Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. So it has not achieved the quantitative targets set for 1999 and you say—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, it did get its numbers target of reducing outstanding complaints down to 6,000 by 31 December 2000. It did achieve that.

  41. It achieved the target of reducing the number of outstanding complaints, the backlog. It has not, however, achieved the timescale targets within which new complaints are processed—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Standards have been set which they have accepted and really what one has got to look at now is the new targets and whether these new targets are achieved. Let us take one illustration—and it is turn round times, you are absolutely right—if you take service and conduct cases, they should be aiming for determination of all service and conduct cases within a 12-month period but what we have agreed in the shorter term is 50 per cent within three months, 80 per cent within six months, 90 per cent within 12 months, and 100 per cent within 18 months. Now these are the new targets. One of the things that I will have to look at, having had this chance, is whether they deliver on these targets. I do say that I am perfectly willing to consider more radical solutions.

  42. Those new targets you have just given, are they analogous, and therefore relaxations of, the targets given in 1999, processing 90 per cent of complaints within three months and 100 per cent within five months?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think they are, yes.

  43. We have relaxed those targets that were there set and you have also told us that you are unhappy with the quality of the decisions?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes, I have, yes.

  44. Given that the Government has assumed for itself the power to appoint a Legal Services Complaints Commissioner, if the OSS fails to come up with the goods in terms of both quantity and quality, when will that power be invoked?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not going to say categorically whether it will be invoked but obviously the gravity of the situation which the Law Society finds itself in is very, very well known to us and self-regulation is a privilege, it is not a right. I think that self-regulation must be exercised in the interests of the public, not in the interests of the profession. I hesitate always to say that this is the Law Society's last chance, I hesitate to say that, but I do say that the gravity of the situation that faces them is very clear to the current leadership. I do not wish to discourage it from the efforts that it is making to transform the attitude to customer care in the solicitors' profession. You are far better sticking with self-regulation, if you can, but at some point because Government's patience will run out.

  45. But you do have a hope that under the current leadership those targets you set can be fulfilled?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes, of course.

Mr Winnick

  46. If we move on to one or two questions on modernising the courts. Lord Chancellor, what is the position at the moment over the possibility of some court cases being televised?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, what I would say about that is this: that you have to distinguish very, very closely between trials and in particular criminal trials and, let us say, appellate proceedings. There is, of course, a statutory ban on photographing or televising court proceedings. But I am sure that many in this room will remember the Louise Woodward trial in 1997, and I have to say that I expressed then a view—which I repeat to the Committee today—that I am hostile to the televising of trial proceedings in this country. Let me tell you why. There is a great, great risk that the behaviour and the judgement of the lawyers, the witnesses and, indeed, the jury itself might be affected by the knowledge that these parties are participating in a live media event. Even more serious than that is the risk that the witnesses, particularly in criminal cases, might be influenced in the evidence that they give, or find themselves subject within their own communities to undue pressure as a consequence of live coverage. Indeed, I go further, that televising criminal trial proceedings would risk the post-trial punishment of witnesses and perhaps also their intimidation in future cases. You can take it that is the position of the Government in relation to trials, and in particular criminal trials. Now as far as appellate proceedings go, if I felt that there was any interest or demand for it, certainly I would be willing to consult with the higher judiciary on the feasibility, on a pilot basis, of televising appellate proceedings of particular public interest so that the public could be better informed about the nature of the judicial process. We can think of many cases recently where there would be a very valuable educative effect potentially in that, for example the Siamese twins case, for example perhaps even the Pinochet case.

  47. I was going to mention that one.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes. Now then I think if that proposal was made, the pilot could not be broadcast because there is a statutory ban. But you could certainly pilot it and assess the quality of what the media did to see whether there would be any change. Now, of course, there would be some who would oppose that on the basis that it would be the thin end of the wedge and appellate proceedings would go first and that would feed an appetite for trial proceedings, but I hope that I have made it absolutely plain that a line in the sand has been firmly drawn as far as trial proceedings go.

  48. You have made a very powerful argument and one which it would be difficult, I would imagine, to counter about criminal cases. You mentioned the Pinochet case. Without going into the merit or otherwise of the case itself, I listened to some of the proceedings in the Lords and I could not for the life of me see what harm would come, as far as justice was concerned, if it was televised. So you are not closing the door by any means?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No, certainly. I intended to indicate that.

  49. Yes. Do you think that there is any possibility that, along the very limited lines that you have mentioned, we will see in the next five years such televising?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I doubt it if one is talking about televising and broadcasting but certainly I have not closed my mind, if there is demand and a request for it, to piloting the televising of appellate proceedings. I have to say, although I may be proved wrong, it is a matter for the media really to say whether this is something that they would be interested in. I think the principal media appetite obviously would be for trials because of their dramatic quality but if I was satisfied that there was a demand, if I was satisfied that we could set up pilots in appropriate places, I would discuss it with the higher judiciary and I do not set my face against it.

  50. Have the media actually approached you in any way to discuss it?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No.

  51. Not at all?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No.

Mr Stinchcombe

  52. Directly on this point. You have said that you have not set your face against certain kinds of televising of certain kinds of trial or appellate proceedings, at least. You are not going to promote it, but you will be willing to respond to media requests?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes. It is not an issue that is very high on a crowded agenda for me but what I am making absolutely plain is that if there is a demand for it, and there is a responsible proposal, I would look at it very carefully.

  53. That, therefore, amounts in some respects to an invitation to the media to approach you as to the kinds of proceedings, appellate proceedings, that they might wish to try and televise? You can then consult upon it?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) My door is always open.

  Mr Winnick: They can see your special adviser.

Mr Stinchcombe

  54. The appellate proceedings and those other proceedings which would involve pure points of law but would not necessarily involve witnesses might not be restricted to the very highest courts, the House of Lords and the Court of Appeal?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) No.

  55. It might be below that. For example, the High Court Divisional level on a case stated from the magistrates?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes. I used appellate proceedings because of their considerable public interest in particular cases but I could see that the same principle could apply to any case which simply involved legal argument, if you like, at whatever level between the judge and the lawyer in court.

  56. Or first instance judicial review?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) For example, yes.

Mr Linton

  57. Can I just say to start with, Lord Chancellor, you are being televised at the moment. I hope that is not influencing what you are saying.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am sorry you reminded me of that because it has made me more self-conscious.

  58. I am sure it does not. I just wanted to ask a question about information technology. We have a list here of the various pilot projects in information technology, on e-mail, on video conferencing, on websites. I am a little bit alarmed that the legal system finds it necessary to have a pilot project on the use of e-mail. Are you worried that it might not catch on?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think it is always wise really to pilot anything that is new. Since you cannot be doing everything all of the time, you want to be able to assess, I would have thought, wherever there is demand where the greatest demand is, it seems to me to make sense.

  59. To have a pilot project on e-mail in one county court implies that all the other county courts do not have it or will have it later. Is it not self-evident enough now that things like websites or video conferencing or e-mail are a part of normal business methods of any business and that it could be introduced everywhere at the same time?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) It seems to me that there are a whole range of future possibilities arising out of IT. You can have virtual hearings where parties resolve their disputes online. You can have electronic case files where parties can file documents in court. You can have streamlined administration of small claims. There is a whole range of things, all of which are set out in our document Modernising the Civil Courts. I know that you can say "Well, it is pretty obvious that this one is going to work" but I do not, for myself, object to piloting to test demand. My instinct is, of course, to agree with you. If it is good in one place you would infer that it would be good elsewhere.

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