMCTS. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, about short sentences, the sentencing guidelines continue to apply. We all know what that means: you cannot give a custodial sentence unless there is no other proper option and, even when you give a custodial sentence, you have to suspend it unless an immediate custodial sentence is the only option. Those are the protections built in.
Amendment 36A seeks to require reporting to Parliament every four months on the operation of the increased sentencing powers, including data on the impact on sentencing outcomes and a breakdown of outcomes for those with protected characteristics. There is a drafting point here. Clause 13 does not actually commence the sentencing powers, but provides the power to reduce the limit down to six months or increase it back to 12 again in the future, but that is a drafting point. The two main points here are, first, that the increase in sentencing powers does not change the maximum penalty available for each offence: it is only which court can give a sentence of up to 12 months’ imprisonment. Defendants will also retain the right to elect for trial in the Crown Court. Secondly, we will monitor the impact of the extension. That will be ongoing and regular. So far as data is concerned, and on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, we publish quarterly data on custodial sentences and average sentence length in criminal courts and will continue to do so. There is now further relevant data in the public domain, which he may not have had time to pick up yet. In particular, I refer to the cross-criminal justice system scorecards, which are now published each quarter, and criminal justice outcomes data, which is also released quarterly. With that additional data, therefore, on top of the data that we published historically, we believe it would be disproportionately burdensome to publish the additional data suggested by this amendment.
Finally and briefly, I turn to the proposal that Clauses 8 and 14 should be removed from the Bill. Clause 8 would provide a defendant under 18 years of age with the option of indicating a plea and determining mode of trial in writing online. Clause 14 would require the involvement of a parent or guardian. I have already set out the various safeguards for children, and, where a child chooses to provide an indication of plea online, courts will have to make sure at the first hearing that the child has understood the decision and confirms a written indication of plea before proceeding any further with that case. That is an important safeguard at the very first court hearing. I hope that I have set out why the Government believe the amendments are unnecessary, and I invite noble Lords not to press them.
My Lords, I find myself in a somewhat invidious situation regarding Amendment 36. I thank the Minister for defending the position of the Government and I speak against my noble friends who questioned the increase in magistrates’ sentencing powers. Having said that, I accept the more general point—or more principled point, if I can put it like that—of the noble Lords, Lord Deben and Lord Marks, and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, that the changes should be done by primary legislation rather than in the way in which the Government are proposing to do it here.
I shall just make a couple of points regarding magistrates’ sentencing powers. Magistrates in youth courts sentence up to two years. I have done that once in 12 years as a youth magistrate. Magistrates in adult courts, for more than one either-way offence, can currently sentence up to 12 months. The difference is that it is on multiple offences that you get to the 12-month maximum, rather than on the single offence, which is the proposed amendment. I do that very infrequently: I could probably count on the fingers of one hand in 14 years as a magistrate when I have sentenced 12 months on multiple charges. It really does not happen that often. Nevertheless, the Minister made a fair point when he said that the Government will monitor the impact of this proposed change. I am sure that people will keep a very close eye on whether these sentencing powers are being used in any inappropriate way, but I really cannot see it happening. Nevertheless, I am happy for the Government to monitor the change. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 31.
Amendment 31 withdrawn.
Amendments 32 and 33 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clauses 7 and 8 agreed.
Clause 9: Powers to proceed if accused absent from allocation hearing
Amendment 34 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
Amendment 35 not moved.
Clauses 10 to 12 agreed.
Clause 13: Maximum term of imprisonment on summary conviction for either-way offence
Amendment 36 not moved.
Clause 13 agreed.
Amendment 36A not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Amendment 37 not moved.
Clauses 15 and 16 agreed.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Clauses 17 and 18 agreed.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 19 agreed.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Clauses 20 to 23 agreed.
38: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
“Power to make certain provision about dispute-resolution services
(1) This section applies to Online Procedure Rules which provide—(a) for the transfer by electronic means of information held for the purposes of an online dispute-resolution service to a court or tribunal, or(b) for a court or tribunal to take into account, for any purpose, steps that a party to proceedings has or has not taken in relation to an online dispute-resolution service.(2) The Rules may be expressed so that their application in relation to a particular service depends on things done by a particular person from time to time.(3) The Rules may, for example, refer to such services as—(a) appear from time to time in a list published by a particular person, or(b) are from time to time certified by a particular person as complying with particular standards.(4) In this section—“online dispute-resolution service” means a service accessible by electronic means for facilitating the resolution of disputes without legal proceedings;“particular person” and “particular standards” include, respectively, a person of a particular description and standards of a particular description.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new clause enables Online Procedure Rules to allow things done by third parties to determine the application of the Rules to particular online dispute-resolution services.
My Lords, I am conscious that there is another amendment in this group, Amendment 39, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. I hope the Committee will find it helpful if I speak to my amendment and then respond in the normal way to the noble Lord’s amendment.
Both amendments relate to the new Online Procedure Rule Committee, OPRC, created by the Bill. Amendment 38 seeks to give, by way of a new clause, greater flexibility to the Online Procedure Rule Committee when it comes to establishing standards relating to dispute resolution conducted online before court proceedings are initiated. This will enable parties who try to resolve their dispute online prior to commencing legal proceedings to then transfer into the legal process in a seamless and efficient way if it proves impossible to resolve some or all of their dispute. The key point is that the IT processes will enable these pre-action dispute resolution processes to roll over into the online legal processes where that is necessary, saving parties time and cost in preparing a new claim. I am grateful to members of the Committee who have taken time to engage with me on this proposed government amendment.
The Master of the Rolls, as the Committee may be aware, has on a number of occasions laid out his vision for a more modern and efficient justice system which makes maximum use of new online processes. The Bill as drafted without this amendment allows the Online Procedure Rule Committee to establish standards which external dispute resolution providers must satisfy in order for data to be transferred into the court process. That committee will also be able to provide rules for the court or tribunal to take into account regarding the compliance or otherwise of parties to proceedings with pre-action standards. That is similar to what already happens under the Civil Procedure Rules, where the court can look at the compliance of parties with pre-action protocols.
In future, we anticipate that there will be a range of pre-action dispute resolution services which meet these standards, so that prospective litigants will be able to select and engage in online dispute resolution before any formal proceedings begin, with a view to resolving their dispute. Enabling and encouraging parties to resolve disputes out of court is something this Government are very focused on, and I am sure it is not a party-political issue: I think there is general support across the Committee for that. Incentivising parties to engage in online dispute resolution before commencing legal proceedings means that only cases which really require judicial consideration will come before a judge. That reduces pressure on courts, reduces backlogs, resolves cases more quickly and, frankly, enables litigants to get on with their lives. The effect of this amendment is therefore modest, but it is important because it enables the committee, rather than having to maintain in the rules a list of individual dispute resolution services, to instead signpost to third party online dispute resolution services that meet the standards laid down by the committee.
As I said at the start, there is another amendment in the group and if the Committee is happy, I will respond to it after other noble Lords have spoken to it.
I shall quickly speak to Amendment 39, in the name of my noble friend Lord Ponsonby, which seeks some assurances from the Minister on how this will work in practice. We accept the good intentions of the Government in this, and we welcome Ministers making it clear that they understand that not everyone is going to be able to use online procedures and some may feel that assistance in starting or progressing their case is needed. We support the extension of digital procedures, but we think it is very important that users receive an equal service no matter which channel they engage through.
We know that, despite the best intentions of everybody involved, everyday pressures on the ground can sometimes conspire to make unavailable the assistance that, ideally, we would all like to see, or to not deliver it in an appropriate way. We have tabled this amendment because we want assurances from the Minister about provision for digitally excluded people. Research from Lloyds Bank indicates that some 16% of the population do not have the skills to participate digitally. I have colleagues on the Labour Front Bench whom I frequently assist with Divisions, so I do hope they never find themselves subject to these procedures. It is not always obvious, though, who is going to need this support—I am not going to name names. Those who, ordinarily, might be able quite easily to access services online might struggle when dealing with complex issues because they are at a time of extreme crisis in their lives. Others, I am sure, could take great advantage of being able to complete processes digitally. We need to be confident that we are not putting in place systems that leave some individuals disadvantaged.
In Committee in the Commons, there was a long discussion about this issue, whether the definition in the Bill of those who need support was sufficient, and whether paper-based processes should be available on demand. Can the Minister assure us that a user-centred approach will be taken at every stage and in every case, so that the means of engagement is always appropriate to the individual and is offered, rather than that which may be most convenient for the service provider?
I am slightly nervous about the emphasis on the service seeking to direct as many users as possible through primary digital channels and this becoming the priority for the service, even when an individual may not feel completely comfortable with that approach. I know that during earlier stages of the Bill, Ministers have been as reassuring as possible on these points, but we still need more reassurances about the practical reality. Perhaps the Minister can say how he intends to monitor implementation of these measures, so that we can make appropriate interventions should the need arise.
My Lords, the Minister rightly said that his Amendment 38 is a modest one, but this group of amendments raises more general concerns, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, has just explained.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, may be interested to know, in the light of his earlier observations, that Clause 19 gives the Minister a power to make rules that require that specified kinds of legal proceedings “must” be conducted, progressed or disposed of by electronic means. The Minister could say, in principle, that all cases in the Court of Appeal of a civil nature will not be conducted by oral hearings; they will disposed of by pressing a button on the computer, and the judge will then decide. That is quite a remarkable power, the noble Lord may think.
The Minister draws my attention to subsection (6), which allows a person to choose to do so by non-electronic means, but that is not easy to reconcile with the provision I have just referred to in Clause 19(1)(b). If the Minister can assure me that the person who is the litigant—either the claimant or the defendant—can always choose in all cases to have an oral hearing in the court, then I would be very pleased indeed to hear that.
When we debated provisions in very similar form in 2019 in Committee and, I think, on Report, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, assured the House that the Government’s intention was to introduce online procedures only for civil money claims up to the value of £25,000. I ask the Minister whether that remains the intention of the Ministry of Justice. Does it have any plans to introduce these online procedures, including those covered by his Amendment 38, for any other civil proceedings?
In relation to that point, it is absolutely plain that the wording of Section 19 applies to any sort of civil proceedings, including family proceedings. So it is plainly envisaged that this goes beyond simply money claims. Can the Minister describe the sorts of family proceedings that will be dealt with by the Online Procedure Rules and online processes? In particular, is it envisaged that this is to be restricted to the actual process, for example of getting a divorce or judicial separation, as opposed to proceedings that relate to the division of assets upon judicial separation or divorce, proceedings in relation to wilful neglect to maintain and any proceedings—in both private and public law—relating to children?
Secondly, and separately, I want to make a much more minor point. I understand that one of the things the Master of the Rolls has in mind in relation to Amendment 38 is that dispute resolution services must be used before, or as part of, the online process. The services envisaged by the amendment will themselves be online, so purveyors of online dispute resolution services will become quite significant players in the civil justice system, and perhaps in the family justice system as well. The rules may include a provision that the goodness or quality of those services can be
“certified by a particular person as complying with particular standards.”
