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McKenzie Friends

32. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What recent representations the Lord Chancellor has received regarding changes to the status of McKenzie Friends. [104960]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Since my previous reply on 14 December to the hon. Member, my fellow Parliamentary Secretary has had a useful and constructive meeting with representatives from Families Need Fathers. I and my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor have received no further representations.

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. But I should like to ask him again whether he understands that many litigants in person with no legal representation in family court cases find the legal

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proceedings very worrying; they are very disturbed by them and the proceedings can often be traumatic. For that reason they need a friend or assistant in court with them--that is, they need a McKenzie friend. Given the abolition of the right to a McKenzie friend in chambers or in court, can the Minister give me more detail as to what specific steps his Department will take to reinstate that important right?

Mr. Lock: The Government have no plans at present to place the role of McKenzie friends on a statutory footing, though we recognise the important role they play in some cases. The judges have developed common law rules so that litigants in person are permitted a McKenzie friend in proceedings in open court, and in most proceedings in chambers, unless the court is satisfied that fairness and justice, or the confidential nature of the information that will be disclosed in the court case--which is why the proceedings may be in Chambers in the first place--do not make it appropriate for a party to be assisted by a McKenzie friend.

The nature of private proceedings may in some cases make it undesirable for a McKenzie friend to be present. The Government are content to leave the development of policy in this area to the courts.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Would more McKenzie friends mean fewer lawyers and fewer QCs? That would save us an absolute fortune. Has my hon. Friend seen the article in The Times today, headed

in which Richard Benson QC says that earnings of £500,000 a year are a derisory amount?

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that article to the attention of the House. I must say that the Government consider that sums paid from taxpayers' funds to barristers may--and we are considering this at the moment--be related to the sums that we pay other very important public service workers, such as teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers. I do not think there are many nurses--despite the generosity of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and the recent announcement of nurses' pay awards--who are collecting half a million pounds a year.

Crime Victims

33. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What plans she has to ensure that information is made available to victims in a timely and sensitive way about forthcoming appeals on sentence by criminals convicted of serious crimes. [104961]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): Arrangements have been in place at the Court of Appeal criminal division for some time to inform the victims or their families of appeals in cases involving death and serious sexual offences. Preparations are in hand to extend notification to all cases.

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Mrs. Gilroy: I think my hon. Friend will know of the case of my constituent Mrs. Joan Kiely, who last October learned from a journalist that the sentence of the perpetrator of a vicious attack on her had been shortened from 10 to eight years. My hon. Friend said that arrangements were in hand to extend notification. Can she say when she expects that to happen; and will she work with the Attorney-General's Department and the Home Office to ensure that it happens as quickly as possible?

Jane Kennedy: I agree that it was not acceptable for Mrs. Kiely to find out what had happened from a local journalist. Preparations are in hand to extend notification to all victims or families, regardless of the nature of the offence, when the Court of Appeal grants leave to appeal against conviction or a sentence. There would also be provision for the Crown Prosecution Service to notify the criminal appeal office of cases in which the victims needed to be kept informed. The record would be noted accordingly, and notification would be sent at all stages.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister will recognise that members of all parties have consistently backed the important work of the victim support organisation. I hope she will be able to confirm that the Government plan to continue that backing; but what about the interests of the victims of those who, although acknowledged to have committed serious crimes, have cheated the courts by no longer being around?

Conservative Members find it outrageous that, as has now been revealed, as soon as the Government came to power the Lord Chancellor tried to intervene to stop the inquiry into the affairs of the late Robert Maxwell. Does the Minister accept that the pensioners who were victims of that great criminal do not want to allow the inquiry to be stopped by her noble Friend? She may wish that Robert Maxwell and his crimes had never happened, but Conservative Members will ensure that everyone knows that members of her Government were far too close to the late Robert Maxwell.

Jane Kennedy: I am not aware of the claims that the hon. Gentleman has made--[Interruption.] I shall look for the report that he mentioned.

When notifying victims of matters affecting the case in which they have been involved, the court needs not just proper technological support, but the agreement of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service on the way in which the information is provided and notification is given. I have not seen the specifics in the newspaper report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but perhaps I will read it and we can discuss it later.

Community Legal Service

34. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): What provision will be made within the community legal service to ensure that people with learning difficulties and mental health problems attain proper access to legal services. [104962]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The quality assurance standard developed for community legal service providers requires proper access for all clients, including people with learning difficulties and mental health problems. All providers will also have to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Ms Keeble: Is my hon. Friend aware that, on a number of occasions, the Northampton branch of the National Schizophrenia Fellowship have raised the problems that people experience in gaining access to legal services if they have recurring mental health problems? Does his answer--which I welcome--mean that such people will have easy access to services, and will also be able to obtain the detailed help that they may need because their problems have made their cases more complicated?

Mr. Lock: My hon. Friend has been diligent in raising issues affecting an important section of the community in her constituency--people with mental health problems--who need legal advice. There are now two firms of solicitors in the Northampton area with mental health contracts--quality-assured lawyers, who can provide services for such people.

It is important for every firm involved in the community legal service--whether it is dealing with employment, debt or mental health law--to recognise the special requirements of people with learning difficulties, respond to them and comply fully with its obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act.


35. Angela Smith (Basildon): What assessment she has made of the occupations of magistrates. [104963]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): As part of achieving social balance on Benches, each local advisory committee is required to ensure that no more than 15 per cent. of the Bench is drawn from a particular occupational group. Returns are made to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor every year in respect of each Bench.

Angela Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but an individual's occupation and position within that occupation have a direct impact on the individual's ability to have time off work and therefore to serve as a magistrate. Will my right hon. Friend--I am promoting her early--look carefully at the matter and give advice to employers to encourage their employees to take up the role of magistrate, giving them time off work to do so?

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Working magistrates are drawn from a wide range of occupations. If that is to continue, it will be important for employers to allow staff time off work to sit as magistrates. It is important, too, that work colleagues understand that time spent away from the workplace is not a skive, but a valuable service to the community. I pay tribute to the many employers who play their part in the criminal justice system by allowing staff to take time to sit as magistrates.

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