Shailesh Vara backs the Second Reading of the Prisons and Courts Bill

20th March 2017

Shailesh Vara backs the Second Reading of the Prisons and Courts Bill which puts the user centre-stage and opens up different ways of accessing justice. 

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who had a distinguished ministerial career and speaks with considerable authority when he speaks in this House. I also refer Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in which it is stated that I am a non-practising solicitor.

I welcome the Bill. I firmly believe that we have one of the finest, if not the finest, legal systems in the world, and the measures in this Bill will ensure that we can maintain our pre-eminent position in the global legal system.

I shall begin by making some comments on the court reform proposals. It is important to recognise that when we talk about access to justice we do not mean access to, and being in, a physical building called a court. I had that argument with many colleagues when I was the Minister in charge of courts and had to convey the bad news that many courts were to close—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) had to do likewise a few years beforehand. Effectively, this Bill fulfils what we said then—that there are different ways of accessing justice and courts.

I always remember what an African Justice Minister once said to me. He said that he wanted a justice system in his country whereby the people living in the villages outside the capital city could access justice through their smartphones. The world is moving on, and it is good to see that we are keeping pace with the technology that goes with that.

I particularly welcome parts 2 and 4 of the Bill, which deal with the court reform measures. In the past, the legal system has concentrated rather too much on process and procedure, but I am very pleased that this Bill puts the court user centre-stage and ensures that we have a system that is good for them. The changes will mean that the public who use the courts will not necessarily have to spend huge amounts of time and huge cost, or indeed have to spend their time physically waiting and hanging around in a court.

The Bill provides for court dealings to be carried out by audio and video links, and to have virtual hearings, where no parties are present in a courtroom, but instead attend by telephone or through video-conferencing facilities. The provision for evidence to be given by video links is good for victims and witnesses, particularly vulnerable witnesses, and it has to be right that prisoners can give video evidence while staying in prison, rather than expending the time, effort and cost of transporting them to and from courts—which, incidentally, often leads to delays when they get caught up in traffic delays. This modern way of using video-conferencing facilities also means that witnesses can easily give evidence when overseas, and that lawyers do not have to hang around outside the courtroom waiting forever and a day until they get their 10 minutes before the judge, for instance for a bail application. The barristers and judges can now stay in their chambers and the solicitors in their offices, and they can simply book a time when they can all speak and have their 10-minute conversation and the bail application can go through.

The Bill proposes that where there are low-level offences—and the majority of offences are low level—and offenders are charged with summary-only, non-imprisonable offences, such as fare evasion or not having a TV licence, and where there is a guilty plea, they can be convicted and given standard penalties by use of an online procedure. Effectively, this means that people have the luxury of being able to use their smartphones from their sitting rooms to get access to justice. Of course, it is important to recognise that for people who plead not guilty the majesty of the court remains; they can have their court cases in the usual way.

I welcome the proposal that in civil cases for claims up to £25,000 there will be simple online hearings, although it is important to recognise that some of those cases might need to go offline and to follow the usual process. I am pleased that the Bill provides for that, and I very much hope that, despite the surge towards technological advances, we keep that option, and that where, for whatever reason, a case needs to be dealt with in the usual way, that will be done. We also at present have very complex forms full of legal language that are very difficult for the lay person to deal with. I hope that as we use new forms and go online, the justice system will take the opportunity to make those forms easier and far more user-friendly.

I also hope that the Minister will recognise that not everyone uses modern technology. Some people cannot use it—for example the elderly or some people who are disabled. I hope the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that those people will retain the opportunity to speak by phone to a person or indeed have a meeting, as is necessary, because otherwise we will be denying some people access to justice. I also urge the Minister to ensure that the technological advances that we employ are not rendered redundant very soon. Advances in technology are so fast that millions of pounds can be spent on a system that becomes outdated in a year or two. I hope he will ensure that his civil servants try to introduce a technological system that allows for easy adaptation to more modern systems as and when they arise, and at a cheap cost.

Part 4, along with schedule 15, deals with the judiciary and the Judicial Appointments Commission, and there are various references to senior judicial appointments. I wish to make a general point on appointments. To be absolutely clear, I believe, as I think do most people, that all judicial appointments should be made on merit. That is crucial, but that being said, it is also fair to say that we still need to make serious advances in the numbers of women, disabled people, people from ethnic minorities and people from a variety of backgrounds who hold senior judicial positions. I hope that the Ministry of Justice, the judiciary and the JAC will ensure that we continue to have a judicial system that is reflective of the country at large.

Sadly, there are still people who believe that the old boy network is the way for people to get promoted to senior levels. For them, it is about whether someone belongs to the right dining club or golf club, and whether they went to the right school and university. Some people simply do not put their names forward for senior positions for that reason. Of course advances have been made, and I hope that we will continue to persuade good candidates to put themselves forward even if they believe that they will not get through because of the old boy network.

I particularly welcome clause 21, which will allow public communications providers to block the use of unauthorised mobile phones in prisons. Frankly, it is absurd that this has not been done earlier; it is high time that it was done. I also welcome the provisions in clause 22, which will allow more powers to test for psychoactive substances in prisons, so that prison authorities will be able to respond more quickly to new drugs.

People are sent to prison because they have to be punished, but we all recognise the importance of a regime of education and training to enable those individuals to play a useful role in society when they come out. We rightly talk about education and training, but we should talk just as much about the health of those prisoners, and particularly about their mental health. Colleagues on both sides of the House have made reference to mental illness, and I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that he will look into that issue and ensure that people in prison suffering from mental illnesses and who are genuinely unwell get the treatment they require. I welcome the Bill, and I am particularly pleased that—notwithstanding our differences across the political divide—we agree on a great deal. I wish the Bill well as it progresses through to receiving Royal Assent.

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Earlier interventions in the same debate
 

Lord Thomas certainly said that, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Lord Thomas also supports all the Bill’s measures on reforming the courts, particularly on using technology to allow the access to courts that so many people were saying was going to be denied. Lord Thomas supports all the measures.

 

I made it clear at the outset of my speech that we will not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. We welcome a number of the Bill’s measures, but the Government should go further. I hope that the Secretary of State will agree that reform should not come at the expense of access to justice, and if Lord Thomas, whom we all hold in high esteem, is saying that our system of justice has become unaffordable to most, both sides of the House must take that seriously.

 

...

The shadow Minister’s tone suggests that he agrees with much of the Bill—that is welcome—but how does he explain the fact that while the number of accidents is going down enormously, the number of whiplash claims has nevertheless increased by 50%? Does that have something to do with fraud?

 

The number of whiplash claims in recent years has reduced—[Interruption.] In recent years it has. I should also point out that there is a duty upon insurers to defend claims and not to pay out when claims are fraudulent.