New Clause 4 - Review into the Courts and Tribunals Service

Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 29 Ionawr 2013.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘The Lord Chancellor shall conduct a periodic review of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, including the Office of the Public Guardian, and the impact of section 16 and Schedules 9 to 11, including reports on its efficiency, cost, ease of access and user and practitioner satisfaction, and specifically the impact of court closures on court users and access to justice, and shall publish a report on the review to both Houses of Parliament.’.—(Jenny Chapman.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Llafur, Gŵyr

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 5—Information for court users—

‘The Secretary of State shall publish and consult on a strategy for the delivery of legal information, support and dispute resolution services to the public by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.’

Clause stand part.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

As noted previously, clause 16 deals with the establishment of a single county court and a single family court for England and Wales. As we have already discussed, the Opposition agree that the move to a structure of single courts is desirable. The proposed new clauses seek information following those developments and other recent changes to the courts system. We hope the Government will see the suggested new clauses as reasonable. They are about confidence, transparency and ease of access to the criminal justice system for the community.

With regard to proposed new clause 4, the former Lord Chancellor began his foreword to the Ministry of Justice’s response on county courts by stating:

“An effective justice system is the cornerstone of a civilised society.”

Who could argue with that? He rightly notes:

“It is the civil justice system upon which ordinary members of the public rely every day to resolve bread and butter issues that really matter to their lives…Without effective civil justice, businesses couldn’t trade, individuals couldn’t enforce their rights, and government couldn’t fulfil its duties.”

Louise Casey, the former Victims’ Commissioner, goes a bit further than that. She describes how confidence in the criminal justice system is essential, in effect to avoid people taking the law into their own hands. I wholeheartedly agree. We have seen cases in communities where particularly with violent offences, perhaps against children, retribution has been meted out locally. That is not something we want to encourage. However, some of that comes about because there is a lack of confidence in the criminal justice system. We have to accept that and work out how to improve the system so that we grow confidence in it.

New clause 4 would provide that the Lord Chancellor conduct a periodic review into the Courts and Tribunals Service, and the impact of the reforms in the Bill, as well as in other legislation such as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. We are calling for a periodic review; we are not being over-burdensome. We are not asking for an annual review. However, we believe a review would provide a helpful resource, without placing too heavy a burden of work on Ministry officials.

Areas we would like to see reviewed and reported on are efficiency, cost, ease of access, user and practitioner satisfaction and, specifically, the impact of court closures on court users and access to justice. There are serious concerns about that that have been previously been debated in the Chamber and the other place. I do not want to rerun all that, but there may well be an impact on access to justice due to court closures. Therefore, it is right to ask for that process to be monitored carefully over time. With some of the changes, there will not be a big bang with a massive instant impact. Some will take time to appear, and we think we need to review that so that we are aware of the impact of those changes, good or bad.

The new clause would provide that the Lord Chancellor shall publish a report on the review of those important matters to both Houses of Parliament.

Reporting on progress, reviewing the impact of change and putting in place safeguards to spot and stop problems in a service as vital as the Courts and Tribunals Service are understandable duties to have in place. Under the Bill and other recent legislation, the court system is going through what one Member in the other place described as a “seismic” change; I know that Ministers want to be reformers and leaders of change. If we have a seismic change, it can often be a good idea to have a little look at what the situation was like before and what it is afterwards, to see whether that change was a good idea after all.

If the system struggles—many people believe that it may well begin to struggle—or if unforeseen or, in the case of legal aid provisions, very much forewarned problems arise, severe detriment will result. That has already been described in the Government’s own consultation—the Government are aware of some of  the problems that could arise out of their decisions in this and earlier Bills. Their response to the consultation states that it is

“important that the system helps people to resolve their problems quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively.”

It is surely consistent with the Government’s aims to review the performance of the reformed service in terms of efficiency and cost and how well and how quickly it assists people with their problems. There are already practices in place to report on the performance of areas in the service, such as the annual report by the Office of the Public Guardian.

