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Furore over court closures

12 February 2016

Alexandra Cardenas discusses the much-opposed proposed court closures and considers the issue of court fees.


The House of Commons and House of Lords are now in recess. Both Houses will return on Monday 22 February. 

Last week the Ministry of Justice announced the outcome of its proposed closures of courts across England and Wales. Despite opposition from the legal profession and politicians, including Conservative backbenchers, courts and legal aid minister Shailesh Vara MP announced that 86 of the 91 proposed court closures will be going ahead. 

While the lord chancellor has been willing to u-turn a number of policies, the announcement is a reminder that the Ministry of Justice's focus on efficiency and cost savings is set to continue throughout this administration. This was emphasised by Shailesh Vara's appearance before the Justice Select Committee (JSC) on Tuesday where he stated that the government has a "mandate to manage the country's finances and that the justice system must play its part in the economic recovery". 

The issue of court fees continues to be important in parliament. Law Society president Jonathan Smithers raised his concerns on this issue by giving evidence to the JSC. The session saw the Law Society and Bar Council unite to argue that the government has an obligation to provide an accessible justice system. The president raised concerns about the threat to access justice around the "extraordinarily high" money claims fee and called on the government not to raise the fees any higher. The minister was challenged by Conservative JSC member Alex Chalk MP on the government's use of the justice system as a "cash cow" but the minister indicated that there is no issue in users of courts and tribunals system paying for that system. The JSC will make its recommendations on fees and charges in the coming weeks. 

Elsewhere the Joint Committee on the draft Investigatory Powers Bill released its report which called for legal professional privilege to be put on the face of the bill when published. We will be working with the Home Office and parliament as the bill is introduced and goes through the parliamentary process. 

Monday 8 February

House of Commons

Written answers: clinical negligence 

Following a question by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab), health minister Lord Prior of Brampton stated that the NHS Litigation Authority has looked at a number of forms of alternative dispute resolution and recently piloted a mediation programme. He noted that 81 per cent of the mediations in the pilot resulted in settlements and as a result will be developing a formal mediation scheme. 

Tuesday 9 February

House of Commons

Justice Select Committee - court and tribunals fees and charges

On Tuesday the Justice Committee took evidence on courts and tribunals fees and charges from Chantal-Aimée Doerries, chair, the Bar Council; Michael Clancy, director of law reform, Law Society of Scotland; Jonathan Smithers, president, Law Society of England and Wales. Shailesh Vara MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state, minister for the courts and legal aid also gave evidence. The Committee will publish a report in the coming weeks.

Key points

  • Money cap - The Law Society and the Bar Council both welcomed that the money claims cap was not raised from £10,000. The minister said he would like to see the impact of the £10,000 cap before instituting a higher sum.
  • Cross subsidisation - The Bar Council said they didn't support cross-subsidisation of courts as the state has an obligation to provide an accessible justice system. Doerries noted that the fee increases "smack of the state selling justice" and that it is the state's obligation is to provide an accessible justice system. The Law Society stated that cross-subsidisation is not fair on citizens. 
  • International competitiveness - The panel were in agreement that the UK court fees levels could make the UK less competitive, as it will push work abroad to locations such as Singapore. Vara said that the government had recently measured the potential impact of fee increases on the UK's international competitiveness. He argued that here is no issue in users of courts and tribunals system paying for that system. He noted that some solicitors have doubled their charges in recent years and made the point that if that does not put off international work, court fees won’t either.
  • Domestic competitiveness - Alberto Costa MP asked whether the increase in costs of disbursements would provide larger firms with a competitive edge. The Law Society highlighted that larger firms have greater borrowing power and the increase would be unhelpful for smaller firms and those in rural areas. 
  • Employment tribunal fees - The Law Society stated that a wider review of employment tribunal fees is essential and the system doesn't function correctly for either side. He also noted that there is no evidence that the fee increase has cut the number of vexatious claims. The minister said the post-implementation review of employment tribunal fees will be published 'sooner rather than later', and that he would like to check that the reforms have not caused impact on people with protected characteristics.
  • Evidence base for fee increases - David Hanson MP (Lab) challenged Vara on the consultation carried out before the government increased court fees and quoted the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson who called the consultation "lamentable", adding that the Bar Council and the Law Society backed up his comments. Vara replied that five reviews were carried out before the fee increases were introduced, and confirmed that Lord Dyson was referring to research carried out by Ipsos Mori, who conducted 31 interviews. When Alex Chalk MP challenged Vara, he admitted that the government did not carry out a "Rolls-Royce" consultation and also saidreplied that they had to act quickly and did their best under the circumstances.
  • Fee remission - The Law Society stated that the new 'help with fees' system has complicated rules and legal advice is needed to use it. 

Legislation: Enterprise Bill 

The Enterprise Bill undertook its first day of scrutiny before the Public Bill Committee. A further session took place on Thursday 11 February.

Find out more

House of Lords

Legislation: Housing and Planning Bill 

The Housing and Planning Bill undertook its first day of scrutiny before the Public Bill Committee. A further session will take place on Tuesday 1 March. 