To be helpful, in a way, the amendment says that
“‘particular person’ and ‘particular standards’ include, respectively, a person of a particular description and standards of a particular description.”
Can the Minister indicate who will determine whether the online dispute resolution services, which may become something that you as a litigant must engage with, meet an adequate standard? Will it be a judge, an official or some independent body? I would be interested to know what the Government’s intentions are in relation to that.
My Lords, I am sorry to rise again, but I want to respond to what the Minister was indicating to me: that, under Clause 19(6), it would be open to a litigant in civil proceedings to choose not to proceed by electronic means even if the rules otherwise so required. What Clause 19(6) actually states is:
“Online Procedure Rules must also provide that, if the person is not legally represented, the person may instead choose to do so by non-electronic means.”
As I understand it, this means that, if the claimant or defendant is legally represented, they can be compelled to proceed by electronic means. So, if the Minister were ever to return to the Bar, which would of course be a great loss to Parliament, and were I to have the pleasure of appearing against him in a case in the High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Family Division, the Lord Chancellor could, by rules, specify that those proceedings are to be conducted by electronic means and that the normal course of advocacy in court—I of course declare my interest as a practising barrister—would not take place. That is why I am particularly concerned that the Minister can assure the House that the ministry has no intention of applying these rules to the Family Division, the High Court and the Court of Appeal other than in small claims cases—that is, cases involving sums of up to £25,000—which is what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, told the House in 2019.
My Lords, I will speak first to government Amendment 38, which makes provision for pre-action dispute resolution services and procedures to be taken into the overall procedure within the Online Procedure Rules. In principle, we particularly welcome this recognition of the importance of alternative dispute resolution procedures in the civil justice context. We accept the Government’s point that it is even more important in the context of online procedures, where modernisation and simplicity of approach are at the forefront of the Government’s aims, than it is in the context of conventional procedures to make provision for online alternative dispute resolution procedures to be brought into the overall picture.
However, what is proposed is a power only; it is not even really a template, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, pointed out, although not in those words. We simply stress how important it will be, in the context of the Online Procedure Rules, to integrate the arrangements to facilitate ADR into online procedures in a clear way. The noble and learned Lord pointed out particular areas where the provisions were very unclear about who would be responsible for those procedures and how they would be authorised, but I would welcome clarification from the Government as to how they propose to proceed in that regard.
Amendment 39 on online procedural assistance in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, which was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, and to which I have added my name, is comprehensive. At its heart is the aim in proposed subsection (1) of introducing a statutory duty to provide assistance to those who need help navigating online procedures. That is an adjunct to the importance attached to them in the Bill itself. We of course accept that the Government intend to ensure the availability of assistance with the new procedures and we welcome the introduction of these online procedures. We were also reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, of the limitations of the procedures that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, promised when he was Advocate-General and we last debated these procedures. Our concern is that what the Bill proposes is very much wider and could, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, pointed out, cover family proceedings, proceedings for injunctive relief—almost any proceedings of whatever magnitude. However that might be, the importance of online assistance becomes greater with the importance of the proceedings to the parties.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, talked about digital exclusion by virtue of skills, but it is not only a question of skills. She is absolutely right that many people are unable to handle digital technology through age, disability or vulnerability, as well as, of course, through lack of education or simply not having kept up with advances in technology. There is also the lack of availability of fast broadband and an inability to access the internet in the way those of us who live in areas of fast broadband are becoming completely used to. There is the availability of technology and computers. The answer might be that people can go to their local library, but for many people in rural areas, local libraries are very distant and lacking in decent equipment. It is not enough to say that anybody can access a computer.
That ties in with the financial abilities and means of people who may be litigants. If they do not have the equipment, as well as not having the skills, they cannot access it. For us, the cardinal principle is that no one, however unable to access digital procedures without help for whatever reason, should be disadvantaged by the new procedures. That can only be answered by a duty upon the Lord Chancellor to provide digital and online assistance. There needs to be assistance to a sufficient level that every litigant understands the procedures and how they are to be implemented and is able to have personal, telephone or remote appointments, whatever is necessary, to enable them to participate in procedures at every stage online. As per our amendment, this also means assistance with language in terms of interpretation or translation for those for whom English is not their first language.
An important part of our amendment is the prescription of an annual evaluation of online procedural assistance and the collection of information about how it is proceeding. I add only this: we are concerned to see that it will remain possible to take all steps in proceedings by paper means. This has been promised by the Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, pointed out. I am confident that the number of those requiring step assistance by paper proceedings will reduce as time passes. However, the ability to take all steps on paper, at any stage, must remain. This is essential to honour the fundamental principle of our justice system that we preserve universal access to enable people to enforce and defend their rights.
I will first say a word about the amendment which I have put before the Committee. Dispute resolution is fundamental, and it is becoming ever more important. Although the noble Lord, Lord Marks, referred to alternative dispute resolution, as he may have heard me say before, we have sought to drop the “A”. We do not call it ADR anymore, we call it DR, because we do not see it as alternative, like alternative medicine. I can see my postbag about to grow, but I am going to say it anyway: alternative medicine is sometimes seen as somewhat outré and whether it actually works is questionable. Dispute resolution is not unusual; it is now a central part of resolving disputes and we know that it works. We want to ensure that people who engage in dispute resolution can do so online and—I will come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in a moment—that they can also vindicate their legal rights online when it is appropriate to do so. I give the example that I have given before: there is a small trader who has a debt of £13,000 and the hearing is going to last for 90 minutes. Do we expect that person to take a day off work and go to the local county court and hang around when, instead, they could continue their job and—I was going to say “dial in” for the benefit for the mystery person on the Opposition Front Bench—go online, engage in the court hearing and vindicate their legal rights.
I will come back to the safeguards in a moment. Properly used, the online procedures are a way of enabling people to vindicate their legal rights. In justice, like in many other parts of our society, we have been forced to go online more during the pandemic and we have seen that it can work. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, talked about when I was previously at the Bar. Before I joined your Lordships’ House, I had to take a three-week trial entirely online. That trial could not—and probably would not—have taken place five years ago, but it took place online. I accept that it was a commercial case, and I will come to the points about family and other cases a little later. However, these proceedings and the Online Procedure Rule Committee are focused on ensuring that the civil justice system can respond to, and is appropriate for, the sort of world in which we now live.
Having said that, the noble Baroness—
I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord and am grateful for him giving way. May I draw him back to Amendment 38? I completely accept and take on the chin his criticism of my use of the word “alternative”, but I used it as a distinction from procedures by court. I understand his Amendment 38 to be concerned with out of court procedures, with what I used to call “alternative dispute resolution” procedures, but never will again. Nevertheless, it is concerned with integrating, as I understand it, dispute resolution procedures organised by third parties, which are not applicable to the example that he gave of having your rights vindicated by reference to the procedures that are allowed by Clause 19 of having court procedures online, which is slightly different.
The noble Lord is absolutely right, but I was seeking to make the point more broadly. I will come to the court procedures, but the noble Lord is right: Amendment 38 seeks to ensure that, when people go to pre-court dispute resolution—I think everybody in the Committee wants to encourage that—if the case does not settle in whole or even in part, they can seamlessly transition to the online court procedure. They do not have to repopulate forms or send in new documents. Of course, I emphasise the mediation bit of it remains without prejudice, obviously, that is fundamental to mediation. Amendment 38 is to ensure that there is a set of protocols, essentially, to make sure that we can have that seamless transition. It is part of enabling people to vindicate their legal rights, either by way of an out of court settlement, with which they are satisfied, or by migrating into the online court space.
May I assist the Minister with an illustration? Four weeks ago, a close relative was owed a significant sum of money and used dispute resolution procedures. He filled in a claim form online, and the debtor filled in a claim form also online. There was a half-hour hearing on the telephone with a judge who reserved his judgment and fortunately found judgment for my relative very quickly after. It shows that it can be done. In that sort of circumstance, it saves days of problems in filling out written documents and attending at court.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his intervention. Absolutely, this is about enabling people to vindicate their legal rights. The Government are conscious—we put a clause in the Bill specifically for this reason—that we need to safeguard those who cannot get online, either because they do not have proper broadband or proper facilities or because they are incapable for whatever reason of using computers.
I anticipated that it would be the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who spoke, so I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman for that. She made absolutely the right point. We agree that assistance may well be needed. Although we do not accept Amendment 39, that is because the Bill already places a duty on the Lord Chancellor to arrange for such support. Extensive measures, which I will mention, have been put in place to make sure that assistance is provided to those who need it. We need to distinguish between online procedures, that is, the form-filling applications, and an online hearing. The two things are quite different.
So far as online procedures are concerned, I recognise that some users may find it difficult to use digital services. Therefore, I should make it absolutely clear that there will be no change in the current options to use paper forms and processes. As the noble Lord, Lord Marks, says, the cardinal principle is that nobody will be disadvantaged.
For those who choose to conduct proceedings using paper routes, they will be available in the same manner as at present. At HMCTS, we are improving and streamlining the paper routes and are committed to making sure that the level of service is the same no matter whether litigants are engaging with the justice system through online or offline routes. We will therefore be offering substantial support for those who want to use online routes and who can do so with support.
The noble Baroness asked about evaluation. HMCTS intends to conduct an evaluation to understand how well the HMCTS national digital support service and its processes are working for the public users in receipt of the support, and also for the organisation and its partner networks which provide the support. That understanding will inform decisions for the continuation and improvement of the national digital support service.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, a litigant may choose to engage by non-electronic means, and the point I was seeking to bring to the Committee’s attention under Clause 19(6) was that:
“Where Online Procedure Rules require a person … to initiate, conduct or progress proceedings by electronic means, or … to participate in proceedings, other than a hearing, by electronic means, Online Procedure Rules must also provide that, if the person is not legally represented, the person may instead choose to do so by non-electronic means.”
There is no forcing an individual litigant to participate in the court processes by way of electronic means.
I turn to hearings. Whether an oral hearing is heard in person or online is a matter for the judge in the case, and that is the current position. Whether there is a hearing at all is a matter for the judge in an individual case. A judge can—and judges sometimes do—decide that the hearing will be conducted entirely on paper. That would be very unusual in some cases, extremely usual in others. There are beginning to be protocols. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will be aware of the guidance put out by the Chancellor to deal with civil proceedings but there has been recent guidance put out by the Lord Chief Justice with regard to criminal proceedings. Both set out the expectations of which hearing would normally be expected to be online and which would be conducted face to face. But ultimately it is a matter not for Government Ministers but for the judges in each case.
I am increasingly bewildered by these answers. I have obviously misunderstood this clause, but it says that the rules
“may authorise or require the parties … to participate in hearings, including the hearing at which the proceedings are disposed of, by electronic means.”
I thought that meant you could have rules that said this sort of case has to be dealt with at an electronic hearing, which does not give the judge a discretion. Is it the position that this is all subject to an overarching discretion in a judge to say that the hearing can be dealt with in person?
That is the point I was going to come to. Here we are dealing with the rules set out by the Online Procedure Rules Committee. That is not the Lord Chancellor. I want to show the Committee that the Online Procedure Rule Committee is set out in Clause 22, and in the usual way it is a committee which is not run by the Government but is run in the way that the procedure rule committees are run, which is ultimately under the control of the judiciary. The central point is that ultimate control rests with the judiciary.