At a time of extensive change, when the theme is the joining up and efficient running of the service, it seems reasonable to ask that useful information be provided on the service as a single system, rather than just bits here and there. I spend a lot of my time trying to glean, as I am sure Ministers did when they were in opposition, and it would be useful to have a report from the Government on the whole system.

Problems often exacerbate each other, while successes can have a knock-on effect. It is a simple case, if we want to see an effective court system to serve our constituents, of keeping Parliament’s eyes on the matter. We hope that the Government will be pleased to keep their reforms under review. I know that they are proud of their reforms and I am sure that they would want to review them and demonstrate their success, but they must be willing to admit and deal with difficulties too, and not cease to look for further improvement. Our case is that it would be difficult to do that without collecting data and evidence over time.

In tabling the new clause, we want to draw particular notice to access to justice, which is a hot issue. It is about access in the physical sense as much as anything, and about access to legal help for litigants. If an effective justice system is the cornerstone of a civilised society, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) asserted, access to it is a vital counterweight.

In the previous Session of Parliament, access to justice was the subject of many important or even, as described by one Library note, “intense” debates. I was not part of the Justice team at the time of those debates, but I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) delayed Members well into the night, discussing the changes to legal aid. The issue is incredibly important to Members on both sides of the House. There have been a number of Back-Bench and Adjournment debates on the matter, so it is something in which hon. Members take a strong interest.

The issue concerns physical access, too. For many people, access to a local court at a reasonable distance is essential for their attendance. The programme of court closures, while properly seeking to reduce the cost of the court system, will affect the provision. It will make the process more difficult, and it will be important to assess the impact on access and the users of existing and planned closures. If the Government were confident that they were doing the right thing, they would welcome such a reported assessment.

As for access to justice for the person, the changes to legal aid introduced by the Government in the previous Session raised many specific worries. I come now to the  hon. Lady for Maidstone and the Weald (Mrs Grant), now a colleague of the Minister’s on the Justice Front Bench. We all welcomed her appointment as Under-Secretary of State. Tellingly, she, along with many other hon. Members, noted the worries that many people might not have the ability to represent themselves in court, nor would the courts have the resources to assist increased numbers of litigants. In light of the more troubling legal aid changes alongside the provisions under the clause, we believe that a review of the performance of HM Courts and Tribunals Service is a necessary and important service.

Access to justice and the availability of information and advice bring me to the second of our proposed new clauses, new clause 5, entitled “Information for court users”. It deals with the worry about the provision of information for those in need of navigating our rather perplexing court system. It requires that the Secretary of State shall

“publish and consult on a strategy for the delivery of legal information, support and dispute resolution services to the public by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.”

We have tried hard not to be too prescriptive, but it is important that we deal with information and advice for court users.

Many concerns have been expressed by several parties for many different reasons about access to information in the court system. It seems a small matter, but it is important. Citizens Advice, for example, reported a problem nationally of the lack of reception staff in courts. It says that in some cases it has lapsed completely and in other cases it has dropped to only two hours a day. Given the Government’s recent overhaul of legal aid and the approach to the provision of advice, many people who arrive at court on their own have to find their way to the court not knowing which way to go and turning up at the door unaided and uncertain. It is not too much to ask that there should be some accessible advice available in the system. Such a service is important to its efficiency, as well as to the experience of the users and the assurance of justice.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Llafur, Birmingham, Selly Oak 2:45, 29 Ionawr 2013

Without the provision that my hon. Friend is referring to, what will happen to the vulnerable person turning up in court, perhaps in a hotly contested custody case, who has explicit reasons for not being forced to meet the other party and who might already be supposed to be protected by the law in a segregated room? Who would be the contact to ask that such a provision is observed?

