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7 Sept 2004 : Column 1049W—continued

Essex Magistrates Court

27. Bob Russell: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs if he will make a statement on progress with the allocation of resources to the private finance initiative for Essex magistrates courts. [187665]


 
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Mr. Leslie: Revised Investment Plans following the summer Spending Review will be concluded in November, but under present plans the new courthouse scheme for Colchester and Essex remains on course for construction over the next few years.

Postal Ballots

28. David Taylor: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what assessment has been made of the all-postal vote electoral pilots in the east midlands up to and on 10 June. [187666]

Mr. Leslie: The Electoral Commission's report on the June all-postal voting pilots was published on 27 August, which included a specific review of the experience in the East Midlands. The Government are currently considering these reports.

Court Efficiency

29. Dr. Cable: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs if he will make a statement on progress with improving the efficiency of the courts. [187667]

Mr. Leslie: Her Majesty's Court Service (HMCS) will be established in April 2005 and will bring together the current Court Service and the 42 Magistrates Courts Committees in a single organisation. This will enable us to make the delivery of justice across the criminal, civil and family jurisdictions more efficient on a national scale and geared more closely to the needs of the local community and court users.

Asbestos (Compensation)

Mr. Dismore: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs if he will propose changes to the law on compensation for asbestos injury victims bringing claims against uninsured defendants to enable them to receive interim payments; and if he will make a statement. [186484R]

Mr. Leslie: Rule 25.7(2) of the Civil Procedure Rules currently prevents a court from making an interim payment order against an uninsured defendant. At the request of the Civil Procedure Rule Committee, the Government are seeking views on the operation of this Rule from interested parties, with a view to the issue receiving further consideration by the Rule Committee.

Bereavement Damages

Mr. Dismore: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what plans he has to review the level of bereavement damages; and if he will make a statement. [186494R]

Mr. Leslie: The level of bereavement damages was increased from £7,500 to £10,000 with effect from 1 April 2002, to account for inflation since the previous revision in 1991. The Government are currently considering how best to provide for further increases in future.

CAFCASS

Mrs. May: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs how many
 
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Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officers are in post; and how many posts are vacant. [186992]

Margaret Hodge: I have been asked to reply.

As at 30 June 2004, there were 1,304 officers (practitioners) in post (not including the self-employed). The current number of vacancies for officers (practitioners) stands at 39.

Mrs. May: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs how many reports were drafted by (a) the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and (b) predecessor bodies in each of the last five years. [186993]

Margaret Hodge: I have been asked to reply.

Statistics are not available for the period before CAFCASS was established in 2001 as the work was carried out by a range of organisations and authorities, some of which, for example the Probation Service, no longer exist in their previous form. Figures from CAFCASS show numbers of requests for private law reports resulting in written reports:
Requests for private law reports
2001–02 (October 2001 to March 2002)17,352
2002–0335,074
2003–0433,803
2004–05 (April to May only)5,175
Total number of requests April 2001 to date91,404

Mrs. May: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what the average length of time taken to draft a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service report has been. [186999]

Margaret Hodge: I have been asked to reply.

There is no 'average length of time' taken by CAFCASS officers to draft reports. However, the number of weeks required to draft a private law report ranges from 10–18 weeks. The length of time may vary from region to region, and also on the scale of officers' workloads and the complexity of individual cases. CAFCASS officers will often seek to agree these times with the courts, on a case-by-case basis.

In Public Law, the Protocol for Judicial Case Management in Public Law Children Act Cases standard is that cases are to be completed by the courts within 40 weeks, though some of these cases can take a year or more. The drafting of reports in these Public Law cases will be undertaken during part of this period.

Child Contact

Mr. Edwards: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what plans he has to take steps to give grandparents a legal presumption of contact with grandchildren that can be enforced by the courts, save where a child's safety would be at risk. [187009]

Margaret Hodge: I have been asked to reply.
 
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The Government have no plans to give grandparents a legal presumption of contact. The Children Act 1989 makes clear that the welfare of the child is the paramount consideration in any proceedings relating to the upbringing of a child.. The Government believe that this principle should be sustained, without qualification, in order that there continues to be the clearest possible focus on the needs of children.

The Government recognise and value the important role which grandparents can play in children's lives. Many grandparents are already involved with the care of their grandchildren and most children see their grandparents as important figures in their lives. However, the primary responsibility for bringing up children in most families lies with their parents and there may be cases where parents prefer to limit contact with grandparents.

Under the Children Act 1989, grandparents may, provided that the permission of the court is obtained, apply to the court for an order granting contact with a grandchild. The requirement for the court's permission is not designed to be an obstacle to grandparents but to act as an initial filter to sift out prejudiced applications that are unlikely to succeed. Experience suggests that grandparents would not usually experience difficulty in obtaining permission where their application is motivated by a genuine concern for the child.

The Government are aware there is considerable concern about how court ordered contact arrangements can be supported more effectively. Our consultation document, "Parental separation: Children's Needs and Parents' Responsibilities", published in July, outlines how the Government propose better to support families who are going through separation. It details a range of measures, including better information for parents, parenting plans to help parents make good arrangements, in-court conciliation and mediation for those parents who do go to court, active judicial management and stronger powers for judges to enforce court orders.

Civil Legal Aid

Mr. Grieve: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs what assessment he has made of the impact of high property values in the South East on the eligibility of people of low income who are home owners for civil legal aid. [187010]

Mr. Leslie: The Legal Service Commission is currently consulting on proposed changes to financial eligibility for civil legal aid, including replacing the current £100,000 equity disregard with exemptions targeted on those with the lowest incomes, particularly pensioners and the disabled. During the consultation period (which closes on 15 October 2004), the Commission's research centre is undertaking a means survey of legal aid applicants which will provide further data on housing equity. The results of this research and the wider public consultation will be analysed before we announce the way forward.


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