As I understood it, the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, was that two safeguards are in place in relation to the powers to make amendments in Clause 27, which states:
“The Lord Chancellor may by regulations amend, repeal or revoke any enactment to the extent that the Lord Chancellor considers necessary or desirable in consequence of, or in order to facilitate the making of, Online Procedure Rules.”
I cite—this goes back to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in relation to a different issue—subsection (3), which is a consultation requirement with the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals, and subsection (5), which states:
“Regulations under this section that amend or repeal any provision of an Act are subject to affirmative resolution procedure”.
I suggest that that is very important. So the architecture here means that, ultimately, judges retain control, in practice, of what is heard online and what is heard in court.
However, there will be increasingly firm directions and defaults as to what is heard online and in court— I make no apologies for this. In my own area, the Commercial Court, although you can ask for an in-person hearing if there is a good reason, it is now the default that, if you have an application for half an hour or one hour in front of a judge, it will be online, because that saves time and money and provides access to justice.
On family courts, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, asked about, I had discussions very recently with the President of the Family Division about this. Again, this is ultimately a matter for the judges, but he was saying that it is actually better to have certain hearings online. For example, if everything has been agreed between the parents and it is essentially a consent hearing, that will be done online. I am sure that it would be inconceivable that a public law family hearing, for example, where the court is taking a child away from parents, would be done online. But, ultimately, that is a matter for the judges.
I regret that, during the pandemic, there were cases where that had to be done, unfortunately, because of the need to protect children—because, when push comes to shove, protecting children is more important than having a face-to-face hearing. But, in normal circumstances, one would certainly expect that that sort of hearing would be face to face—but that is not a matter for Government Ministers or the Lord Chancellor.
These provisions seek to set up the Online Procedure Rule Committee, which will have the same sorts of powers for online procedures as the current rules committees have for the current procedures, whether that is the Family Procedure Rule Committee, the Civil Procedure Rule Committee, the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee or the rules committee for the Court of Protection—there are a number of different rules committees—
My concern is not about online hearings, because they do take place and may be convenient in some circumstances; it is that Chapter 2 allows for no hearings at all. It allows for legal disputes, if the Online Procedure Rule Committee so authorises, to be conducted entirely electronically, which means by the submission of arguments in writing. The Minister really needs to recognise that that is authorised by Clause 19. He says that this is only if the independent Online Procedure Rule Committee so decides, but will he accept that, under Clause 22, that committee consists of three people who are appointed by the Lord Chief Justice and three people who are appointed by the Lord Chancellor, so the Lord Chancellor has a very considerable influence over the composition of that committee?
The Minister may be coming to this question. Does it remain the intention of the Government—who clearly have a very influential role in this—that these provisions should be used only for money claims up to £25,000? The origin of that origin, as the Minister will confirm, was the report of Sir Michael Briggs, now Lord Justice Briggs. He investigated these matters and proposed a £25,000 limit which would always apply to this category of case. There would be no hearing. It would be conducted entirely electronically—although perhaps, in exceptional cases, the judge would have a discretion to decide that the matter would be conducted in an oral hearing.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. He is absolutely right about the three/three appointments, but I would respectfully direct his attention to two features of Clause 22. First, whom the Lord Chancellor can appoint is circumscribed by subsection (4). One of the three has to be a barrister, solicitor or legal executive. The second must have
“experience in, and knowledge of, the lay advice sector”.
The third is somebody
“who has experience in, and knowledge of, information technology relating to end-users’ experience of internet portals.”
The second safeguard is in subsection (7):
“Before appointing a person under subsection (4)(a)”
there is a requirement on the Lord Chancellor to consult with
“the Lord Chief Justice … the Senior President of Tribunals, and … the relevant authorised body.”
So this does not enable the Lord Chancellor just to appoint three friendly faces—although I am sure no Lord Chancellor would do so. They must be people with a particular expertise, and there is a consultation requirement. I accept that the Lord Chief Justice, the Senior President of Tribunals or the authorised body do not have a veto, but, in the real world, it will ensure that we have proper people on the committee.
If I may, I will come back to the £25,000 point in a moment. I am conscious that I want to finish giving the Committee an assurance about assistance, so I will finish this point and then come back to the £25,000 point.
The assistance currently provided by HMCTS is offered over the phone through our Courts and Tribunal Service Centres. HMCTS has also designed and tested a digital support service to ensure that access is available even for those who need more intense support. The contract was awarded to We Are Digital in late 2021. We expect full national coverage by the late spring of this year. Users will be able to attend in-person appointments. It will also be possible for a trainer to attend an applicant’s home for in-home, face-to-face support. If the noble Baroness passes to me confidentially the name of the relevant individual, I might even be able to arrange a home visit. One-to-one video appointments will also be available for those who already have access to online services, as well as the support over the phone. Therefore, I believe that this level of support, combined with the duty in the Bill, is enough to ensure that the digitally excluded receive the support that they need.
Finally, I turn to the outstanding question from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I have been able to check while I have been on my feet. The position is that the legislation is not limited expressly to those claims. I am told that they are first in line to be used under these procedures. The noble Lord’s question went further and asked what was anticipated would be done after that. I will write to the noble Lord once I have an answer which I am satisfied is absolutely clear. I am concerned to make it very clear to the Committee that civil justice in particular is going to change. It has changed and it will change. For example, there does not seem to be any clear reason why a claim of £25,000 would be done online and not one of £26,000. One always has to have a limit but, once we accept that justice can be delivered online, the question then is what cases are suitable. I will write to the noble Lord on that.
The Committee must accept, as anybody who reads the speeches of the Master of the Rolls assiduously, which I am sure that the noble and learned Lord does, that this is the future of justice. It is not inconsistent with providing civil justice; it is the way of providing civil justice. At the moment, too many people are excluded. Having to go to your local court, even if for a case of £35,000 or £55,000, can exclude people. This is about improving access to justice.
The relative of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is the proof that we all want. We are also aware that the judges will have an incredibly important role in determining the rules. The fact that the judges will have an important role in determining the rules does not mean that Ministers should not tell Parliament what the Online Procedure Rule Committee has in mind. We should expect to be told, for example in relation to money claims, whether, if £25,000 is okay online, £25 million is okay online and required to be online. If that is the vision, tell us, so that Parliament can properly debate it.
In relation to family matters, I am hugely unimpressed by the Minister referring to consent orders, because almost every consent order now is already dealt with online, in the sense that it will be dealt with by emails. We should be told if it will go beyond the sorts of things that I referred to earlier—not because we will necessarily object to it but because we can then debate it. Of course, we are as keen as he is to go towards the future, but we would like to know what the Government’s view of the future is. If the Minister wants to write to us, that is fine, but on Report this might be quite important.
I will say just one more thing. I probably missed it, but I am keen to know who these people were who were going to approve the dispute resolution alternatives to court that are referred to in Amendment 38.
Let me deal with that last point. Amendment 38 is not about approving the persons but approving the process. For example, the Online Procedure Rule Committee will say, “This is the protocol” and there will be Wolfson Mediation Services and Falconer Mediation Services and people can choose in a market who they go to. Of course, those services which offer seamless transition to the online courts service are likely to be better placed in the market, because they will have an advantage. However, it will be up to the providers to set up their services so that people can seamlessly transfer in. The Online Procedure Rule Committee will set up the protocol, so that you know what you are aiming at and the way that you must set up your online procedures so that, if the case does not settle, the data can transfer into the court process.
That is not what Amendment 38 is aimed at. It is not about accrediting mediation services. It is about saying to mediation services, “If you want people who are using your services, if the case does not settle, to be able to integrate seamlessly into the online court space, these are the protocols to do it”. It is a process point, not a mediation accrediting point. There is a separate issue out there about accrediting mediators. The noble and learned Lord will be aware that there are a number of entities that seek to accredit mediators. There are also a number of bodies such as CEDA in that space. That is an important issue but a separate one to the point of Amendment 38.
I will write about what is online because this is a much bigger point than the Online Procedure Rule Committee. Ultimately judges—I emphasise this point—decide what is online and what is not. At the moment, judges decide whether you get a hearing at all. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will be aware—to give an example from my background, but it appears in other areas of the law as well—if you appeal an arbitration award to the commercial courts, the judge may say no without giving you a hearing at all, either because you do not pass the permission threshold or because you do but the judge decides to have the hearing on paper. There is therefore no substantive difference between that and what is proposed here.
As to what the Online Procedure Rule Committee will do, I am afraid I will not be able to assist the Committee because the Online Procedure Rule Committee has not been set up yet; there are no people on it and it does not exist. This legislation sets out what the Online Procedure Rule Committee will be looking at. I will, however, look again at what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has said, and I will write if I can.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord. He correctly points out that there are occasions where there is no oral hearing and the judge so decides. Would he not accept, however, that there is a fundamental difference between that and a decision being taken, at the encouragement of the Master of the Rolls and certain others in the legal profession, to do away with oral hearings in categories of case because it is quicker and cheaper to do so?
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has made the point but I join with him; it would be a matter of policy and of great significance were a decision to be taken by the Online Procedure Rule Committee that, for example, all civil claims for money are no longer to have oral hearings but to be determined on paper. There need to be some criteria for the exercise of these very broad powers that Parliament is conferring. There is no parliamentary approval of these new rules as I understand it, so it is a matter of enormous concern.
With respect, of course I understand the point the noble Lord has made, and I will write to try to put a little more flesh on the bones. The last point he makes is in some ways perhaps the most important because I have seen two sides of this coin. The point the noble Lord has just made is that Parliament should have the final say on court procedures because, ultimately, it should not be for judges to decide whether you have a hearing; there should be a parliamentary override.
In a completely separate issue that I have been dealing with, child trust funds, I have sought to have a better procedure in the Court of Protection. It has been quite properly and very firmly pointed out to me that, ultimately, it is a matter for judges, not Ministers or even Parliament, to decide how the courts are run. This is a difficult topic. I take the point the noble Lord has made. I will write to him and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and copy it generally to the Committee.
Amendment 38 agreed.
Clauses 24 to 28 agreed.
Amendment 39 not moved.
Clauses 29 and 30 agreed.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clauses 31 to 33 agreed.
Schedule 5 agreed.
Clauses 34 to 37 agreed.
Clause 38: Discontinuance of investigation where cause of death becomes clear
40: Clause 38, page 53, line 12, at end insert—
“(4) After subsection (2), insert—“(2A) The coroner is not to decide that the investigation should be discontinued unless—(a) the coroner is satisfied that no outstanding evidence that is relevant to the death is available,(b) the coroner has considered whether Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is engaged and is satisfied that it is not,(c) there are no ongoing investigations by public bodies into the death,(d) the coroner has invited and considered representations from any interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act (“interested person”), and(e) all interested persons known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act consent to discontinuation of the investigation. (2B) If a coroner is satisfied that subsection (1) applies, and has complied with the provisions at subsection (2A)(a) to (d), prior to discontinuing the investigation, the coroner must—(a) inform each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act of the coroner’s intended decision and provide a written explanation as to the reasons for this intended decision,(b) explain to each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act that the investigation may only be discontinued if all such interested persons consent, and(c) invite each interested person known to the coroner named at section 47(2)(a) or (b) of this Act to consent to the discontinuation of the investigation.””Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would ensure that certain safeguards are met before a coroner can discontinue an investigation into a death and that family members and personal representatives of the deceased are provided with the coroner’s provisional reasons for why the coroner considers that the investigation should be discontinued, helping ensure that family members make an informed decision as to whether to consent to the discontinuation.