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

Again, my hon. Friend raises a huge issue. We know already that support at court for victims and witnesses of crime is not as good as we would like—far from it. We have all heard dreadful accounts of people being unsupported, perhaps sitting in a room with the perpetrator’s family prior to a case. That is concerning and we want to ensure that such incidents are kept to a minimum.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I fully accept and agree with the hon. Lady that supporting witnesses in criminal cases and separating the parties—for the reasons the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned—is vital. The criticism here is of the counter service at  county courts. There are always people, such as the ushers, who receive witnesses and parties arriving for a hearing, but I think I am right in saying that the recent criticism is of the counter service.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I think it is both. The experience is just not good enough from start to finish for too many people. The welcome that someone receives when they enter the building is important to how confident they feel through their proceedings. I know the Government want to improve that and get it right, and the new clause seeks to assist in that. There must be good information and advice for people, whether they be victims, witnesses or jurors, so that they understand the way of the system. We can never do too much to ensure that that happens in the best way possible.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend agree that getting that right will also help to improve efficiency and, therefore, the cost-effectiveness of our courts? Having seen first hand the difficulties—one might use the term “shambles”—of the organisational work at Stratford court on Monday because of some of those process issues, I was concerned that not only were victims getting a raw deal in terms of justice but court resources were going in all different directions; it was not the most effective use of resources. Some of the work will also be on cost-effectiveness and value for money in the court system.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work with survivors of domestic violence on their experience of the court service. We do not have much to be proud about. A lot has improved for survivors of domestic violence in recent years, but there is a huge amount of work still to do.

We know that the Ministry of Justice, to its credit, is explicitly and enthusiastically encouraging the use of alternative gateways to information. We have a digital strategy, which has been published, and a planned telephone gateway. We welcome all of that. If one uses the Department’s website to inquire after the Courts and Tribunals Service, one will find the service explained:

HM Courts and Tribunals Service aims to ensure that all citizens receive timely access to justice according to their different needs, whether as victims or witnesses of crime, defendants accused of crimes, consumers in debt, children at risk of harm, businesses involved in commercial disputes or as individuals asserting their employment rights or challenging the decisions of government bodies.”

All of that is to be applauded. Individuals, families, small business owners and consumers from each of our constituencies use those services, and they are assured by the Government of their right to timely access to justice. The amendment seeks to ensure that those people are provided with the support that is blatantly and reasonably necessary to understand the system. Citizens Advice and Members on both sides of the House are deeply concerned about the trials that face some users when navigating the court system unaided.

On timely access to justice, it is important that information is provided where it is most needed. Sometimes, when a person has witnessed a crime, they are given a fair bit of support as they make their statement and some information about what to expect at court, but when they turn up on the day expecting to be supported,  there is not a lot of support to be seen. The provision of resources, such as telephone and online information, is obviously welcome.

I come once again to the importance of review. A service must be judged on how it serves its users in practice. We might imagine that we have the most user-friendly service ever created, but unless the users of the service think the same we have not achieved what we set out to do. The service must be judged according to how its users perceive it. Will the Minister tell the Committee what procedures will be in place to review the provision of information that the Ministry of Justice has proposed? How do the Government intend to report on the efficiency and suitability of the different means used to provide it? I am hinting that not all means of accessing information and advice will be accessible to all users of our courts.

There is one further area where the importance of information should not be underestimated. This group was mentioned first and foremost in the list of those to whom Her Majesty’s courts owe their service: victims. The need for adequate information and support to be provided to victims during their involvement in court was strikingly and at times—I do not mind saying this—upsettingly described by the first victims commissioner, Louise Casey. I put on record my thanks to Louise for her excellent work in that role. In her work on the experiences of bereaved families in the court system, especially victims of homicide, she reported many things worthy of discussion and which can be improved.

Most importantly for the clause, Louise Casey reported a lack of information about what was happening with cases, and said that it was one of the most serious problems facing families. I see the Solicitor-General nodding, and I know he agrees. The lack of information about what to expect when in court and about the court system is a serious reality facing families. We know that lack of information is not just a problem in court and at sentencing. It is about understanding what on earth the sentence is and how long the offender is actually going to serve. The lack of information goes right down the line to parole hearings. Victims are often unaware that the perpetrator is being released and will be living in a street near them. It is a huge problem.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Ceidwadwyr, Enfield, Southgate

