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House of Lords

Wednesday, 15 February 2006.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham): the LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Courts: Costs

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will accept the recommendation of the Civil Justice Council in its response of 17 November 2005 to the Department for Constitutional Affairs for a fundamental review of the policy to charge litigants in the civil courts the total costs of running those courts less fee exemptions and remissions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, our policy remains that court fees should be set to reflect the cost of the service provided. It is right that, where they can afford to do so, litigants using the civil courts, rather than the taxpayer, should meet the cost. I am conducting a review of exemptions and remissions to ensure consistent operation and adequate protection for access to justice.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, it is common ground that the Civil Justice Council is there as a watchdog over the civil courts and that in the past the former Chief Justice and the Chief Justice before him have combined with the council and the Council of Judges to condemn the policy that has just been mentioned.

I should make it clear that this is not a frontal attack on the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, Dieu soit merci; it is a frontal attack on that most powerful member of the executive, the Revenue. The Revenue has decreed that full costs incurred in the civil courts should be recovered. It is what has been colloquially known as the cream of the office cat. Would your Lordships not agree that it is totally wrong and has been condemned on the basis that it interferes with that vital concept of access to justice? Will the noble Baroness say how she can fit the two in together?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the Civil Justice Council, with which I have had the pleasure of working closely. The concept of full cost recovery in one sense misleads us because the taxpayer makes a significant contribution—in 2004–05, nearly £104 million or about 23 per cent of the total costs involved. I repeat what I said at the beginning: we believe that the policy
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that we are pursuing is appropriate and correct and that it ensures, alongside the issues of remission, that those who need access to justice get it.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the consultation paper suggests that the cost of modernisation of the Court Service will be paid for, at least to a considerable degree, by fees? Is it right that today's litigant should pay for investment in IT and technology for the future?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, it is important that we consider the modernisation of our court system, including a fundamentally important part of that—the use of new technology. It is appropriate that, when looking at how best to fund that, we bear in mind not only the system that we have for the present but the system that we have for the future. In that sense, the measure is appropriate.

Lord Woolf: My Lords, would the Minister be kind enough to tell me whether fees will be put towards the costs of setting up the new Supreme Court? Is that being taken into account in the full cost recovery questions that she has considered? On this occasion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, did not do justice to the strength of the concern about the issue, which, I am sure the Minister will agree, is widespread among the judiciary, as he omitted to mention that my successor is equally concerned about costs.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, issues to do with the Supreme Court have been debated in your Lordships' House, and I will write to the noble and learned Lord to set out precisely the basis for the funding for the court. The noble and learned Lord will know well—he has been involved in it—the importance of making sure that we have that fully covered.

My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and I are well aware of the strength of feeling in the judiciary. We listened carefully during the consultation and made changes as a consequence of some of the representations that were made to us. We are a listening government and a listening department.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, no one has made reference to the fact that the provision of a civil litigation system is in the public interest, as it provides a civilised way of effectively dealing with disputes. It goes beyond the ordinary question of what the litigant gains; the public make a substantial gain. Accordingly, there should be a contribution from general taxation, and costs should not be left solely to the litigant to cover, particularly as some of the cases are decided for the general benefit and good of society.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I indicated in my earlier response, the taxpayer makes a significant contribution. In 2004–05, the taxpayer paid 23 per cent of the cost; I agree in that respect with the noble and learned Lord. I also agree that it is important that we make sure that people have access
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to justice. Hence, as I indicated, I am looking at exemptions and remissions to ensure that we have got that right for those who need that additional support.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, bearing in mind the Minister's reply to the noble and learned Lord, do the Government have a standard, benchmark percentage of the total cost of the civil courts that it is deemed appropriate for litigants to pay? How do the Government arrive at what is a reasonable balance?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am conscious of time. The Government look carefully at how we bring together all our work in the civil courts. The noble Lord will know that a great deal has gone on in recent times to look at the modernisation of the estates to ensure that we support our judiciary appropriately and that we approach all those seeking justice in the right manner. I will write to the noble Lord and set out some of the detail, as I do not wish to take your Lordships' time at this point.

EU: Turkish Accession

3.08 pm

Lord Dykes asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they next plan to hold discussions with the European Commission on the opening by the Austrian presidency of preliminary chapters in the long-term negotiations for Turkish accession to the European Union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, the Commission presented its first screening report on the science and research chapter to member states on 7 February. Discussions are ongoing with our EU partners and the Commission, and we hope that it will be possible to open the first chapter during the Austrian presidency. Throughout negotiations, the United Kingdom will seek to ensure that Turkey is treated on its own merits just as any other candidate would be.

Lord Dykes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Obviously, it would be a fantastic geopolitical, humanitarian, international and cultural achievement if Turkey were to become a member of the European Union. Although they are long-term negotiations, will the negotiators be able to cope equally with the fantastic economic and social challenges posed by a nation of 85 million by 2016 and all the attendant adjustments to the budget, with massive additional budget support presumably being necessary by that stage?

Lord Triesman: My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, it is an onerous task, and we are pressing at all stages to ensure that Turkey takes the appropriate steps in its economy, human rights record and other
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areas to meet the full conditions, chapter by chapter, of the acquis. However difficult it is, we will do it carefully, and my expectation, as is the noble Lord's, is of a successful outcome of the process.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, there is consensus in this country, if not in France and Germany, in favour of Turkish accession if Turkey meets the appropriate conditions. There have been some disquieting features in respect of human rights in recent months—perhaps my noble friend will comment on that—and equally in respect of Cyprus. What movement has there been on Turkey having a more positive view towards the problem of Cyprus?

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