I am conscious that the Committee is valiant and well into the third hour of today’s proceedings; nevertheless, the next is a very important group. We are now in Chapter 4 and we are not talking even about £25 million; we are talking about life and death, bereaved families and the vital work of our coroners’ courts. We are talking about provisions that will broaden the circumstances in which coroners may discontinue their investigations. We are talking, once more, about the power to hold inquests on the papers, in writing only, and we are talking about the wider use of remote hearings. Amendments 40, 42 and 43 are in my name and I am honoured to share those with my noble friend Lord Ponsonby and maybe even my noble friend Lady Chapman of Darlington as well—I am doubly honoured. I also have the support, I am delighted to say, of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for the Liberal Democrats.
Further amendments in this group are about providing an appeals process for families who disagree with discontinuance, about ensuring that there are no audio-only inquests, even within the class of remote inquests—no telephone or audio-only inquests—and to ensure that remote hearings are still accessible to the public. Amendment 53 ensures pre-implementation consultation before the remote inquests come into effect. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, supported by his noble friend Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, has a very important amendment to ensure a right of address for bereaved families. I do not see the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans in his place, but he may appear in the way that only the Lords spiritual can, and his Amendments 50A and 50B contain important provisions in relation to cases of death by suicide. The indefatigable Minister will speak to his provisions on the register of deaths, which will be important; there are things to tidy up there where an inquest has been discontinued.
I turn to Amendments 40, 42 and 43 in my name. Amendment 40 is about ensuring vital safeguards before a coroner can discontinue an investigation into a death. I hope I do not need to go into too much detail about why safeguards are important in such a scenario, but these include ensuring that family members and personal representatives of the deceased get at least a provisional indication of why this is to be the case, so that they can evaluate whether they support the discontinuance of an inquest. Amendment 42 ensures that inquests will not be held without a hearing—in other words, not on the papers only—if this is against the wishes of the bereaved family. Amendment 43 ensures safeguards before there can be a remote hearing, including by giving interested persons the reasons for that judgment.
I say to the Committee that we need to remember the position that bereaved families, in particular, and other interested parties are in when there is an unexplained or unnatural death. I commend the briefing that will have been provided to, I hope, all members of the Committee by the NGO Inquest. It has done vital work in this area for many years. I remind the Committee that legal aid is not available to these families, and it has often been inquests, over the years, that have been the sole source of support and advice to them. Sometimes these will be deaths in custody, deaths in hospital or deaths in other circumstances where people were very vulnerable and looked after, especially by the state to begin with, before that unnatural and unexplained death happened.
On my Amendment 40, we are really concerned that there must be some testing of evidence. It is all very well to suggest that the reasons for the death have become clear, but under the current law they become clear because of a post-mortem; they are now to be clear for other reasons and other evidence. Perhaps that evidence has not yet been tested. I remind the Committee, as briefly and succinctly as I can, that it is in no small part in our coroners’ courts that the system does its best to comply with the United Kingdom’s obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. If that jurisdiction is overly eroded we will be in trouble, because we will not be providing adequate investigation in relation to unexplained deaths. We will then not comply with the right to life, which means the right to an investigation into an unnatural and unexplained death under Article 2.
Legal provisions and human rights conventions notwithstanding—there are controversies down the track about how much we care about all that—surely we all care about bereaved families. Any citizen in this country, any ordinary member of our community, regardless of their attitude towards activist lawyers, human rights conventions and international law, would understand why bereaved families are in an unusually tragic situation. Those who have meagre or no means and who are not highly legally literate will be very concerned about any erosion of the possibility of a full inquest in which they can adequately participate. The nature of the coronial system and of inquests means that answers are found not just for those family members but for the wider community. This has been proven to be the case time and again when scandals have been exposed relating to inadequate provision in hospitals or, dare I say, in custody and so on.
I listened as carefully as I could to the extensive debate on the previous group on the need to deal with backlogs after the pandemic to save money, to be speedy and efficient and all that, but coroners’ jurisdiction is a very special case. It is not normal civil, let alone commercial, justice that we are discussing, so this group needs particularly important attention before we go too far down the streamlining, online, no hearings and remote hearings road.
That was my best attempt to be as succinct as possible, because I know other Members of the Committee will want to say more about each of the new provisions in this group. For now, I beg to move.
My Lords, the office of the coroner has evolved over 1,000 years since William the Conqueror introduced it. There were too many dead Normans lying about attacked by Saxon villeins. The coroner inflicted a fine called murdrum on a community where a dead body was found. The deceased was presumed to be Norman under the presumption of Normanry, unless the community, by the presentment of Englishry, could avoid the fine by showing that the deceased was English, in which case it did not matter.
The problem is that traces of these ancient procedures continue to dog the present and to provide cover to government not to recognise the realities of coroners’ proceedings today. Coroners today will tell you that their duties are confined to determining who the deceased was and how, when and where they came by their death. But it is not as simple as that. The thread that runs through this chapter on coroners in this Bill is the lack of concern for the interests of the bereaved, particularly the involvement of the family. The Commons Justice Committee reported last year, and Section 3 of its report is entitled:
“Putting bereaved people at the heart of the Coroner Service”.
This Bill does not even begin to do that.
The evidence given at an inquest and the decision of the coroner or a coroner’s jury has many consequences. When the family of the deceased arrive at the coroners’ court, they will frequently find that skilled advocates are representing a hospital, the police if there has been a death in custody, the insurers of a potential defendant in a road accident or insurers where there may be defects in a stadium, a block of flats or other structure. The evidence given on oath before the coroner may be crucial in determining an allegation of assault or negligence or, where the suggestion is suicide, whether life insurance will be paid out to the dependants. A finding in a coroners’ court frequently determines whether the dependants of the deceased can settle a claim for compensation quickly and without stress or whether they have to go through the agony of a court case.
I turn to Amendment 40. Currently, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, the coroner can discontinue an inquest only after the results of a post-mortem have been delivered to him unless he suspects a sudden and violent death or a death in the custody of an organ of the state, such as the police. Clause 38 of this Bill now extends his discretion to discontinue by the use of wide words: if the
“cause of death becomes clear”
before inquest. Under this Bill, all the family receive is a statement of reasons. The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that, before the coroner makes his decision to discontinue, he has made all proper inquiries, and ensured that there are no ongoing investigations into the death, such as a hospital inquiry, and crucially that the family have been given the opportunity to make representations and actually consent to the discontinuance.
I think the Explanatory Notes are disingenuous when they suggest that an inquest adds to the distress of the bereaved family. Certainly, there is distress, but a decision to discontinue, taken above their heads and without their participation and consent, may very well cause much greater distress.
I come to Amendment 41. We are all aware of the struggles of many families to obtain an inquest through the courts by way of the discretionary remedy of judicial review. Amendment 41 provides for rules to establish an appeals process for those who disagree with the decision to discontinue. To succeed in the Bill as currently drafted, they would have to establish that the cause of death is not clear. What does that mean? What may seem clear to the coroner may not be clear to the family at all. If Amendment 40 is carried, the need for appeal would be considerably lessened since all interested persons known to the coroner would have been notified of his intention to discontinue prior to the inquest and would have consented to it. Appeals could then be brought only by interested persons who had been overlooked. That is possible but very rare.
I turn to Clause 39 and Amendment 42, where the theme continues. The decision of a coroner to determine that a hearing is unnecessary and may be determined in writing should also involve the consent of the bereaved: put the bereaved at the heart of the coroners service. Proposed new subsection (2)(a), to be inserted by Clause 39(2), requires the coroner to invite representations from known interested parties before he makes his decision, while (2)(b) deals with situations where no representations have been made and (2)(c) deals with situations where there is a disagreement between interested parties. That is what the Bill talks about, but nothing is contained in the clause about the position where all the interested parties oppose the coroner’s notification of his intent to determine the issues in writing on the papers, much less a requirement that they all consent. Amendment 42 would deal with those omissions.
Amendment 43 to Clause 40 again seeks to involve the family in the decision to hold remote inquests. First, they should consent. Secondly, the coroner should be assured that such a hearing is in the interests of justice, in particular that the issues are not too complex and interested persons are able to use to technology involved. Thirdly, the coroner should give his reasons in writing. However, a remote hearing has this disadvantage: the family are not open to the support services that would be available at a live hearing. The Commons Justice Committee recommended at paragraph 66 of its report that
“local volunteers in the Coroners’ Courts Support Service”
use their skills to assist the bereaved and commented that that service is not centrally funded, nor available everywhere.
Amendments 44 and 45 emphasise the public interest in inquests. If held remotely, they should not be held simply by telephone and absent the public. The rules require that inquests be held in public, except for reasons of national security.
Amendment 50, after Clause 42, is an amendment in my name to delete Rule 27 of the 2013 rules, which states:
“No person may address the coroner or the jury as to the facts of who the deceased was and how, when and where the deceased came by his or her death.”
I have been present at a number of inquests and have always found this to be quite extraordinary. Deborah Coles, the director of Inquest, told the Justice Committee about her experience of a culture of “defensiveness” on the part of public bodies:
“Very often, those lawyers are working as a team to try to reduce the scope of the inquest, to try to limit the number of witnesses or argue against questions being left to a jury, if indeed there is one, or argue against a coroner making a prevention of future death report … There is much more concern for reputation management, rather than a meaningful search for the truth.”
In my experience, it is much the same with employers who seek to limit their liabilities. “Well,” you might say, “so much the better if they cannot address the coroner.” However, they often make submissions on facts dressed up as submissions on process. Where both sides are represented, the coroner should be helped by submissions made by both sides to clarify issues of fact and make points about the evidence that has been heard; those points may be crucial to the issue of liability. Whether both sides are represented and there is equality of arms is a matter that we shall come to in the debate on the next group.
My Lords, I agree with many of the points my noble friend has made. He made a particularly forceful point about addressing the jury at an inquest. It seems an absurdity that the law is in that state; I will come back to the encrusted historical nature of the law on coroners in a second.
I will add to what my noble friend said, although it might seem a slightly conflicting point. It is simply that the circumstances can be very different in so many of these cases. From my experience of inquests and dealing with families going to inquests, I have often come across the circumstances so vividly described by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, of those who do have any equality of arms and are dealing with a major public sector body or a private organisation with great resources. There are other families for whom an inquest is just another liability they do not want at a time of maximum grief. If there are no grounds for holding an inquest or drawing them into that procedure, we do not want to make life more difficult for them at a time of very real grief.