I have heard Louise Casey speaking over a number of years about this issue. She speaks of the need for relentless information. One of the best ways to do that in the modern age is online. A tracking system is available in some American states, including Florida. In 2002, the previous Government threw £11 million at the Crown Prosecution Service to do the same thing, but it was not able to deliver it. Culturally, there needs to be a wake-up to the fact that we must properly track cases. Online may be the best way.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am not familiar with the service in Florida, but it sounds like the sort of thing we should be aspiring to deliver for victims in this country. Recently, a constituent came to my surgery who had been assaulted by a former partner; he was once again living on her estate and she had not been informed. She was only  22 or 23 years old, and she had children. There was no way for her to track, or to find out that information. I thought that we had good services locally in that field, but there is clearly room for improvement, even in Darlington.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We need to aim much higher. The culture across the Courts and Tribunals Service does not put victims’ needs and experiences centrally enough. We say that again and again and we try to improve it, but we do not aim high enough. When there is something practical that we can do, such as improve information for court users, that is precisely what we should be doing.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Llafur, Birmingham, Selly Oak 3:00, 29 Ionawr 2013

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate makes a reasonable point about online information, but the point when people are feeling most vulnerable—when they are victims—may not be when they are best able to make use of that service. Although the Government recognise that victims have real needs and have in fact been quite thoughtful about that by giving police and crime commissioners responsibility for looking after them, is not the difficulty that we need some kind of corresponding champion in the courts, so that a person’s needs in that part of the system are similarly respected?

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree. It is pleasing that police and crime commissioners have a duty to consider the needs of victims, although we have yet to see how that will play out in terms of services. There is some concern as to quite how effective local services to victims—not the nationally commissioned services—will be, and what victims will make of them.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The new clauses are very much looking at the civil courts, but on the point about the criminal courts, the witness care units set up under the previous Government, which are continuing under this Government, are raising the bar. Certainly, a lot more support is going to witnesses than ever before, particularly in some of the cases where the victim is most vulnerable.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

Given the dire low base at which we started, the fact that we are doing better than we were 10 years ago, although welcome, is not cause for too much celebration.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I note what the Minister says, but one thing that perplexes me is that if we fund a system of independent advisers for victims of either domestic violence or sexual assault, why do we not involve them in the courts? When I have visited courts, I have been struck by the fact that the advisers often find out only a day or two before about the cases being heard. That makes it impossible for them to be able to support those people. Frankly, the witness care units ought to be working with advisers to ensure that vulnerable victims in particular are getting support and that advisers know who is coming to court on that day. Otherwise it is impossible for them to work.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

My hon. Friend makes her point extremely well and I have nothing at all to add to that observation, other than to agree.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

It is of course very early days for the sexual abuse referral centres that have been set up. The hon. Member for Walthamstow is absolutely right that proper co-ordination between SARCs and WCUs is necessary.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

It is a pleasure to act as a conduit between two hon. Members. However, our point remains: services are not nearly good enough and are a long, long way from being so. We will be on the Government’s case until we reach that happy place where we think that they are good enough. Actually, I do not think we ever get to that point in this area of work, do we?

Returning to Louise Casey’s report, she was quite clear that the “overall tendency” was for the criminal justice system to be “closed”. A third of respondents to her survey did not feel that anyone ran through with them how the trial would work or what to expect. That led to one family being so poorly prepared for trial that they first heard the details of their daughter’s murder, unexpectedly and in horrific detail, in the courtroom. Another bereaved victim who took part in the survey put it very succinctly:

“In my opinion all families in this situation need the following: 1) The Truth 2) Information 3) Support”.

Those should be simple things to provide. Things have changed, but the police and the courts system still have not got it right. That supports the points the Opposition have been trying to make, and if the Minister is candid and open with us, he cannot fail to agree.

Following her work on the issue, Louise Casey recommended a victims law, with which the Opposition agree. One of the central provisions of the victims law would be the right to information. Given that the Opposition agree with the victims law, it would be slightly odd if we did not push for the right to information on this occasion. The Labour party has accepted the recommendations, and we intend to ensure that information and support are given when they are most desperately needed.

