HC Deb 25 February 1997 vol 291 cc212-3

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. Order for Third Reading read.

7.47 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Gary Streeter)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill prepares the way for an important set of reforms which will serve the civil justice system well into the future. It enables us to introduce wide-reaching changes which will ensure greater access to justice for all. We will introduce measures to ensure that going to court is quicker, cheaper and simpler—measures that will create a system that is focused on the needs of litigants.

High on our agenda is the establishment of a new civil procedure rule committee. A great deal of work will be necessary to ensure that we can produce a new code of rules that meets the needs of modern litigants. We realise the importance of recruiting the best possible candidates to serve on the new committee, and will proceed to initiate the necessary appointments process so that the committee can be up and running within the next few months.

The establishment of the Civil Justice Council is important to ensure that all those with an interest in the civil justice system can play their part in the reform process. Clearly, the reforms that we are introducing will have a significant impact on, and pose new challenges for, all those involved in the system. The Civil Justice Council will enable all groups to co-operate in the development of the reforms and ensure that they are prepared for the changes. We are firmly committed to carrying forward the reforms in partnership with all other participants in the system, and the council will provide a key forum for that. Our intention is for the council to be established by the summer, and our plans will be set out shortly.

Lord Woolf presented us with a blueprint for a dynamic civil justice system. He has done an outstanding job and deserves the gratitude of us all. The Government are working up the details of how to achieve the blueprint. In particular, the procedures necessary to support judicial case management—on the fast track and the multi-trackand the new costs regime need to be introduced carefully. We recognise the importance of consultation on the detail of the new procedural systems needed to ensure that cases are heard fairly and efficiently. In the next few months, we will meet interested bodies to discuss the procedures and will publish consultation papers later in the year. Our reforms go hand in hand with our major reforms of legal aid, which were announced last year.

The Government remain fully committed to the October 1998 deadline for the introduction of the main aspects of the reforms, and the steps I have just outlined are a testament to that. A detailed plan of action has been drawn up to ensure that we keep on track. We are determined that our vision of a faster, cheaper and simpler civil justice system will be delivered.

The debates in the House and in the other place have shown that our reforms have support from all quarters of society. I thank all hon. Members for their support and help in the Bill's progress through the House, especially the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The Government have proven that we place the highest value on achieving access to justice for all, and creating a civil justice system of which we can continue to be proud and which will meet the needs of our citizens well into the 21st century.

7.52 pm
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

We have supported the Bill in the other place, on the Floor of the House and in Committee. It will provide a context for the implementation of subsequent reforms. We are indebted for all the work that has gone into preparing and improving the Bill.

We welcome especially the creation of a Civil Justice Council, which will be an advisory body. Its function will be to promote the aims of the civil justice system and review its operation and development. For the first time, provision will be made for an input from the consumer of legal services, who all too often is forgotten in the development of our justice system. We welcome the fact that that will change, as a result of an amendment supported by Lord Irvine of Lairg in the other place. The important and significant voice of the consumer will be heard on the Civil Justice Council.

As we give the Bill a Third Reading, we should remember that access to justice demands that those who use our court system are not burdened by excessive fees. Many Labour Members are concerned by the recent imposition of excessive fees which are designed to make the civil justice system self-financing, but which will exclude many from access to it. We condemn the imposition of those increased fees, because it runs counter to the Government's stated objectives in introducing the Bill.

Nevertheless, we broadly welcome the Bill, because it provides the context for subsequent reform. That reform should be subjected to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, because it is farcical to imagine that the reforms encapsulated in Lord Woolf's report, "Access to Justice Final Report", can be implemented without considerable cost to the Exchequer. The taxpayer will have to pay a price for implementation of the Woolf report. We have urged the Government to publish the figures and tell us how much implementation will cost, and we will continue to press them in the remaining weeks before the general election.

The Labour party welcomes the Bill, but we will review civil justice, including the legal aid system, as an early priority of the next Labour Government. Our priority is true access to justice; that cannot be achieved without a cost-benefit analysis, which is markedly lacking to date. With that warning to the Government, we welcome the Third Reading of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, without amendment.