Read the transcripts

Government 

Lord Maude to resign

Minister for trade and investment, Lord (Francis) Maude, has announced that he will step down from his position in mid-March. Lord Maude will be replaced by Mark Ian Price, the outgoing managing director of Waitrose in April. 

Wednesday 10 February

House of Commons

Legislation: Policing and Crime Bill 

The Home Office published the Policing and Crime Bill and it was introduced into the House of Commons. The bill will reform pre-charge bail to stop people remaining on bail for lengthy periods without independent judicial scrutiny and make amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to increase the use of video link technology. 

Find out more about the bill

Prime Minister's Questions: Human Rights Act

During Prime Minister's Questions, SNP MP Johanna Cherry asked whether proper consideration had been taken to ensure that the consultation on the repeal of the Human Rights Act did not conflict with the purdah period for the Scottish and other elections. The Prime Minister stated that "human rights in the UK were not dependent on the Act" and the timing of the consultation would be carefully considered. 

Thursday 11 February

House of Commons 

Joint Committee: Draft Investigatory Powers Bill - report 

The report by the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill recommended that the provision for the protection of legal professional privilege (LPP) should be included on the face of the Bill. The Committee also stated that the government should consult with Law Societies and others on how best this can be achieved. The report also highlighted that the Home Office should review its proposal in relation to LPP to ensure that they meet the requirements of Article 8 and relevant case law. 

Colin Passmore, senior partner at Simons and Simons, gave oral evidence to the committee as the Law Society's expert witness at the end of 2015. 

Read our press statement on the report

Legislation: Enterprise Bill 

The Enterprise Bill undertook the second day of scrutiny before the Public Bill Committee. A further session will take place on Tuesday 23 February. 

Read the transcripts 

Written statement: court closures

Courts and legal aid minister Shailesh Vara MP announced that the Ministry of Justice will close 86 of the 91 courts and tribunals it had consulted on. 64 sites will close as proposed in the consultation with a further 22 closures with changes to the original proposals. These changes, many suggested by respondents, include the identification of suitable alternative venues, such as local civic buildings, or different venues in the HMCTS estate to those originally proposed. 

See the full list of courts that will be closed (PDF)

Read our statement on the announcement

Our response was covered in page two of The Times and Law Society president Jonathan Smithers has given a number of local radio interviews about the closures. The press team are continuing to work with local media on the issue. 

Written answers: clinical negligence

Following a question from Labour MP Bridget Phillipson, the health minister Ben Gummer MP stated that the NHS Litigation Authority maintains data sets relating to the following: 

1. Management of clinical negligence and other non-clinical claims against the National Health Service in England on behalf of member organisations; 

2. Referrals to the National Clinical Assessment Service; 

3. Appeals in primary care contract disputes; 

4. Notifications made under the Performers List Regulations; and 

5. Operation of the Healthcare Professional Alert Notice System. 

Written answers: personal injury

Following a question from Conservative MP Karl McCartney on ending compensation for personal injury claims when there is no medical evidence, human rights minister Dominic Raab MP stated that the government is determined to crack down on fraud and the compensation culture. He said that the government recognises that offers to settle made to claimants without medical evidence may encourage opportunistic and fraudulent claims. He stated that the government introduced new court rules in October 2014 to discourage these offers and will keep the issue of third party capture under review. 

Written answers: criminal legal aid 

Following a question from shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP, Shailesh Vara MP said that the Ministry of Justice could not publish the amount spent on the criminal legal aid tendering process as it could only be obtained at a disproportionate cost. 

Written answers: compensation - Ministry of Defence

Following a question from Labour MP Andrew Gwynne, defence minister Mark Lancaster MP published the amount of compensation paid out by the Ministry of Defence in each financial year from 2010-11 to 2013-14. 

The amounts paid in compensation including claimants' legal costs by members and former members of HM Forces and civilian employers are: 

Financial year Employers liability claims Clinical negligence claims
2010-11 £83.9 million £17.0 million
2011-12 £62.0 million £6.7 million
2012-13 £69.5 million £7.1 million
2013-14 £58.5 million £5.8 million

The amounts paid by third parties, including civilians both in the UK and overseas are:

Financial year Public liability Third party motor claims  Area claims offices
2010-11 £5.4 million £5.6 million £3.0 million
2011-12 £10.0 million £6.7 million £1.8 million
2012-13 £25.0 million £4.8 million £1.7 million
2013-14 £11.1 million £5.0 million £1.5 million

Friday 12 February

The House of Commons and House of Lords are on recess.

Tags: Investigatory Powers Bill | Westminster weekly update | Parliament | court closures | court fees

About the author

Alexandra Cardenas is Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns at the Law Society. Public Affairs manages the relationships with parliament and government. She is a dual qualified solicitor in England and Wales (2014), and Colombia (2002). Prior to the Society, she practised as a human rights lawyer and worked at Macmillan Cancer Support and Animal Defenders International.

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