The Government say that they want to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, and I do not doubt that intention, but it is somewhat difficult to be comforted by that assertion in light of their cuts to victim compensation, for example, or the decision to downgrade the role of the victims commissioner. We have already seen the importance of the victims commissioner in this debate. It has been changed from a full-time post to one of only 10 days a month. I have enormous respect for Helen Newlove—I am sure that she will do a tremendous job—but at face value the downgrading of the commissioner’s role is concerning. While we welcome her appointment, we put on record our disappointment at the lack of support and resources the Government have afforded her so far.

New clause 5 would allow for wide-ranging consideration and debate about the different types and hubs of information that should be made available to the wide spectrum of people who need to use the courts system. We see it as an opportunity to ensure that our constituents, be they victims, witnesses or other users of the courts system, are provided with what they need to navigate the system confidently and effectively, ensuring that timely access to justice is a reality.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Llafur, Walsall South

I want to add a few observations about the county court area, having served as a solicitor in many county courts across London and the rest of the country.

I start with the magistrates court. I welcome the Solicitor-General to his new post; I do not know whether this is his first Bill Committee since his appointment. Will he clarify whether his remarks on magistrates apply to stipendiary magistrates? I am assuming that they do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington mentioned county courts. As I said, I was a frequent visitor—as a lawyer, rather than as a litigant—so I have great fondness for them. Having also sat as a deputy district judge, I know that they are an underused resource and that justice can be seen to be done in those forums.

The explanatory note states that there are about 170 county courts, and there is nothing to assume that that is wrong, but will the Minister clarify whether there will be a programme of rationalising county courts over the next five years? Will we see some county courts being closed?

On the removal of jurisdiction, when a claim is issued from a certain area, does it follow where the person lives or where it arose? What will be the situation on jurisdiction when we have only one county court area? Will there be consequential changes to the civil procedure rules as a result? Clearly they will have to be amended. Has there been any discussion with the judges, particularly those in the county courts, of those points?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

I will start with clause stand part, which will not take long, and then I will go on to the more detailed points. Clause 16 overhauls the structure of the civil and family court system in England and Wales. It is not seismic like the other changes that the hon. Member for Darlington mentioned; it is an overhaul. It has been widely welcomed and it makes a difference to the administration and efficiency of the courts. Few, if any, individuals or businesses want to become involved in court proceedings, but if they do, they want a system that is accessible, efficient, effective, proportionate and resolves their dispute. It is with those principles in mind that clause 16 will establish a single county court and a single family court for England and Wales.

Through the single county court, court users will experience a more efficient, proportionate and speedier resolution of their disputes. While court users will continue to have access to local county court centres, they will benefit from a more responsive and consistent service based on modern technology and centralised administration systems that have been operating for many years in the private sector.

Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall South, at the moment, proceedings are issued in individual courts. If a case is to be heard anywhere else, it has to be transferred, and none of the administration can easily be done on a national basis. We want all cases to be heard appropriately in a court near home that suits the litigants, but regarding the overall administration of the system, bearing in mind that most cases are not contested, it makes a lot of sense to move to a national method of processing cases.

Quite a lot of work has been done on the matter in Salford, where there is now a money claims centre, which deals with money claims of up to £5,000 on a  national basis. At the moment the rules and administration are, as I have described them, clunky. Having a national court will remove those problems. Cases can be filed in the county court rather than local county courts, and administratively they can be dealt with on a national basis. We believe that will be much more effective. The change will not alter the experience of having a case heard locally.

The creation of a single family court will mean that a user can make an application to that court, rather than having to work out whether to make the application to a county court, a magistrates court or the High Court. Cases will then be allocated to the appropriate level of judge, depending on factors such as the type of case and its complexity. The flexibility that will create should benefit the court user, as early identification of the appropriate level of judiciary will help to minimise delays and unnecessary case transfers.

