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The Minister of State was asked--

Judges (Declaration of Interests)

28. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What steps he is taking to ensure that judges declare any relevant interests before hearing a case. [65855]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): There already exists a requirement that any individual judge who recognises a potential conflict of interest should inform the parties concerned. In addition, my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor wrote to the senior Law Lord on 16 December last year asking that the Law Lords should, before hearing an appeal, consider together whether any of their number might appear to be subject to a conflict of interest and, in order to ensure their impartiality and the appearance of impartiality of the Committee, require any Law Lord to disclose any such circumstances to the parties and not sit if any party objects and the Committee so determines.

Mr. Prentice: That is a very good answer, but does not my hon. Friend share my incredulity that when the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice wrote to members of the judiciary asking them voluntarily to disclose whether they were members of the freemasons, 64 members of the judiciary stayed silent? In the light of that statistic, is there not a compelling case for introducing a statutory register of interests, such as that which applies in the House, to make sure that when judges hear cases, they show their hand first?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's compliment--if that is what it was. Clearly, the Government are anxious to learn all the lessons from the

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Pinochet case, and will continue to monitor the situation. However, we have no plans at present to introduce a comprehensive register of interests for the judiciary.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) could have found the same response in a written answer that appeared today at column 50 of Hansard.

I remind the Minister that the Lord Chancellor, his boss, is the head of the judiciary. Under the Access to Justice Bill [Lords], he has taken on 17 new powers or interests. Will the Minister justify three of them?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well that, once the Access to Justice Bill [Lords] has made its way through the other place, he will have every opportunity to raise such questions on the Floor of this House. I am sure that we can discuss them at the appropriate time.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Will my hon. Friend say whether coroners are required to complete the masonic disclosure forms? If so, have they all completed the forms? If not all have done so, will he publish a list of those who have not?

Mr. Hoon: I am not aware that they are so required.

Community Legal Advice Services

29. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): In what ways he monitors the adequacy and quality of community legal advice services; and what further action he plans to ensure excellence in such services. [65856]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The majority of advice services are currently provided outside the existing legal aid scheme. The Legal Aid Board subjects franchised legal and advice service providers to a continuous monitoring process and receives advice from the 13 regional legal services committees on local need for legal services. As part of the developing community legal service, we are establishing a quality task force to develop a kitemark system for high quality community legal services.

Fiona Mactaggart: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the provision of immigration advice in some parts of the country is still inadequate to meet the needs of the community, and that there are too few franchised lawyers offering immigration advice? What steps are being taken to increase the accessibility of excellent immigration advice where it is needed throughout the country?

Mr. Hoon: I do share my hon. Friend's concern. The Government attach great importance to the availability of competent advice on immigration matters. Poor quality advice can be very damaging, both to the client and to the wider community. As a result, the Government have asked the Legal Aid Board to submit detailed proposals to tackle the shortfall of quality advice providers. The extension of

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the deadline for solicitors to apply for a legal aid franchise will also give practitioners wishing to apply for an immigration franchise further opportunities to do so.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): First, may I offer my genuine and heartfelt commiserations to the Minister whose boss once again appears to have vetoed his long-delayed and well-deserved prospects of promotion?

On the subject of the need for community legal advice centres, does he accept that the overlap between such centres and citizens advice bureaux causes great difficulty? Will he examine that problem carefully, as citizens advice bureaux staff are often asked for advice on complex legal questions for which they are not qualified? Sometimes CAB staff find it difficult to know where best to send people with legal problems so that they can receive comprehensive advice from qualified persons.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations, not least because of the sheer pleasure that trying to answer his questions on a Tuesday afternoon each month always gives me. The Government are aware of the potential difficulties caused by conflicting sources of advice. That is why we have established five pioneer areas under the community legal service scheme, specifically to determine how best we can reconcile the needs for first-tier advice of a more general nature with the provision of the more specialised legal advice that is sometimes required.

Court Service (Exeter)

30. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): What progress has been made on securing funding for the proposed new accommodation for the court service in Exeter. [65857]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government have accepted my hon. Friend's representations about Exeter requiring new courtroom accommodation. It will be acquired through a private-public partnership, and we expect bids to be invited by July.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am extremely pleased by that reply and grateful to my hon. Friend. There has been much local concern about delay in the realisation of the scheme, so can my hon. Friend go a little further by publishing a formal timetable for the advertisement and for the start of work? Might he also re-examine the reasons given for the magistrates court decision not to relocate into the new complex, as many people--including me--believe that those reasons are fallacious?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend has argued assiduously, effectively and consistently for a new Crown court in Exeter. Now that the Government have accepted his case, it is important to make progress with all possible speed. However, accommodation for the magistrates court is a matter for the local magistrates court committee.

Legal Services (Public Access)

32. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): What regional consultations he has undertaken in respect of improved public access to legal services. [65860]

The Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government

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will take account of a wide range of views in planning and funding legal services through the community legal service. The 13 regional legal services committees established by the Legal Aid Board as part of our programme of legal aid reform include members drawn from all sectors of their local communities. The RLSCs have undertaken regional consultations throughout England and Wales to develop regional strategies for the provision of legal services.

Ms Keeble: Is my hon. Friend aware that consultations in Northamptonshire have revealed considerable concern about access to legal services? Is he further aware of concerns among local mental health organisations, particularly the National Schizophrenia Fellowship and MIND, about the difficulties for people who have mental health problems in pressing their claims under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Those people cannot receive legal aid or legal help in going to employment tribunals, and they have great difficulty in representing themselves.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The regional legal services committees have already examined, in a general sense, the legal needs of the disabled, and the relevant voluntary groups and representatives have been included in the consultation processes. The Legal Aid Board will also be represented on the quality task force being established by the Lord Chancellor, which will address disability and equality issues.

The flexibility provided by our proposals for a community legal service will allow us to provide, for the first time, specific assistance for the legal needs of the disabled, if those needs are identified as a local priority.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the Minister agree that public expectation of access to legal services is rising beyond the level that the budget allocated by the Government can possibly meet? What is he doing to satisfy public expectations?

Mr. Hoon: I agree that demand for legal services is increasing. That is why the Government have set before Parliament a White Paper and a Bill on the need radically to reform the way in which legal advice is given. In particular, we must control the costs of the traditional legal aid system to make more money available, particularly for the most vulnerable in society. I look forward to receiving the hon. Lady's support for the Government's proposals.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): A key part of the Government's proposals for access to justice will be the provision of insurance against defence costs. What consultation has the Minister had with the insurance industry? Is the industry ready to underwrite cases, and what sort of costs will be involved?

Mr. Hoon: The Lord Chancellor and I have held a series of meetings with representatives of the insurance and financial services industries. We are keen that they should provide financial support, particularly to underpin the extension of conditional fee agreements, and we have every confidence that such support will be available and will continue to be available.

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