HC Deb 08 June 1992 vol 209 cc14-6
33. Mr. Jacques Arnold

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what efforts his Department is making to reduce court waiting hours.

39. Mr. Mackinlay

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what action he proposes to reduce delay in civil litigation.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor)

The Government are currently implementing a programme of reforms in the civil courts designed to meet representations by the civil justice review for reducing delays and costs, promoting simplicity and accessibility, and updating procedures. A number of initiatives are also being taken, aimed at reducing delays and waiting times in the Crown court and the magistrates courts.

Mr. Arnold

I welcome my hon. Friend on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, especially as I understand that this is the first question answered in the House by the Lord Chancellor's Department and I wish him well in his programme of reforms to which he referred. What progress is being made on the situation in the courts in northern Kent?

Mr. Taylor

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, which are much appreciated. I will answer his supplementary question in the terms in which it was asked. Cases in the county courts in north Kent—at Dartford, Sittingbourne and Gravesend—are currently heard within 50 working days of being ready for trial at the Medway county court trial centre. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as an assiduous constituency Member, will be keeping an eye on that performance.

Mr. Mackinlay

Why does the Parliamentary Secretary ignore the repeated representations of the Law Society about the chronic delays in the county courts in London and the south-east? Is not the problem the fact that the Government failed properly to fund and resource the county courts following their increased jurisdiction as a result of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990? Is not the problem further aggravated by the fact that the Government have orchestrated a recession which has caused an enormous growth in debt collection and repossessions through the county courts, in turn leading to a great choking of the system?

Mr. Taylor

No, the answer and the remedy lie elsewhere, in following the recommendations of the civil justice review body. The key to the better dispatch of civil justice lies in matching the nature and weight of the case to the authority of the court to deal with it. There has been a great deal of decanting of court cases from the High Court to the county court and, in particular, to county court centres. The number of trials disposed of in county courts has risen from 9,000 in 1988 to more than 25,000 in 1991 while waiting times have been maintained at an average of 45 days.

Mr. Clappison

Does my hon. Friend agree that improving the administration of both civil and criminal justice is not just a question of increasing resources, which has taken place in the past 12 years with a huge increase in the number of circuit judges and so forth, but a question of setting performance targets for courts so that the public can know which courts are most successful?

Mr. Taylor

Certainly I agree with that. In the Crown court, it is necessary to improve the pre-trial dispatch of business to prevent, wherever possible, cracked trials. The future in the magistrates courts lies in best practice, in the Government's White Paper and in block listing so that everyone does not turn up at 10 am, which means that some people wait until the end of the day.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that if one does not provide litigants with legal aid as speedily and appropriately as possible, one builds up a backlog? Does he agree with the Lord Chancellor's circular that the way in which cases are banked up has delayed matters, just as the failure to grant expert witnesses and the failure to grant civil legal aid to most people have done? In all, there is no justice in this country because the Conservative party has sought to destroy the whole litigation system.

Mr. Taylor

That is a fairly sour mouthful to ask me to accept, and I do not accept it. I will say a little more about the circular later.