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Domestic Violence

21. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the availability of legal aid in domestic violence cases. [214424]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): Domestic violence proceedings are a priority area for legal aid funding. That is reflected in the Legal Services Commission's funding code criteria, which now allow domestic violence cases to be funded very widely.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that in Cardiff three years ago more than 50 per cent. of known victims of domestic violence refused to make a complaint? Last year, the figure was down to 14 per cent. Does he agree that that shows an increased confidence in the judicial system, and that it is also the result of good inter-agency working? With that big increase in women taking cases to court, can he reassure me that enough legal aid will be provided?

Mr. Lammy: I know that my hon. Friend has continued to take up these issues not only in her constituency, but nationally. I am pleased that we have been able to put victims of domestic violence at the heart of the criminal justice system with the new Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004. We have seen a steady increase from 2001, when we were spending about £44 million in this area of law, to the last financial year, in which the amount was £56 million.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): According to the Law Society, managing legal aid expenditure as a single budget has meant that overspends on criminal legal aid have been met by cutting civil legal aid, while poor forecasting of demands on the criminal legal aid budget has led to erosion of the civil legal aid budget. That is an ongoing problem. Do the Government now intend to get a grip on this failure of management?

Mr. Lammy: What the Government are not doing is what the Opposition propose in the James review—scrapping community legal service partnerships and the money going to our citizens advice bureaux and law centres. We are not doing that, but we are sitting down with the professions in a fundamental legal aid review.
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We are sitting down with the Crown Prosecution Service and looking at processes in our criminal justice system to ensure that they are not driving up costs. As we are proud on this side of the House of the advice that people get in our local communities, and particularly our civil legal aid, we are going to protect it.

Magistrates/Police/Community Liaison

22. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals to improve the contact between magistrates and the police and communities they serve; and if he will make a statement. [214425]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): It is the Government's view that the criminal justice system can be better connected with the wider community without adversely jeopardising the integrity of law enforcement or judicial independence. Early returns of the recent questionnaire sent to all magistrates suggest that they, too, are keen to see a greater dialogue with neighbourhood groups, local schools and the local media in order to broaden the understanding of key community concerns.

Mr. Allen: What on earth is the National Criminal Justice Board doing about all this? People tell me—I do not believe them—that it is a bunch of lawyers talking about esoteric points of law. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the board understands that the criminal justice system belongs to the people whom it is meant to serve, not to a few professionals? Will he ensure that, rather than the odd public meeting here and there, there is a systematic effort by the board to ensure that every tenants association, neighbourhood watch scheme and community is intimately involved in the development of the criminal justice system and understands it?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend is right that the law does not belong to lawyers. Occasionally, we need to bring together officials from the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts administration, including the judiciary, the police, the probation service and the Prison Service to allow them to iron out the differences between their departments and work smoothly together as a team. I hope that those partnerships will mean better local engagement with neighbourhood organisations and tenants associations such as neighbourhood watch, and I know that local criminal justice boards intend to do that as soon as possible.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The proximity of courts to police stations, custody suites and the community is important. I have just received a draft business plan from Her Majesty's Court Service Avon and Somerset, which, unsurprisingly, has a purpose, a vision and an aim. Part of its purpose is to focus on the public; part of its vision is an empowered local service; and part of its aim is being local and accountable. Rather disappointingly, however, it proposes to resurrect the dreary plans to close courthouses in Frome and Wells. When will local accountability mean keeping local courts open?
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Mr. Leslie: Far fewer courthouses have closed in the past year than under previous Administrations. Given that there are so many courthouses, however, from time to time local magistrates committees recommend amalgamations, or consolidation of buildings. From this April, the new unification of the courts administration will provide opportunities to set up new magistrates facilities, perhaps in towns that have a civil court only—there are swings and roundabouts. I will re-examine the programme in Somerset highlighted by the hon. Gentleman and form a view.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that civil action is sometimes an effective way in which to deal with antisocial behaviour? Are county courts encouraged to help local crime prevention partnerships in the same way as magistrates courts by, for instance, fast-tracking cases to evict antisocial tenants who allow people to deal drugs on their premises? Such civil action is often more effective than criminal proceedings in promptly removing a problem from a problem estate.

Mr. Leslie: We must ensure that our civil and criminal courts work together more closely, particularly on antisocial behaviour. Local residents find it baffling if technical obstacles in the courts system make them feel that proceedings are moving too slowly. We have set up a series of new antisocial behaviour response courts, which include properly trained legal advisers and better specialist prosecutors to allow us to proceed more speedily with antisocial behaviour cases.

New Courthouse (Colchester)

23. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On what date he expects a full planning application to be made for a new courthouse in Colchester; when he expects construction to commence; and what the scheduled opening date is. [214426]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Unfortunately, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the specific construction schedule, because my Department is still finalising our investment plans for the Essex courts scheme.

Bob Russell: The Minister knows that I have raised the question of Colchester courthouse on numerous occasions. As I have pointed out previously, we have waited for a decision for longer than the duration of the second world war. May I put a deal to the Minister? If he will promise to announce a commencement date within six months, I will promise not to ask any more questions for six months.

Mr. Leslie: I enjoy the hon. Gentleman's questions so much that it is tempting not to give him a date so that we can continue this dialogue. I understand his tenacious attempt to secure early completion, but lots of other schemes across the rest of the country are also priorities. The pot of money is finite, and I am trying my best to ensure that we get a good spread of new build and refurbished magistrates courts as soon as possible.
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Magistrates Courts (West Midlands)

24. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): How many magistrates courts there are in the west midlands region. [214428]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): There are currently 12 magistrates courts within the west midlands magistrates courts committee area.

Mr. Cunningham: What training is given to magistrates to deal with cases such as domestic violence and child abuse?

Mr. Leslie: The independent judicial studies board is responsible for training the judiciary. It also helps magistrate courts committees to give extra training sessions to local magistrates through the local bench. From April, that system will change, but the judicial studies board will undertake some of the training, funded by the taxpayer. I will try to give my hon. Friend some more information about the specifics of domestic violence case training, which is obviously a priority for all hon. Members.

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