The single family court will provide a framework for the more efficient use of administrative and judicial resources. The effective listing and allocation of cases and the provision of management information are important ways of reducing delay and cost.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Llafur, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Before the Minister moves on, I may have misunderstood something, so will he clarify how the changes will work? There seems to be evidence at the moment that some solicitors, because of the clogged-up nature of city courts, are going to other areas—perhaps to out-of-town courts. Under the system that the Minister is proposing, will cases be distributed to courts after being centrally collected? What provision will be made to ensure that a person’s hearing takes place in an area that they can readily access?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The purpose of the allocation process is to find what level is required and then to place the case in a convenient location for the litigants. That is the aim.

At the moment, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, one court can end up being snowed under while another court nearby is not. Doing the obvious thing—having a case heard in the neighbouring court—is quite difficult, because courts are individual institutions, and one has to make an application to transfer. It is difficult to provide a simple convenience of that sort.

New clause 4 asks for a periodic review. When the Courts Act 2003 was debated, there was discussion of the need for the Lord Chancellor to make an annual report on an efficient and effective system to carry on the business of the courts. An annual report is required of him, in which he has to set out exactly what is happening with the courts. Clearly, if there is a change in the courts, as there is under the Bill, he will be expected to report on how it is bedding in. I ask the hon. Lady to consider whether it is necessary to impose another formal process on top of that in light of my second point, which is that the Government promised in their impact assessment that there will be post-legislative scrutiny of both the single county court and the single family court within five years of Royal Assent. That time lag will ensure the new arrangements have bedded in.

There are two duties. First, there is an annual report, which will have to address how the measure is working. If something is missed out and the hon. Lady wishes to take it up when the report is published, there are parliamentary processes by which she can do so. Secondly, there is the five-year review.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Llafur, Middlesbrough 3:15, 29 Ionawr 2013

Will the review cover the previous arrangements, which were on a national basis? Recent changes mean that proceedings are not issued in a local county court; they are issued in Salford county court and administered in Northampton, which has caused great confusion in the legal profession, as well as delays. Will the review consider how efficiently that arrangement has worked? My experience as a practitioner is that trials might be shifted at the last minute if a particular county court is overburdened and court staff are able to transfer trials to a neighbouring court, and in Middlesbrough that would either be Newcastle or Leeds.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly valid point. With the present system, as he rightly says, people are a bit confused, because having lodged a claim concerning matters in, say, Durham, they receive papers that refer to Northampton county court, Northampton processing centre, or whatever the current wording is. That is one of the reasons for the change to a national county court; obviously, there will be a processing centre in Salford for money claims. The process will be more transparent and understandable, and will also avoid a lot of the rules.

There are clusters of courts. Luton county court, for example, sits in other places, such as Stevenage magistrates court, from time to time. The hon. Gentleman is right that Luton may decide to transfer a case to Stevenage because that is still Luton county court, but when it wants to go to a nearby county court that is not part of the group, that is difficult. The measure means that cases may be allocated to sensible places without all the problems of procedure.

As well as post-legislative scrutiny after five years, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has a transparency agenda, and it routinely publishes performance data, including clear information on the effectiveness of court centres and on how long it takes to decide cases in the civil, family and criminal jurisdictions. All that information will be provided.

Additionally, a complaints analysis and feedback database collects information from courts and tribunals across the organisation; it captures information on the number of customer complaints received, the reason for the complaint, how quickly it was responded to and whether the issue was resolved. That is all collated and routinely reviewed by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. Clearly, if there were concerns about the roll-out, questions could be asked and information made available for consideration. The thrust of new clause 4 is absolutely right. We need to review such matters. However, I ask the hon. Lady to consider whether the four items that I outlined will cover them.

Information for court users is another important matter. The general view of the Courts and Tribunals Service is that it works better when customers are better informed, and the benefits of effective dispute resolution  need to be explained to people. One of the thrusts behind the legal aid proposals for the family court that were discussed earlier is the idea that more mediation, when legal aid is available, will be of benefit to families going through very difficult divorces and cases involving children. Hopefully, it will be possible to reach more agreements.

