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ACCESS TO JUSTICE BILL [Lords] [WAYS AND MEANS]

Resolved,



(a) the imposition on professional bodies of requirements to make payments towards meeting the expenditure of the Legal Services Ombudsman and the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner, and
(b) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.--[Mrs. McGuire.]

6.52 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Keith Vaz): Before moving to the formal business, may I take this opportunity to thank all members of the Standing Committee who considered the Bill. Members on both sides contributed to a thorough and useful examination of this important Bill. The House will note that many of the suggestions made in Committee have been taken forward in the amendments to be discussed this evening.

In particular, I thank the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). I note that the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough to our debate has resulted in his promotion to observer to the shadow Cabinet as the shadow Attorney-General. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will thank the Government for their part in his elevation.

As the House knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) was the Minister responsible for guiding the Bill through its earlier stages. I pay tribute to his skilful handling of the Bill and his determination to steer through a piece of legislation that will radically improve access to justice for all our citizens. My hon. Friend's handling of the Bill has brought him well-deserved promotion, as Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster), who was also a member of the Standing Committee, has recently been promoted to become the Attorney-General's Parliamentary Private Secretary. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) has received recognition in becoming the Opposition's spokesperson for the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The Access to Justice Bill is a landmark piece of legislation. It seeks to modernise justice so as to ensure that the law benefits all our citizens. However, I am not entirely certain that the Government anticipated that the Bill would achieve such success in supporting, enhancing and, indeed, modernising the careers of so many hon. Members who were involved in its parliamentary passage.

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The Ways and Means resolution is necessary to authorise the Lord Chancellor to require the legal professional bodies to pay towards the expenditure of the Legal Services Commissioner and the legal services ombudsman; and to allow the commissioner to levy penalties on professional bodies. We will discuss the substance of our proposals later--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not want to hear again the preface to the Minister's speech on Third Reading. It seems slightly misplaced, attached to the Ways and Means resolution.

22 Jun 1999 : Column 982

Access to Justice Bill [Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

New Clause 13

Principles applicable to Part I


'(1) Every person exercising functions in connection with this Part must act, so far as possible, in a way which is compatible with the objectives set out in subsection (2).


(2) The objectives are:
(a) that persons have access to legal services and the machinery of justice which they would otherwise be unable to obtain on account of their means;
(b) that such access is not to be impaired on account of racial grounds, gender, sexual orientation or disability (within the meaning of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) or the place in England and Wales where any legal services are sought;
(c) that legal services and facilities of high quality be available such that disputes may be resolved, and proceedings determined, expeditiously, fairly and with the parties placed on an equal footing;
(d) that persons obtaining access to legal services under this part shall have the widest possible choice of provider or services.'.--[Mr. Garnier.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

6.55 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I declare an interest to the House. I am a practising barrister. My name on the amendment paper has been marked [R], as have those of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot).

I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. That will not be said again on Third Reading, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not ascribe the various promotions of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the reasons that the Minister cited, but one does not look askance at kind words from the Government, as they do not come often. I am grateful to my parliamentary neighbour for the kindness that he has just demonstrated.

While we are in that mood, may I briefly pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), whose shadow office I now hold. He is the longest-serving Law Officer this century, and certainly the longest continuous serving Law Officer. He has given signal service to the House, the law and to the Attorney's chambers over 10 years, and he was in government two years before that in the Department of Social Security. He will be missed on the Front Bench, although his absence today is only temporary, and before long we shall hear much from him from the Back Benches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath on his promotion.

I hope to persuade the House that the purpose and intent of new clause 13 is entirely proper and to be welcomed. It was introduced in the other place by Lord Lloyd of Berwick, with cross-party support. It was not an Opposition ambush. The Bill was amended in the other place by new clause 1, as it was at that stage, introduced by a retired Law Lord, a man of great wisdom and humanity. The new clause received all-party support because it was a good thing.

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The Lord Chancellor demonstrated unusual hastiness and churlishness, which we do not often see from that august person, when he described Lord Lloyd's new clause as a gimmick. That was unfortunate and wrong. No intelligent person would have used such language, had he thought about the matter carefully.

That point is reinforced by the support that the new clause received in another place and in Committee, and which it has now, not only from lawyers, the Law Society, the Bar Council and me as an individual lawyer, but from the Child Poverty Action Group, the Institute of Legal Executives, the Law Centres Federation, Mencap, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation--RADAR, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Advice Services Alliance, the Consumers Association, Justice, the Legal Action Group, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Refuge and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. That is a cross-section of bodies and interest groups which represent a rather wider alliance than the somewhat party political groups that we find on the Opposition Benches.

7 pm

In Committee in early May, with the assistance of the new Minister, who played a silent role, the Government removed the clause. New clause 13 is slightly different from the clause in the Bill when it left the other place in that it widens the anti-discrimination provisions and provides access to the widest possible choice of provider or services.

There are four fundamental objectives by which to test access to justice--quality, access, choice and funding. New clause 13 is intended to make access to legal services and justice available to those who would otherwise be unable to obtain it on account of their means. That should be a fundamental principle to avoid the possibility that access to justice is available only to the rich.

The provisions for anti-discrimination should, in themselves, be unexceptionable. The purpose is to make that plain in the Bill, so that those who may otherwise face barriers to obtaining access to justice do not find their access impaired.

The Government appear, and they appeared on the previous two occasions on which the matter was debated, to object to the clause, both in terms of the principle of whether there should be such a clause at all and in terms of its individual provisions. Placing the parties on an equal footing appeared to the Government to mean that there was no proportionality or limit to the amount of costs. However, what is intended is a clear statement of principle, which is designed to govern part I of the Bill.

The rules of court already provide mechanisms to ensure that costs are reasonable and proportionate. The issue of principle is to ensure that there is equality of arms between parties to a dispute within the constraints of court management of cases. That does not mean that state-funded lawyers have to be paid the same rate of fees that privately funded lawyers are paid or can attract. It simply means that state-funded lawyers should be able to command fees that attract lawyers of quality to take up a case on behalf of the poor, disabled, elderly or disadvantaged.

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On choice of provider, there may be restrictions on grounds of quality. However, where a provider of services can demonstrate quality and is prepared to work for the fees that the Government allow, there is no clear reason why access to justice should be arbitrarily limited by the Government. Although assurances have been given in some areas of work for the first round of any contracting scheme, those have not yet been extended. The network of services provided by local solicitors is a major asset to their communities. The new clause seeks to ensure the widest possible choice of provider and services. That would include representation not just in court, but in alternative methods of dispute resolution.

I do not need to take the House through new clause 13. It appears on the amendment paper for all to see and I trust that many will have read it before coming into the Chamber this evening. It is sensible, humane, civilised and does not undermine the Bill's overall purpose. It defies logic that any hon. Member should oppose its re-inclusion in the Bill.

The new clause had all-party support in the other place and was introduced by a majority of 71. Principles clauses are not foreign to our statute law. Yesterday, the House gave the Food Standards Bill its Second Reading; it has a principles clause. The Financial Services and Markets Bill, currently being debated in the House, has a purposes or objectives clause. Rule 1 of the brand new civil procedure rules, which came into force a couple of months ago, is an objectives rule--a principles rule--setting out precisely what is intended to happen as a consequence of the introduction of those rules.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister why, in all conscience, he, as a Labour Member, has the nerve, the gall and the indecency, to oppose new clause 13.


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