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27 Oct 2003 : Column 47W—continued

CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS

Correspondence

Dr. Tonge: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs when he will reply to the letter of 15 August from the hon. Member for Richmond Park on the Judicial Trustees Act 1896. [133990]

Mr. Leslie: The Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor wrote to the hon. Member on 22 October 2003.

Defamation

Bob Spink: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what plans he has to reform the law on defamation to enable quicker and less costly resolution of claims. [133867]

Mr. Lammy: The Government have no plans for further reform of defamation procedure. The Defamation Act 1996 introduced procedures to enable quicker and less costly resolution of claims. The 'summary procedure' allows straightforward cases to be dealt with without a jury; damages are limited to £10,000. The 'offer to make amends' strongly encourages a claimant to avoid a jury trial on the level of damages where the defendant admits an innocent mistake. Both these procedures were brought into effect on 28 February 2000.

The number of defamation actions started has dropped from 452 in 1997 to 128 in 2002.

Departmental Establishment Costs

Mr. Syms: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what estimate he has made of the costs that will be incurred in the setting-up of his Department. [125041]

Mr. Lammy: Further to my answer to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), on 1 September 2003, Official Report, column 779W, the Department for Constitutional Affairs has incurred costs of £40,000 in changing the Department's name (covering email and website changes, stationery and signage). An estimated £412,000 has been incurred in respect of relocation from the House of Lords to Selborne House and all the consequential changes following on from this.

Immigration

Mr. Malins: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs how many immigration appeals were heard by the Immigration Appellate Authority in the last 12 months for which figures are available; how many of those were heard (a) within six months of and (b) over 12 months after the application was refused; and if he will make a statement. [134059]

Mr. Lammy: From the 1 October 2002 to the 30 September 2003 there have been 9,727 substantive Immigration hearings within the Immigration Appellate Authority. For the same period of time there have been 12,530 Family Visit Visa hearings (either oral or on

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papers). The Immigration Appellate Authority does not hold information on the length of time from the Immigration application being refused to a substantive appeal being heard.

Legal Aid

Huw Irranca-Davies: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what plans he has to increase the accountability of the Legal Services Commission for its decisions on the granting of legal aid. [133361]

Mr. Lammy: We have no plans to do so. Decisions on the granting of public funding (formerly legal aid) in civil cases are a matter for the Legal Services Commission (LSC), which is an independent body, free from political and Government influence in handling individual cases. Individuals denied funding by the LSC are entitled to have the decision reviewed by a funding review committee, an independent legal panel whose decisions on legal issues are binding on the LSC. Further, if a LSC funding decision is erroneous it may be challenged in court through judicial review.

Small Claims Courts

Vera Baird: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what the minimum fee for enforcing a judgment in the small claims court is; and whether the fees increase according to the value of the judgment. [134292]

Mr. Lammy: The fee for enforcing a judgment is dependent on the method of enforcement chosen by the litigant. Fees do not increase according to the value of the judgment or the amount to be enforced except for a warrant of execution, which is the most common form of enforcement. The current issue fee for a warrant not exceeding £125 is £30, for a warrant exceeding this amount it is £50. The current scale of fees for enforcing judgments is contained in the County Court Fees Order 1999 as amended and is shown as follows.

Enforcement


Vera Baird: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what the Secretary of State's policy is on non-adjudicating staff in the small claims court giving assistance to parties to actions there. [134293]

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Mr. Lammy: Court staff are not legally trained. They are, however, encouraged to be as helpful as possible to customers. They should not give legal advice or advise on procedures that are outside their normal jurisdiction. The distinction between legal and procedural advice can sometimes be very fine. Where the matter is difficult or complex, the distinction may not always be easy to grasp or to explain. In such circumstances, it is wholly proper that court staff should err on the side of caution and respectfully ask court users to seek legal advice.

Vera Baird: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what plans the Secretary of State has to reform the small claims court. [134301]

Mr. Lammy: As part of the Department's rolling programme of improvements to civil court procedures, a pilot exercise, from 8 July 2002 to 21 February 2003, was initiated in a number of county courts. The pilot examined whether it would be possible to allocate cases to the small claims track without the use of an allocation questionnaire. The pilot collected a considerable amount of information, which indicated areas where changes to procedures might be appropriate. The Civil Procedure Rule Committee will be considering procedural issues and the Court Service the operational issues.

Vera Baird: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what the minimum fee chargeable by the small claims court for issuing a claim is; and what the sliding scale of fees for claims of increasing value is. [134304]

Mr. Lammy: The minimum fee chargeable for a claim issued under the Small Claims procedure is £30. The current scale of fees for claims up to and including £5,000 is contained in the County Court Fees Order 1999 as amended and is shown as follows. The Order also makes provision for fees to be remitted in full or reduced where payment of the fee could cause financial hardship.

Commencement of proceedings


PRIME MINISTER

Biofuels

Mr. Hayes: To ask the Prime Minister which Government Department is responsible for the formulation of Government policy on biofuels. [134369]

The Prime Minister: This is a wide-ranging issue in which a number of Departments have an interest.

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The Department of Trade and Industry, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport work closely in promoting the Government's policy objectives for the increased use of biofuels.

As with all tax issues, responsibility for the fiscal regime on biofuels rests with HM Treasury.

Confidential Material

Norman Baker: To ask the Prime Minister what mechanism exists to regulate individuals who are neither Ministers or civil servants but who are invited to undertake tasks for him which involve access to confidential material. [134491]

The Prime Minister: Access to sensitive material requires the appropriate level of security clearance. The Official Secrets Act also applies.


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