If you want to know how encrusted with history the law is, you need look only to Clause 42 of this Bill. Would you believe it? It is not apparent from the clause, but it sets up a procedure so that a local authority can reorganise coroners’ areas within its own area, and can do so partially if there is a coroner who does not agree, who can stay until he retires. That is a product of history and the judicial nature of the coroner’s office, which makes this area difficult to deal with. I strongly support what my noble friend said but also want consideration to be given to not imposing unnecessary processes on a family where there is no doubt as to how the death was caused, as the family simply wants to be left to cope with it.
I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beith, but I understand that he does not contest any of the propositions put forward by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. They are dealing with cases where people are desperate to find out what happened and want a proper hearing.
I underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which is that the key issue here will be in the next group dealing with the provision of legal aid, where appropriate, in cases where there is a dispute. We are not talking about that now, but it is vital to there being a level playing field.
This group of amendments is, in effect, trying to bring the coronial system into line with its current role to allow a proper contested hearing, where appropriate, if there is an issue about the cause of death, rather than it being the administrative process it previously was. There needs to be that change.
The biggest example of why these amendments are right and the Government’s position is wrong is in the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti on what is currently Clause 38. Clause 38 amends Section 4 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. The 2009 Act allows the coroner to stop an investigation where the cause of death becomes clear after a post-mortem examination. Section 4 also provides that the coroner can, if asked, give reasons after he has discontinued the investigation. That is not apparent in this Bill, but comes only in Section 4 of the 2009 Act.
Based on not just a post-mortem examination but any other matter the coroner thinks relevant, if he is satisfied that the cause of death has become so clear that he thinks an inquest is no longer appropriate, he can simply stop the whole investigation, without reference to the family, even if they are desperate for an inquest. The coroner’s only obligation is to explain why he or she did that after the event. That is the effect of Clause 38, so my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti is absolutely right to say there should be safeguards, and the key safeguard is that proposed in Amendment 40, subsection (4)(2A)(d):
“the coroner has invited and considered representations from any interested person”,
which would include the family. Why do the Government not think there should be such a requirement? What is the purpose of a justice system that can reach a decision without hearing from interested parties, and whose only obligation is to explain why it took that decision after it has been made, without giving the family the opportunity to comment?
My Lords, I commend my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti for tabling these amendments so quickly; I am pretty sure we would have tabled something almost identical. She is right in everything that she said, and she did so succinctly but effectively. I shall address Amendments 40, 42 and 43 in her name as well as Amendments 41, 44, 45 and 53 tabled by my noble friend Lord Ponsonby.
As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, there is a theme running through this group: putting families at the heart of this process. There are long-standing concerns about the way that the process often takes place. It is unfortunate that the Government have not taken this opportunity to consider the issue as fully as they could have done. We are worried that efficiency and streamlining of processes should not in any way bring about a sense that these matters are to be treated with less solemnity or seriousness than they should be. We are very nervous that the Government are permanently changing procedures because of a backlog following Covid-19; we understand that that needs to be dealt with, but the needs of families must be central to the Government’s thinking here and at the moment I do not think they are.
We all appreciate that there is widespread inconsistency with coroners and that something of a postcode lottery is developing. I recommend the Justice Select Committee’s report to Members of the Committee. It is a thorough and excellent piece of work; the Government would do well to consider it and implement more of its recommendations. One of the suggestions that the Select Committee made was the introduction of a national service. As I say, the Government have missed an opportunity to go much further than the measures before us, which I am afraid seem motivated predominantly by a need to make up ground after the pandemic.
The current law, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, holds that where a coroner has commenced an investigation, they must proceed to an inquest unless the cause of death becomes clear in a post-mortem examination. The Government are arguing now that cause of death can be established by what they call “other means”, and they give the example of medical records. They need to be incredibly careful not to create a situation where the justification for discontinuing is based on evidence that cannot be challenged by the family or by others.
My good friend Andy Slaughter in the other place gave a long list of examples, which he probably got from inquest, showing clearly the need for safeguards, particularly the need to allow the family to consent to discontinuation and for such consent to be properly informed. I shall read from Hansard an example that he gave, of Laura Booth. It will just take a minute to read it, but I think it will help us to appreciate the seriousness of the issues that we are considering:
“Laura sadly died on 19 October 2016 at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield. Laura went into hospital for a routine eye procedure, but in hospital she became unwell and developed malnutrition due to inadequate management of her nutritional needs. The coroner overseeing the investigation into Laura’s death was initially not planning to hold an inquest because the death was seen to be from natural causes. However, Laura’s family and BBC journalists fought for the coroner to hold an inquest. The inquest reached the hard-hitting conclusion that Laura’s death was contributed to by neglect. A prevention of future deaths report issued by the coroner to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital noted serious concerns about the staff’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, and recommended that families should be better consulted in best-interests meetings.”—[Official Report, Commons, Judicial Review and Courts Bill Committee, 18/11/21; col. 334.]
So this really matters. Inquests play a vital role in making sure that loved ones understand the reasons for a death.
Amendment 41 would provide that the Lord Chancellor should establish an appeals process for families who disagree with the decision to discontinue an investigation. We think that is an important safeguard, and it would rightly respect the interests of those whose closest have died. We see it as an anomaly that no right of appeal exists for families in that situation.
Amendment 44 would prevent an inquest being conducted by telephone or other means that were audio-only. We think that audio-only risks hindering engagement with families, and it may be inappropriate in these circumstances.
Amendment 45 would ensure that remote inquest hearings and pre-inquest hearings were still be held in a manner accessible to the public. We think this is important for public confidence, for scrutiny and for challenge. We are worried that measures in the Bill designed to streamline processes will make it more difficult for families to be active participants in the process when all the evidence is that we should be taking steps to help their participation.
We strongly support Amendment 42, which would ensure that inquests were not held without a hearing if that was against the wishes of the family. To do so, as well as being incredibly insensitive, would deprive the family of the opportunity to explore all available evidence and limit their ability to scrutinise the accounts provided by relevant authorities, including by hearing oral evidence and questioning key witnesses. I am sorry the Government are taking the route that they are taking, and I am sure we will want to continue to press them on this as we progress.
My Lords, the amendments in this group relate to coroners’ inquests, and include government and non-government amendments. I will begin with those tabled by noble Lords who have spoken and then come to the government amendment at the end.
Before I do that, I should inform the Committee that the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of St Albans has kindly sent me a note, because his Amendments 50A and 50B are in this group. As he is serving elsewhere, in Committee on the Building Safety Bill, he is unable to join this Committee this afternoon. I do not know whether this is normally done, but unless the Committee objects, I propose to write to him setting out substantially what I would have said had he been here and I will circulate the letter, because even though the amendments are not formally moved, the right reverend Prelate raises points which he has raised in the House on previous occasions.
Subject to the views of the Committee, that sounds eminently sensible. In case it is necessary, perhaps I might say that I support those amendments and would not want to deprive the right reverend Prelate of the opportunity to bring them back to the House at a later stage.
I was not seeking to take any procedural point. Rather than take time this afternoon, because we have not had a debate on the amendments, I will set out the position in writing and copy the letter appropriately.
Before taking the amendments in turn, perhaps I may make an important point which is central to this discussion, which is that coroners—
I am sorry, I know that we are pushed for time and there are important matters that we want to get on to. I do not know about other noble Lords, but I would appreciate hearing the Government’s position on Amendments 50A and 50B. Is that possible?
It certainly is. I had prepared to respond to the amendments and am happy to do so if the Committee finds that more helpful. I see some nodding heads, in which case I will do it that way instead. I will obviously direct the right reverend Prelate to Hansard. I am very grateful.
A central point which is really important is that coroners are judicial office holders—whether they go back to William the Conqueror is not directly relevant for these purposes, although it was interesting. That point is important: they are not administrators or decision-makers; they are judicial office holders. Ultimately, it is therefore up to the coroner, circumscribed by statute, how to conduct their investigations and inquests. I respectfully ask the Committee to bear that in mind when considering a number of these amendments, to which I will now turn.
Let me start with Amendment 40, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and Amendment 41 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. They both deal with the new power that the Bill gives coroners to discontinue an investigation in certain circumstances, seeking to add additional safeguards and an appeal process. Section 4 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 provides that a discontinuance does not apply where there is reason to suspect that cause of death is by violent or unnatural causes, or where a death was in custody or otherwise in state detention. So, for example, families whose relatives have died in prison custody or a mental health setting would still have an inquest even if the cause of death was revealed to be natural causes. The intention behind this measure is to support the drive to reduce unnecessary procedures in coroners’ courts, thereby reducing delays and distress to bereaved families. In most cases where the cause of death is revealed as being natural causes, the bereaved family will be relieved that the investigation can be discontinued at that point.
Section 4(4) of the 2009 Act also provides that coroners who discontinue an investigation into a death must, if requested, provide a written explanation as to why an investigation has been discontinued. I would certainly expect coroners to work sensitively with all interested persons, whether family members or others, and I would also expect them to address any concerns those persons may have in relation to the discontinuance decision. I am also able to confirm that the Chief Coroner will provide guidance to coroners accompanying any law changes, should this provision pass into legislation.
I turn to Amendment 41. Interested persons who are not content with a coroner’s decision to discontinue an investigation already have the right to challenge that decision through judicial review or, in certain circumstances, through application to the High Court with the authority of the Attorney-General. So, we do not think an appeals process is appropriate, because the family is not a party in the sense that we use that word when we are talking about adversarial litigation. Coroners are inquisitorial, not adversarial, and we do want to preserve that. That is something that the Chief Coroner, I know, is very focused on. We do not want coroners’ inquests to become adversarial proceedings; we want them to remain inquisitorial.
The Minister has said we want coroners’ inquests to remain inquisitorial. In practice, they are adversarial. The ancient position of a coroner does not allow the proper adversarial safeguards to be in place. I would like the Government to rethink that position and consider whether it is appropriate at this time.
I can accept two points there. I can accept that I and the Government will reconsider it. We certainly will think about it. This is a bit of a chestnut point, if I may say so; it has been discussed on a number of occasions. But the Government’s current position is that we want coroners’ inquests to be inquisitorial and not adversarial. Secondly, I accept, as a consequence of that, that we do not have adversarial safeguards. But that is consequent on the first point; the inquests are not adversarial.
There is a real problem, I would suggest, in changing the nature of a coroner’s inquest to being adversarial. I accept there will be particular inquests where it is appropriate for people to be legally represented. I do not want to mix the groups up, but we will discuss in the next group the issues of legal aid, exceptional case funding, et cetera. But the central fact is that the inquest is there to determine who the deceased is, where he died—I will say he—when he died and how he died, but not why he died. That is an important point.
We are getting to the heart of it, in a sense, because the Government contend that these processes are not adversarial. I understand why they are doing that. However, I am increasingly of the impression that what the Minister has just said has absolutely no grounding in reality. The lived experience of extremely vulnerable people in this context reveals that the processes are deeply adversarial. Their experience does not align with what the Minister has just said. It is unfortunate that the Government do not seem able to appreciate this in their consideration of these amendments.