The process needs to be monitored carefully, because if it does not happen and there are many more self-represented parties, that needs to be known as quickly as possible. It is the Government’s policy intent that we shall have a more human, effective mediated system rather than having so many cases going to court with all the rancour and misery that can involve.

As for the Government’s digital platform, the GOV.UK website is the primary portal for information and guidance on all the Government’s services. Information was published last month. The Ministry of Justice will shortly publish its own digital strategy, which outlines that it will make use of GOV.UK. As part of that, the Ministry and its agencies will ensure that appropriate information and support is provided to assist the public to navigate its systems. There will be an online signposting service that explains how help can be obtained from the not-for-profit sector—CABs and the like—and there will be a primary access point for clients or organisations looking for assistance to resolve a problem. It will take people through the eligibility test for legal aid and direct people to the right source of assistance, if it is not available. The online service is scheduled to go live on 1 April this year.

Photo of Valerie Vaz Valerie Vaz Llafur, Walsall South

I appreciate what the Minister is saying, but in my experience people turned up at court at the last minute, just before the hearing. The Opposition are considering the information given to those people, and the access to justice and independent legal advice that people used to have. I had several cases when people lost their homes. The Law Society says that there are not that many housing lawyers now. Information immediately before the court hearing is needed. Along with that and the cuts in the services of CABs at particular courts, will the hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of an independent bureau at certain county courts?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

“Independent” is the key word. It is not right for the Courts Service to give legal advice. It can give advice about the forms and procedures, and hand out leaflets. It should have a proper service at courts, so that if a hearing is going ahead, people are received by the usher, and if the witnesses are vulnerable, arrangements will be made for them to be separated from people who they should not be near, and so on.

The hon. Lady is right. One of the key issues is signposting people to the citizens advice bureaux or other services that are available to give them help. That is something that we aim to achieve in three ways: telephone services, the online digital service and for people who need an appointment, the Department is looking carefully at what arrangements can be made for a person to have a face-to-face interview. For many people, a telephone and a digital service allows them to examine the information in their own time. It is available 24/7 and is quite a good system for most people.

In addition to the services that the Ministry of Justice is providing, the Department for Work and Pensions has a part to play. It has a web application called  “Sorting out separation,” which was launched in November last year. It is part of the Government’s help and support for separating families initiative, which was designed to co-ordinate expert support services to help parents and couples work together to achieve what is best for them and their children. It would be my hope that it would also give some fairly clear direction about what to expect from separation and the various steps involved. The Courts and Tribunals Service provides information on various dispute resolution avenues, and signposts customers to a whole range of information, not just through digital means, but in leaflets available centrally and from court buildings, libraries and the like.

I have a lot of sympathy for the points that the hon. Member for Darlington made, and I shall cover two or three of the additional points she raised—although I shall do it quickly, because I am told that I am trespassing on the good will of the Whip. As far as court closures are concerned, it is of course true that both this and the previous Government closed courts. I think most people would agree that the Courts and Tribunals Service is operating pretty successfully within its reduced estate. Currently, there is no plan for further reductions. If so, it would be an entirely separate exercise and there would be the usual consultation.

There has been considerable improvement in the performance of the Court of Protection and the Office of the Public Guardian, where there were backlogs. The hon. Lady can ask me more about that if she wishes. In terms of counter modernisation, there is a difference between the counter and the ushers. Steps are being taken to look at what are the right hours for the counter service and whether appointments might be a better way forward, but at the moment the service remains. That is probably enough to offer the hon. Lady the opportunity to withdraw her new clauses.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Llafur, Gŵyr

Order. There is no need for the hon. Lady to withdraw her new clauses at this stage. She has the opportunity to consider the Solicitor-General’s answer, and she will have the opportunity to proceed at a later stage, if she wishes. If she would like to make a contribution now, she is very welcome.

Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice)

I shall make a very brief contribution. I am grateful for the Chair’s guidance to the Minister on hurrying me to withdraw my new clauses. I am happy to withdraw new clause 4, but I reserve the opportunity to test the will of the Committee on new clause 5, which I understand can be done at a later time.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 9 agreed to.