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Small Claims Court

17. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What changes she plans to make to the jurisdiction of small claims courts. [61521]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): The Better Regulation Task Force in its report, "Better Routes to Redress", recommended that research should be carried out into the potential impact of raising the current small claims limit for personal injury cases of £1,000. Work is currently under way to renew all case claim limits.

Mr. Kidney: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for her reply. On the point of principle, does she accept the distinction between most other cases and housing disrepair and personal injuries? Does she agree with a wide range of organisations, including the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Law Society, Irwin
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Mitchell—a big law firm—and the TUC that those special cases require much lower jurisdiction so that people can claim their costs if they win their case?

Ms Harman: The point of principle is to make sure that there is as much access as possible to justice for people who suffer a wrong and require redress. That is the overarching principle, and we will hold discussions with the legal profession, trade unions, insurers, consumer groups and advice agencies. We will look at the work of Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs and the Civil Justice Council when considering the issue, and we will take people's views into account, including those of hon. Members.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Would not the most valuable improvement in the small claims court be to ensure that its judgments are more effectively enforced? On personal injuries, would it not be a little odd if we allowed a long set limit entirely to erode the opportunity for any small personal injury cases ever to go to the small claims court?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we will bear it in mind.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): May I amend Question 21, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Lady should ask Question 18.

Nia Griffith: May I amend Question 18, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must await a ministerial answer to Question 18 before asking a supplementary question.

Specialist Support Services

18. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): If she will reverse the decision to end funding for specialist support services. [61522]

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): On 22 March, the Legal Services Commission announced that it had reviewed its earlier decision to terminate those contracts and had informed providers that the contracts will continue.

Nia Griffith: I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I tabled the question before the decision was announced, which is why I wished to amend it. Can the Minister confirm that she will ensure that there is full consultation with all the relevant bodies, including the Welsh Assembly Government in the case of the Welsh specialist support service, and that she will announce the responses on the Floor of the House?

Ms Harman: The Legal Services Commission will have learned lessons from what happened and understood the points made by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend and her colleague from Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North
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(Julie Morgan), and the Select Committee. The aim is to ensure that people have as much expert high quality advice as early as possible to resolve legal disputes.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): We welcome with some relief the announcement by the Legal Services Commission of its intention to postpone its earlier decision. The Minister did not mention that the Government supported the Legal Services Commission in the ending of funding for specialist support services. However, with reference to the proposed review, is the Minister aware that the vast majority of affected lawyers do not want the cuts and believe that they will not save money but will create an even larger shortfall in provision, affecting primarily the poorer and most vulnerable in our society?

Ms Harman: I make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, the Legal Services Commission makes its own decisions about how it disburses money for the not-for-profit sector. It was a matter for the commission, which has revoked its earlier decision. We welcome that. Secondly, on support for the not-for-profit sector, before 1997, £11 million per year was spent in support for legal services in that sector. Now that figure is £78 million, so the hon. Gentleman is not right to try and give the impression that funding for that sector's provision of legal services has been cut. Quite the reverse is true.

Departmental Pay

19. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): If she will make a statement on levels of pay in her Department. [61523]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): The pay offered by the Department for Constitutional Affairs is generally competitive and enables us to employ staff with the skills that we need to provide good quality public services, while making the best use we can of the resources available.

Mr. Llwyd: I hear what the Minister says, but she will know that levels of pay for the third and fourth pay scales in her Department lag behind 6 per cent. and 14 per cent. respectively, compared with average pay in the civil service. What discussions has she had with the Treasury about harmonising pay with other Departments?

Bridget Prentice: We would all agree that pay discrepancies are undesirable. We inherited a variety of pay levels as a result of the creation of Her Majesty's Courts Service. We are holding a review of pay and structures throughout the Department, which I hope will address the issue.

Fine Defaulters

21. Mr. Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab): What further steps she plans to take to assist the courts in dealing with people who do not pay fines and who jump bail. [61525]
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The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): Implementation of the new enforcement framework under the Courts Act 2003 was completed yesterday. It includes measures to elicit prompt payment and severe sanctions for defaulters. From April 2007 the national enforcement service will build on current initiatives to strengthen enforcement of all court orders across the criminal justice system.

Mr. McFadden: I am sure the Minister will agree that her constituents and mine want a society with rules, and expect those rules to be enforced. How is it envisaged that the announcement about cracking down on those who evade paying fines will be implemented? Will she consider asking the courts to request more community service penalties where people do not have the financial ability to pay fines?

Ms Harman: It is important that there is a wider range of penalties for those who default. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that if a court makes an order, it is enforced. If people come to court as a victim or a witness and give evidence, and see a fine or a compensation order imposed which is never paid, that adds insult to injury. We must make sure that non-custodial orders are properly enforced. Then people will feel that justice is being done, without every offender having to be sent to prison.

Coal Health Claims (Solicitors' Fees)

22. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): When she last met the Law Society to discuss fees for solicitors involved in coal health claims; and if she will make a statement. [61526]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): The Government share my hon. Friend's concerns about solicitors double-charging successful claimants. I had a useful meeting with the chairs of the Law Society's regulation board and consumer complaints board on Thursday 23 March—last Thursday—to discuss the matter. The Law Society assured me that it views the matter very seriously and is doing all it can to take disciplinary action and to process claims for redress. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue to monitor progress on the issue with the Law Society.

Paddy Tipping: Claimants, backed by their MPs, are working with the Law Society to take up individual cases of redress. Rather than pursuing cases individually, will the Minister pursue the Law Society to take a more comprehensive approach so that we can learn lessons, so that firms can be audited and so that all claimants, rather than just individuals, can be compensated?

Bridget Prentice: My hon. Friend has made a good point. The Law Society has assured me that it, too, takes the matter very seriously. It is planning an advertising campaign using local media to alert those consumers who are entitled to the repayment of fees by their solicitors. I have discussed the issue of taking a more generic approach with the Law Society, which is examining the matter. I can also tell my hon. Friend that the Law Society has already referred 45 solicitors to the tribunal, although no cases have yet been heard.
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