Of course I understand that point, in the sense that I too have read the material of people who have been involved in inquests. I have read some of the material from the various groups which have been lobbying for changes in this area. I hope that I have set out the Government’s position fairly. As we all recognise, the point being made to me is fundamental. I do not want to keep repeating it in response to each amendment, but I certainly accept that what I have just said underpins the Government’s response to a number of these amendments. Therefore, I absolutely accept and understand the noble Baroness’s position; that is, because she disagrees with me on this fundamental point, necessarily she will disagree with me on a number of these amendments because they are underpinned by the same point—
Whether the process is inquisitorial or adversarial, surely you are entitled to basic fairness. This means you are entitled to having a say on what is going on and an opportunity to make proper representations. This is the case whether you are either a family member saying, for example, that your loved one is the victim of a criminal offence by the police, or you are a police officer being accused of manslaughter. Indeed, the Minister has just said that there would be a coroner at the inquest. Therefore, I am not sure why—whether it is inquisitorial or adversarial —you are to be deprived of that basic fairness.
The fundamental point is: who is the “you”? Who are the parties to an inquest? As I was saying earlier, you do not have “parties” in inquests, in the same way that you do in adversarial proceedings. Of course, there are inquests where legal aid is provided and family members—or, indeed, other people—turn up with lawyers. However, as a Government, we certainly do not want the general inquisitorial procedures, in the normal run of an inquest, to become adversarial. I understand that this is a point of principle between us; this is not a point of detail.
This point will underpin a number of the responses which I am going to give. I turn to Amendment 42, which would require the coroner to obtain consent from interested persons, including bereaved families, before determining whether to deal with an inquest on the papers. Clause 39 has been designed to give coroners the flexibility to conduct inquests without a hearing, where there is no need to hold one. They would exercise that power judiciously, because they are judicial officeholders, in cases where they consider them to be non-contentious, where there is no concern about the cause of death, or where the family have indicated that they do not wish to attend a hearing.
To return to the point I started with: because coroners are independent judicial officeholders, introducing the concept of consent into their decision-making process would cut across their judicial independence and fetter their discretion. The coroner would still be required to hold inquests with a hearing, in cases which require one. The Chief Coroner would issue guidance to coroners on how they should exercise their discretion.
Amendments 43, 44, 45 and 53 all relate to remote hearings. The purpose of Amendment 43 is to ensure that additional safeguards are met before a coroner can hold a remote hearing. The position here is that coroners have always been able to conduct hearings with virtual elements, but the coroner and the jury, if there is one, must be physically present in the courtroom. Clause 40 allows all participants to participate in a remote hearing.
As we have said on previous groups about magistrates and jurors, throughout the pandemic, coroners’ courts have also worked very hard to keep their services running. They have taken advantage of the benefits of remote hearings to keep inquest participants safe. Key witnesses, who often could be front-line doctors, have been able to focus on their primary role and attend remotely. Clause 40 ensures that coroners can continue to operate remotely, when they regard it as appropriate. Again, we expect that, being judicial officeholders, coroners would work with interested persons to address any concerns that they may have regarding remote hearings. Again, the Chief Coroner is expected to provide guidance on any law changes.
Amendment 44 deals with remote hearings. The short point here is that there may be instances where participants might prefer or need to participate in a remote hearing only by audio, without video; perhaps that is the only way that they can participate if they are based abroad, for example, and there are technical limitations to how they can access the hearing. As we understand it, the amendment would exclude those participants from participating in the hearing remotely—
I am grateful for that clarification, but the same point would apply. If the only people who are interested—I am using that word in the technical sense—in the inquest can participate only by audio link, the coroner would have to either not hold the inquest and adjourn it or hold it, so to speak, in a room, despite those interested people not being able to be there. I will consider again whether what the noble Baroness has said resolves my concerns, but I do not think that it does. Certainly, we are concerned to make sure that an inquest can still go ahead when, for some reason, everyone relevant can participate only by way of audio.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that what underpins this and Parliament giving coroners these powers is concern for families. We want people to be able to participate, and we are conscious that some people may only be able to participate through technical means or audio only.
Amendment 45 seeks to ensure that remote inquest hearings and pre-inquest hearings are heard in a manner that is accessible to the public. In this regard, Clause 40 is designed to complement Clause 166 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is currently in the other place. Clause 166 provides for wider remote participation in court proceedings, under the direction of the court, and it covers a number of courts, including coroners’ courts. So, Clause 166 will ensure that justice remains accessible to the public, regardless of how the hearing is conducted. Again, the Chief Coroner will provide additional guidance on the use of remote hearings to ensure that coroners’ inquest hearings remain accessible to the public, as set out in Rule 11 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013.
Amendment 53 would require the Government to review and consult on the potential impact of remote hearings before the provision is implemented. I can assure the Committee that the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 would need to be revised to set out the detail of how remote hearings will operate in practice, and we will consult with key stakeholders to take their views into consideration as we do that.
Let me now turn to Amendment 50, which seeks to repeal Rule 27 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013. I respectfully empathise with the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, gave for questioning the rationale for the provision. I understand, if I may put it this way, where the noble Lord is coming from. It brings me back to my earlier point: inquests are designed to be inquisitorial, so that the coroner and any jury start without preconceptions and can elicit the true facts about a person’s death. Interested persons are entitled to participate fully in inquests. They have a statutory right to examine witnesses and they can give evidence themselves if required by the coroner. A bereaved family may also be permitted to provide pen-portrait evidence about their loved one which speaks to who the deceased was and helps to humanise—if I can put it that way—the deceased person in the inquest process. Allowing interested persons, however, to make submissions on the facts, rather than limiting them to providing and examining evidence, would, I suggest, make the inquest adversarial. I repeat: the Chief Coroner has time and again said publicly that one of his key objectives is to protect the inquisitorial nature of the inquest process. As I have set out, the Government are keen to support him in that.
I was going to turn next to the Government amendments, but let me set out what I was going to say in response to the amendments proposed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and I will take them as formally moved, so to speak. He tabled two amendments relating to death by suicide. I thank him in his absence for his tireless commitment on this issue; over the last couple of years, he has put down a number of related questions and Private Member’s Bills. We recognise the need to collect quality information on the circumstances that lead to a suicide in order to help prevent future deaths and support better outcomes. We do not think that these amendments would lead to the desired effect. Section 5 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 sets out the scope of the coroner’s role, which, as I said earlier, is to determine who died and how, when and where they died.
During the investigation, the coroner may be made aware of factors as to why a person may have taken their own life, but it is not within the coroner’s remit to look deeper or investigate further, as this could lead to seeking to attribute liability, which is more properly the preserve of other legal jurisdictions. In addition, the coroner may gain information from a wide range of sources—family, partner, friends or the police—who might mention different risk factors as issues when understanding the circumstances of a death. This would lead to data being incomplete or inconsistent in quality, which would not then be useful in delivering better outcomes or interventions.
The Government remain committed to understanding the circumstances which lead to self-harm and suicide, including gambling addictions. In March last year we published the fifth progress report on the national suicide prevention strategy, and this included a refreshed cross-government suicide prevention workplan that included factors such as gambling. There has also been an increase in funding for suicide prevention through the NHS long-term plan, with an additional £57 million by financial year 2023-24 to support local suicide prevention plans and develop suicide bereavement services in every area of the country.
On gambling specifically, which I understand to be the right reverend Prelate’s particular focus from his previous interventions, the NHS long-term plan commits to expanding the geographical coverage of NHS services for people with serious gambling problems. In addition to the existing National Problem Gambling Clinic in London, the NHS has committed to opening an additional 14 new problem gambling clinics in 2023-24. I was going to invite the right reverend Prelate not to move his amendments; I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, to do so on his behalf.
I turn to the government amendments, which are quite technical but none the less important. I am grateful to those Members of the Committee who have engaged with me on the detail of this. The current position is that there are provisions that enable a coroner to authorise the disposal of a body so that families may hold a funeral prior to any formal death registration being completed. These provisions are successful in avoiding unnecessary delays. They reduce the stress on the bereaved when the coroner is involved. The problem is that, admittedly in a small number of cases, these provisions seem to have the unintended consequence of taking away the incentive for the death to be registered as it may be perceived, often by the family, that nothing further needs to be done once the funeral has taken place. I understand why people take that approach; it is incorrect, but I understand why they do.
The problem is that, unless the coroner undertakes a full investigation or an investigation is suspended, those deaths can be registered only if an informant qualified to do so by legislation provides the registrar with information relating to the deceased. The qualified informants are primarily family members. That is the problem. The death can be registered only after the coroner has considered whether a full investigation should be carried out or discontinued, by which time a funeral may already have taken place and family members may no longer be interested. As I said, I am not blaming anybody; it is just human nature: the funeral has taken place so they regard the matter as concluded.
It is not just human nature; it is the practical difficulty of registering deaths and making appointments in coroners’ offices, because registrars’ and coroners’ offices have very limited not just opening hours but opening days. This has been particularly marked during the pandemic.
I understand that, certainly from my postbag. I should say that coroners work extremely hard, but the pandemic has caused a real problem. I do not want to go back to the online discussion, but we hope that enabling people to do that sort of thing online will help. I certainly take the noble Lord’s point.
To solve this, the amendments in my name will enable a coroner to provide the registrar with the information required for the registration to take place on the basis of that information. I should make it clear that we are not introducing new duties on coroners or removing the duty on qualified informants to provide information. It is intended to be used in those exceptional circumstances where qualified informants are unable or unwilling—often for good reason, as the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said—to discharge their duties. The effect will therefore be that the death will not go unregistered. We think that about 200 of these cases happen a year. They affect the accuracy of records, but there is also the potential for fraudulent use of the identity of an unregistered deceased person, since the identity has not been closed by the death being registered. It is not quite Day of the Jackal territory, but there is potential for fraud there. We want to close that.
For those reasons, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments and I will move mine when the time comes.
My Lords, I am grateful to every Member of the Committee who participated, in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for crystallising the fundamental inequality of arms that exists in so many inquests. Regardless of jurisprudence or terminology, that is how it is and how it feels for these families.
I am grateful, too, to my noble friend Lady Chapman of Darlington for making it crystal clear that evidence that cannot be challenged is going to be a huge problem, not least for compliance with Article 2, and for reminding us of the tragic case of Laura Booth, which is in the Inquest briefing in case noble Lords want to read it at leisure. There are other tragic cases of that kind, where, but for close scrutiny and the testing of evidence that initially seemed very straightforward, some real public interest problems, whether in our hospitals or elsewhere, would not have been revealed.
I am only slightly disappointed that the very busy right reverend Prelate disappointed my hope that it would be possible for a Lord spiritual to be in two places at the same time. None the less, I am very happy to take care of his amendments and ensure that he has the opportunity to bring them back next time. I think that is the right thing to do.
The Minister will forgive me, I hope, for being disappointed in the 100% defensive rebuttal of every single concern raised in this Committee. He reminds us that coroners are judicial officers and not mere administrators; of course, he is right about that. But he says that in total rebuttal of every safeguard and gentle constraint suggested—for example, the discretion to discontinue these vital investigations.
I cannot help but point out the contrast in the Government’s approach to this part and, for example, to Clauses 1 and 2. In Clause 1 we are told that it is perfectly acceptable for the legislature to constrain judicial thinking and discretion in quite convoluted ways, but here, when we want to put the needs and concerns of families into the equation, we are told that it is somehow an inappropriate constraint on the wonderful, inquisitorial, coronial province. We are reminded that coroners are inquisitorial and not adversarial, as if these terms of art are set not in aspic but in stone. I do not really care whether these are technically inquisitorial or adversarial—you can call them “Doris” as far as I am concerned. There are vital rights and interests being explored in this jurisdiction.
I am sorry to say that I do not know whether the government position is science fiction or space fantasy. In many cases these proceedings are tantamount to very difficult quasi-adversarial proceedings, but one side is silent. One side is silent because it does not have the language and resources to put its side of the picture. This is exacerbated in cases where very defensive public authorities, understandably, are heavily represented by Silks and so on. We cannot say that the full answer to that problem will be a technical, jurisprudential definition of inquisitorial versus adversarial proceedings. That is not reality at this moment in the 21st century.
I gently ask the Minister to consider meeting some representatives of the unrivalled NGO Inquest before Report. That organisation and those working within it have done so much work over the years with a number of bereaved families. I am sure they would at least help illuminate the Minister’s understanding of what some of these most difficult inquests are like for ordinary people. That would be my request to him. None the less, for the moment—but only for the moment, because having heard from my noble friend Lady Chapman and from the Liberal Democrats, I suspect that the Committee will want to return to this group on Report, and I obviously preserve the position for the spiritual Benches opposite—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 40 withdrawn.
Amendment 41 not moved.
Clause 38 agreed.
Clause 39: Power to conduct non-contentious inquests in writing
Amendment 42 not moved.
Clause 39 agreed.
Clause 40: Use of audio or video links at inquests
Amendments 43 to 45 not moved.
Clause 40 agreed.
Clauses 41 and 42 agreed.
46: After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of information to registrar when investigation discontinued
In section 23 of the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953 (furnishing of information by coroner in connection with registration of death), after subsection (3) insert—“(4) Where a senior coroner— (a) discontinues an investigation under section 4 of the 2009 Act,(b) authorises the disposal of the body, and(c) sends to the registrar, on request by the registrar, a certificate stating any particulars required by this Act to be registered concerning the death (so far as they have been ascertained at the date of the certificate),the registrar shall in the prescribed form and manner register the death and those particulars, so far as they are not already registered.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause enables a coroner who has discontinued an investigation into a death without holding an inquest to supply information needed for the death to be registered.
Amendment 46 agreed.
47: After Clause 42, insert the following new Clause—
“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.””Member’s explanatory statement
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.
My Lords, with the permission of the Committee, my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti and I have had a conversation and, in order to move things along, we have agreed that I will speak to her Amendment 49 as well as Amendments 47 and 48.
Having listened to the Minister’s response to the last group, I am incredibly disappointed at the lack of willingness to engage on the issues we were discussing. I really do not hold out much hope on this group, but these are matters that are of such importance. We have tried pushing this issue in the past via other Bills. Perhaps Covid and perhaps just more understanding and the work of Inquest are getting us to a point where the pressure to resolve this problem is increasing substantially. I know that the Minister understands the point we are trying to make. I get that he has a position he needs to defend, but he understands where we are coming from, so it would be welcome if he could try to do something through this Bill to try to improve the situation for bereaved families at inquests.
Amendment 47 would ensure that bereaved people, such as family members, are entitled to publicly funded legal representation at inquests where public bodies, such as the police or hospital trusts, are legally represented. Amendment 48 would remove the means test for legal aid applications for legal help for bereaved people at inquests. Amendment 49 would insert a new clause that would bring the LASPO Act into line with the definition of family used in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
The problem that we are getting at with these amendments is well understood. There are plenty of examples to which we can all refer. This is fundamentally about fairness. I pay tribute to the work of Inquest—we have referred to that organisation a couple of times—which has worked so hard on more than 2,000 cases, with 483 families currently receiving its support.
People who die in police custody, prison, hospital, a care home or a disaster such as Grenfell or Hillsborough need support in order to secure effective understanding and scrutiny of what has taken place. At Second Reading and again just now, the Minister said that the state did not need to fund representation for families as our system is not adversarial. I do not want to go through the whole argument again, but it is just nonsense. If relatives have to fight to discover the truth about what has happened to their loved one, with lawyers putting events in a way that suits the institution and with points that are contestable not allowed to be contested, that is in effect adversarial. The family’s desire to uncover the truth and the institution’s desire or need to conceal it, or to be insufficiently curious about discovering what has happened, are competing aims.
The two parties—I am not going to get into what and what is not a party: we know what we are talking about—might not be adversaries in a formal legal sense, and we understand that, but their competing, different interests mean that there is an inequality of arms which results in injustice for a bereaved family. That is what is happening. I do not believe for a minute that the Minister thinks I am wrong about that; it is just that at the moment he does not feel able to move the Government forward to do something about it.
Inquests are intended to seek the truth and to expose unsafe practices and abuses of power. They are about learning, so that lessons can be taken and future deaths prevented. This opportunity to learn is undermined by the pitting of unrepresented families against multiple legal teams defending the interests and reputations of state and corporate bodies. Public bodies have unlimited access to legal representation at public expense. Too often, families have absolutely nothing. At one of the most difficult periods in a family’s life, they are unrepresented.
Legal aid is granted under the Government’s exceptional funding scheme only if it is considered that there is a wider public interest in the inquest or if it is an Article 2 inquest, where a death was in state custody or it could be argued that the state failed to protect someone’s right to life. It must also meet the financial means test. Removal of the means test in these cases will be helpful, but given that asking people to demonstrate Article 2 qualification is such a high bar, this will not be sufficient to correct the injustice that many families are experiencing now. The evidence for change is completely overwhelming. I hope the Minister will not rely solely on the adversarial/inquisitorial argument. Frankly, it is beneath him. I hope that he will feel able to persuade his colleagues of the need for change. I will say no more. I think that is sufficient to make the point today, but I do not see a situation where we will not come back to this on Report or in future Bills. I gently suggest to the Minister that we have a Queen’s Speech coming up. This is such a problem for the coroners service across the country that it might be worth a Bill in its own right. We could then do justice to the service and to the experience of bereaved families. We are not doing so at the moment.
My Lords, in the mists of time I was articled to Maurice Evans, who was the coroner on the inquest of the 266 miners who lost their lives in the Gresford disaster. The mine owners were represented by Hartley Shawcross, later the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, Attorney-General in the Attlee Government and after that a very distinguished Member of this House. On the other side for the miners there appeared pro bono Sir Stafford Cripps, who later became the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Attlee Government. There was equality of arms there. That is what it means, that is what it is about and that is what these amendments are about.
Inquest has very helpfully set out a schedule to its briefing in which it outlines what representations have been made over time. In 1999, Lord Macpherson in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry said:
“That consideration be given to the provision of Legal Aid to victims or the families of victims to cover representation at an Inquest in appropriate cases.”
That is 23 years ago. The Corston report and the review led by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, made similar recommendations. His Honour Judge Sir Peter Thornton QC was the first Chief Coroner appointed and I knew him very well; he was in my chambers. He made his report in 2015-16 and said:
“The Chief Coroner … recommends that the Lord Chancellor gives consideration to amending his Exceptional Funding Guidance … so as to provide exceptional funding for legal representation for the family where the state has agreed to provide separate representation for one or more interested persons.”
You could actually take that and make it the amendment we are seeking to put before the Government. Dame Elish Angiolini carried out an independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody in 2017 and put it this way:
“For the state to fulfil its legal obligations of allowing effective participation of families in the process that is meaningful and not ‘empty and rhetorical’ there should be access for the immediate family to free, non-means tested legal advice, assistance and representation immediately following the death and throughout the Inquest hearing.”
The right reverend Bishop James Jones in the Hillsborough review said that:
“Publicly funded legal representation should be made available to bereaved families at inquests at which a public authority is to be legally represented … the requirement for a means test and financial contribution from the family should also be waived in these cases. Where necessary, funding for pathology or other expert evidence should also be made available.”
I could go on because there are a large number of these quotes but, coming closer to the present time, the Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2019, considering the detention of young people with learning disabilities and autism, said that:
“Families must be given non-means tested funding for legal representation at inquests where the state has separate representation for one or more interested persons.”
The Justice Select Committee, reporting last year in the other place, said:
“Bereaved people should not be put through the difficult and time-consuming process of meeting the exceptional cases requirements and the means test for legal aid where public authorities are legally represented at public expense at the inquest into the death of their loved one. The Ministry of Justice should by 1 October 2021, for all inquests where public authorities are legally represented, make sure that non-means tested legal aid or other public funding for legal representation is also available for the people that have been bereaved.”
Your Lordships will see that this is not a single voice calling. Everybody who has looked at this particular problem realises that there is no equality of arms, as there was in the Gresford disaster inquest, and that families suffer as a result. They cannot put their case adequately. It is time that the Government should grasp this and not go back to talking about coroners being inquisitorial, therefore we cannot have proper legal representation and so on. It is just shutting your eyes to what is going to happen, and I am sure it is going to happen with the quality of advocacy of Inquest and other people. I hope it will happen through this Bill if we can get together and put the proper amendment forward.
I do not want to repeat anything that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said in her moving contribution earlier, nor anything said by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, but perhaps I can remind the Minister that we are talking about people who do not have much money and are often in the worst position of their lives, in that they have lost somebody whom they loved very deeply. They are not at a point in their lives where they can cope with the sort of the pressure that the Government are making happen to them. Honestly, the Government are so penny-pinching when it comes to things like this—and student education; indeed, any number of other things—yet they do not make multi- nationals pay their taxes. I do not understand why we ever think that Conservatives are good at running the economy; I think that they are rubbish.
Every death in custody, of any sort, means that a family is bereaved. They may therefore not be thinking clearly and may be extremely upset. For them, the injustice is perpetuated and they are re-victimised because the inquest system is unable to give them the sort of justice they need. Without equality of arms against state parties, effective justice is extremely difficult to achieve. These issues come up time and again; the arguments are well rehearsed. The Government have access to unlimited public funds to instruct the very best lawyers, while the bereaved must navigate complicated legal aid applications in the vague hope that they might be awarded a scrap of money towards their legal costs. It just sounds so mean. It is absolutely mean of the Government. Far too often, the outcome is that inquests and inquiries are seen to have resulted in a damage limitation exercise—an exercise in saving reputations and finding excuses.
I had a grandfather who was killed in the Senghenydd mining disaster. Some 440 men and boys were killed in 1913. The mine owners were brought to court on various issues and paid a total of five and a half pence for every life lost in the mine. This debate reminds me of that: we just do not understand the sort of pressure that we put on people when we do not allow them the legal means to achieve what they need to achieve. It is a bit like the Sue Gray report. Everybody is told that they have to wait until the inquiry is finished but there is another excuse and another delay until, possibly years later, the authorities and everyone have simply forgotten about it.
Here, of course, we all want justice to be done. We all want life to be fair—that is why I am in politics, anyway—but these proposals are not fair. I really hope that the Minister will meet Inquest members because they can give him a first-hand understanding of the pressure and pain that families experience. Justice will not be seen to be done until families are given automatic, non-means-tested legal aid on a footing equivalent to that provided to state parties.
My Lords, if noble Lords will permit me, I would like to make a short intervention. I have not taken part at all in the debates on Part 2 because I wanted to find my feet more in this House. I do so as a member of the council of Justice and, until recently, president of the Civil Court Users Association. I certainly intend to get further involved on Part 2 when we get to Report.
To go back to what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, in the mists of time I was called to the Bar in 1963, and in the 1960s and 1970s, legal aid was one of the most socially important provisions that the Labour Government of 1945-51 had brought in. The other one, of course, was the National Health Service and it has been treading backwards ever since that Labour Government went out of power. It is very sad. I remember sitting on a lot of legal aid cases. The problem with legal aid cases was not the lack of spread of legal aid; it was the slowness of the fees coming in. Sometimes they took 18 months or two years to come in, but they did come in and they were very highly supportive of those involved in legal aid. As we see now, particularly in our discussions of coroners, legal aid is no longer supplying the social need that it set out to do, successfully, in 1945. It gets ever more depressing that there is not further support or further money available to support legal aid now, in our present age of the 2020s.
My Lords, the amendments in this group, Amendments 47, 48 and 49, would introduce three new clauses on legal aid for inquests. Let me make two points right at the start. First, we have now heard about two colliery disasters. The Gresford disaster was something that my late grandfather used to talk about, although he was from south Wales and not north Wales. As a boy, and I have just been looking it up, one thing that stuck with me when he talked about it was the numbers: 266 people were killed in that disaster. Only 11 bodies were recovered because of the understandable, albeit controversial, decision to seal the districts. I remember as a young boy hearing him talk about how that added immensely to the grief that the families went through, because there was no body to bury. I was very moved, if I may say so respectfully, by the noble Lord’s reference to that.
Secondly, as a matter of introduction, it has been suggested by a number of noble Lords that I should meet Inquest. I hope I have established that my general approach is to meet anybody who reasonably wants to meet me. I would be very happy to meet Inquest; I will ask my office to arrange that. Of course, I am sympathetic to the difficulties facing all bereaved families. We certainly take the view that the bereaved family should be at the heart of any inquest process that follows a death. I set out on a previous group, and I will not repeat, the inquisitorial point: I know that is an issue on which we are not going to agree, so I just ask the Committee, respectfully, to take that as read.
It is against that background that I suggest that Amendments 47 and 49, which seek to expand access to legal aid at inquests, run counter to that approach. 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 significantly more complex defensive case, which could, in the majority of cases, prolong the distress of a bereaved family. I think it is important to recognise in this area that for every inquest such as that for Hillsborough—the Committee will appreciate that with my background I remember Hillsborough and I remember that night, as the news came in, very clearly—for every awful case like Hillsborough, there are thousands of, so to speak, normal, usual inquests up and down the country and we want to make sure that they remain inquisitorial. However, we recognise that inquests need to be a process that bereaved families can engage with properly. We have introduced a number of measures in this area; let me set out a few.
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 which, among other things, ensures that where the state is represented, it will consider the number of lawyers instructed so as to support an inquisitorial approach; we have, building on the protocol, 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. The regulators published a toolkit and competences for practitioners on 13 September last year.
Turning to legal aid and legal advice and assistance: for bereaved families who need advice and assistance, legal help is always available under the legal aid scheme, subject to a means and merits test. This can help preparation for an inquest, including help for families to decide what questions to ask.
For legal representation at an inquest, legal aid may be available under the exceptional case funding scheme, where certain criteria are met. Where those criteria are met, the Government are of the view that the process should be as straightforward as possible. I do not know whether Members of the Committee have picked this up, because it is very recent, but as of January this year 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 where representation is granted. I appreciate that does not go as far as the amendment, but I hope it indicates that the Government have considered this and moved in this area.
Amendment 48 seeks to remove the means test for legal help prior to an inquest hearing. I have just said that as from January there is no means test for legal representation granted under the exceptional case funding scheme. This change will also provide non-means-tested legal help in relation to an inquest for which exceptional case funding has been granted for legal representation.
I hope that Members of the Committee are aware that we have been conducting a review of the legal aid means test as a whole across civil legal aid, which has been a substantial piece of work. I cannot give a date, but I hope that the review will be published very shortly. It might not go back to the position which the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, set out, but I hope that when Members of the Committee see the review, they will be interested in it and that it will engender some broad support.
The noble Lord has not read it yet, but I will take the bravos in advance in case I get brickbats later. I hope it will be a piece of work which will find support. Given that ongoing work and while recognising there is a point of principle between us—I absolutely accept that—none the less, for today’s purposes, I respectfully invite the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, not to press the amendments.
Clearly, we will not push the amendments to a vote today. It is pleasing to hear the Minister recognise the problems that we are raising, so at least we have got somewhere. Too often, Ministers say, “Well this isn’t a problem; we don’t need to fix it”. I do not think that is what the Government are saying. I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to meet Inquest; that will be very helpful. We obviously reserve our right to come back to this matter at future stages.
Amendment 47 withdrawn.
Amendments 48 to 50B not moved.
Clauses 43 to 45 agreed.
51: After Clause 45, insert the following new Clause—
“Pro Bono Representation: TribunalsPayments in respect of pro bono representation: tribunals
(1) Section 194 of the Legal Services Act 2007 (payments in respect of pro bono representation) is amended as follows. (2) In subsection (1) after “civil court” insert “or tribunal”.(3) In subsection (3)—(a) after “the court” insert “or tribunal”; and(b) after “in respect of that part)” insert “, but so that no award made under this subsection may exceed the amount that the court or tribunal could order to be paid in respect of R’s representation of P, had such representation not been provided free of charge in whole or in part”.(4) In subsection (4) after “the court” insert “or tribunal”.(5) In subsection (5) after “the court” insert “or tribunal”.(6) In subsection (7)—(a) after “Rules of court” insert “and tribunal rules of procedure”;(b) omit the word “civil”; and(c) after “the court” insert “or tribunal”.(7) In subsection (10)—(a) in the definition of “legal representative” for “exercising a right of audience or conducting litigation on the party's behalf” substitute “, who has a right of audience or has the right to conduct litigation in relation to any class of proceedings in any part of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, or all proceedings in county courts or magistrates’ courts, whether or not the person is exercising such right in the particular proceedings”;(b) in the definition of “relevant civil appeal”, after paragraph (a) insert—“(aa) from the Upper Tribunal in accordance with permission granted under section 14B(3) of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (appeal to Supreme Court),”; and(c) after the definition of “relevant civil appeal” insert—““tribunal” means—(a) the First-tier Tribunal;(b) the Upper Tribunal;(c) an employment tribunal;(d) the Employment Appeal Tribunal;(e) the Competition Appeal Tribunal; and(f) any other body, established under or recognised by any enactment, which performs the function of determining matters, which are not criminal in nature, including but not limited to regulatory and disciplinary issues, and which has the power to make an order for the payment of costs.””Member’s explanatory statement
These new provisions will confer on tribunals the same power as civil courts and the Supreme Court currently have to order an unsuccessful legally represented party to pay pro bono costs to the prescribed charity the Access to Justice Foundation where the successful party has been represented pro bono.
As I foreshadowed at Second Reading, I have tabled this amendment to enable tribunals to make pro bono cost orders, as is currently the position in the civil courts and the Supreme Court. I am very grateful to the Minister and his officials for their positive engagement on this issue. I know that the Minister himself, as he was at Second Reading, remains genuinely sympathetic to the principle embodied in the amendment.
We have not received so far any amendment proposed by the Government to match what I have tabled, but this morning those representing the Access to Justice Foundation, which is the prescribed charity and will be the recipient of any pro bono award, received notification that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General support this change, with the Solicitor-General, who has general responsibility within the Government for pro bono, expressing strong support for it.
On that basis, I am cautiously optimistic that a government amendment will emerge in due course. The main issue of concern at the moment relates to the width of the tribunals that will be caught under the amendment. I know that work is going on regarding that. It would be useful for those who are interested in this issue to have the Minister’s current position recorded in Hansard. I beg to move.
My Lords, we fully support the amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord. There is nothing that I wish to add. It is plainly sensible. There is no distinction between the civil courts and tribunals, and it is an obvious case for orders in respect of costs.
My Lords, as this is the last group in Committee, it is nice to end on a point of general agreement rather than discord. Whoever put the groups together, I take my hat off to them.
I respectfully welcome the proposals in Amendment 51, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and am grateful to him for the time that he has given to me and my officials in discussing this. The amendment would allow pro bono cost orders to be made in tribunals, in much the same way as they are already available in the civil and family courts. This is a helpful proposal which will not only provide additional funding to the Access to Justice Foundation but—moving from pounds, shillings and pence to a statement of principle—importantly signals our support for the excellent work that is done pro bono by the legal profession up and down the country. Indeed, in the last group we heard an example of that from many years ago.
As I have already explained in meetings with the noble and learned Lord, we have two concerns about the amendment as drafted, though I underline that I am making not a point of principle but points of drafting. First, as drafted, it would apply to a very wide range of tribunals of different types, including tribunals for which the Government are not responsible; for example, professional disciplinary tribunals, such as those of the General Medical Council. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord and the Committee would agree that it would not be right for the Government to impose this measure on those tribunals that the Government are not responsible for, in circumstances where we have not been able to engage with them or seek their agreement. That is the first point: the ambit of the tribunals which we are talking about, although those for which the Government are responsible are, for these purposes, the vast majority, so that carve-out will not have too much of a practical effect, I hope.
There is a second point: issues of territorial extent. Again, as drafted, in Wales, it could impose measures on tribunals that are administered by the Welsh Government, while in Scotland, judges would not be able to make pro bono costs awards, even when they are dealing with reserved matters in reserved tribunals. That, again, is a drafting point I am confident we can discuss and agree on.
Therefore, I will formally invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment, but I assure him on the record that I and the Government remain entirely supportive of the principle behind his amendment. As he says, my learned friends the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General are also supportive of the measure. The noble and learned Lord and I have met on a couple of occasions now to discuss the amendment ahead of today’s debate. I will certainly continue to discuss this issue with him ahead of Report, and I am very hopeful that we will be able, between us, to do something that will resolve this issue and meet the point he seeks to address in his amendment.
Amendment 51 withdrawn.
Clauses 46 and 47 agreed.
Clause 48: Commencement and transitional provision
52: Clause 48, page 58, line 15, at end insert “, except section (Provision of information to registrar when investigation discontinued)”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment provides for the new Clause after Clause 42 in the name of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar to be brought into force by regulations.
Amendment 52 agreed.
Amendments 53 and 54 not moved.
Clause 48, as amended, agreed.
Clause 49 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.