HC Deb 30 January 1997 vol 289 cc543-67

Order for Second Reading read.

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

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

The British legal system has a history of which we can and should be proud. British justice is renowned the world over. Fundamental to its success has been the ability of our legal system to adapt to changing requirements. It has evolved over many centuries, responding to new problems, new situations and new challenges. The civil justice reforms on which the Government are now embarking represent a further step in that evolutionary process. We are responding to the challenges thrown up by modern society; more than that, we are laying the foundations for the system of justice that will enable it to meet the challenges of the future.

In 1994, the Lord Chancellor commissioned Lord Woolf to conduct an inquiry into the rules and procedures of the civil courts. The Government recognised that fundamental changes were required to combat the persistent problems of procedural complexity, undue delays and high costs in our courts. In July last year, Lord Woolf presented his final report, offering a body of recommendations designed to meet the continual challenge of access to justice. Those recommendations form the basis of the Government's reform package.

The reforms of the civil justice system go hand in hand with our reforms of the legal aid system. These reforms will enable us to get better control over legal aid spending, and to target resources more effectively on those who need them most. With the reforms, we shall be able to make limited resources stretch further, and enable more people to get help with their legal problems.

The central messages underlying the reforms launched by the Bill are that civil litigation must become faster, cheaper and simpler. By "faster", we mean that it is our aim that, once cases enter the litigation process, they should proceed along managed tracks to specified deadlines that are adhered to by all parties. We also mean that procedures should be in place to ensure that the real issues of a case are brought out into the open from the outset. By "cheaper", we mean that the cost of litigation, both to individual litigants and to the public generally, must be reduced. It cannot be right that—as is true of too many cases in our system—the costs of taking or pursuing an action exceed the award made. Procedures must be proportionate to the claim.

By "simpler", we mean that litigants should be in a position to know in advance how much a court case is likely to cost and how long it is likely to take. That must be supported by effective sanctions to ensure that the timetables and cost limits are met in all but the most exceptional cases. The civil justice system and all those involved in it must respond to the needs of litigants, not the other way around.

The Bill represents the opening shot in our war against delay, excessive costs and bureaucracy in the civil justice system. It provides the framework to ensure that litigation is streamlined, efficient and properly focused on the needs of litigants.

The key to the reforms is the emphasis placed on the court's proper role in encouraging fair settlement, efficient case management of contested cases and a greater sense of proportion in the resources involved in the litigation process. Judicial case management will empower the courts to take greater responsibility for each case in the system. Courts will have more power to make decisions on how cases should proceed, to flush out the central issues at an early stage, to encourage settlement and to minimise costly and time-wasting delay. Case management will be supported by well-defined litigation "tracks" that will ensure that the appropriate level of court control is used to manage cases, and in the fast track by a new fixed-costs regime that will reward efficiency.

In addition, it is proposed that protocols will be developed to promote good practice among litigants and their advisers both before and during the litigation process. Coupled with the greater emphasis on alternative dispute resolution, it is intended to foster an atmosphere in which litigation is truly seen as the last resort.

To support these proposals, and to ensure that the civil justice system is truly accessible, it is our aim that procedures should be simple and easily comprehensible. The new procedures introduced under the reforms must be easily understood by all. Just as important, the new rules of court must facilitate such understanding. There has been a great measure of support for the simpler approach adopted in the new-look rules which accompanied Lord Woolf's final report. They have been drafted in clear English with a view to being comprehensible to a wider audience, not just to qualified lawyers.

The reforms represent a challenging task for the courts. The judiciary, and the court staff who support them, will have to learn new techniques; they will have to adopt a far more proactive approach, and take far more responsibility for ensuring that cases progress as quickly and as efficiently as possible. To support this new role, a comprehensive training programme for the judiciary is being embarked on. New computer systems are also being developed to ensure that technical support is available. We will ensure that the resources necessary to achieve those aims will be in place.

However, the reforms do not just represent a challenge to the judiciary or the courts. They demand at least as great a change in the current practices of the legal professions. If lawyers are to meet the demands of the courts, they must ensure that their practices are capable of delivering the goods. The reforms envisage efficient, proactive and flexible lawyers, making the most of modern technology. As Lord Woolf recognised, his recommendations require a change in culture among all the players in the system.

I am encouraged by the response of many lawyers, solicitors and barristers alike, to the challenges with which we have presented them. Many firms are now setting in place new systems to enable them to plan their cases effectively, to allow them to budget properly and to ensure that they are in full control of their case loads. The professions as a whole must follow suit if they are to ensure that they can meet the expectations of their clients in the new litigation landscape.

Lord Woolf was assisted by a group of dedicated assessors, by the participation of a wide variety of organisations in various working groups and by the involvement of countless others in seminars, workshops and other discussions. I pay a warm tribute to all who have contributed. It is surely that inclusive approach that has secured such widespread support for the proposed reforms. The Government intend to proceed with the Bill's implementation in that vein.

The Lord Chancellor set out his plans for the implementation of the civil justice reforms in his strategy document "The Way Forward", which was published last October. It makes clear his commitment to the reforms and sets October 1998 as the target date for implementation of their central elements. The key changes that will be in place by October 1998 are the introduction of the fast track and the multi-track.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

In the context of what he has been saying, will the Minister give an assurance that the Lord Chancellor's Department will ensure that the court staff who are needed to deal with the extra work that will go through county court offices will be employed, so that we will not face delays caused by staff shortages in those offices? They are very short-staffed in some regions.

Mr. Streeter

It is certainly our intention to resource the alterations to the system properly. We will ensure that people are adequately trained, that the most modern and appropriate technology is in place, and of course that the appropriate number of staff are available to ensure that this system, which is all about speed and minimising delay, works effectively and properly—so I think that was a yes.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I will refrain from making any political point about who will need to implement the Bill after the election, but the Minister is being somewhat disingenuous. The explanatory and financial memorandum states: The costs of establishing and maintaining the Civil Justice Council are expected to be about £250,000 per annum and will be met from within existing provision. The Bill is not expected to have any other significant financial implications. That may be narrowly and technically true, but it is not true in the wider context of the report.

Mr. Streeter

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is not true in the wider context of the report, which will of course take far greater resourcing to implement. Those resources are being and will be made available for training and information technology. The figure that the hon. Gentleman read out refers to the unified rule committee, which the Bill is all about, but I assure him that we will adequately resource this important and radical new system.

I mentioned earlier that the Bill paves the way for the reforms, rather than containing all those reforms. Given that, I shall set out briefly what it seeks to do.

The Bill's primary purpose is to provide for a unified set of rules of court. Those rules will govern the practice and procedure to be adopted in civil litigation in the High Court and the county courts—and, in relation to appeals, in the civil division of the Court of Appeal. Clause 1 therefore provides for the necessary rule-making powers. Those new rules, to be known as the civil procedure rules, will replace the existing supreme court rules and county court rules. The stated aim of the exercise of the rule-making powers is to secure that the civil justice system is accessible, fair and efficient.

The first draft of the new general rules was released with Lord Woolf's report and we have received more than 100 responses as part of the consultation procedure. Careful consideration will be given to all the responses received as the Lord Chancellor and the rule committee make progress towards finalising the draft rules.

Schedule 1 adds detail to the rule-making powers conferred by clause 1. It restates the present broad powers of the existing rule committees and expands them in some respects. It deals, for example, with the power to make rules regarding the delegated exercise of jurisdiction and with the powers regarding modifications of rules of evidence. It enables rules to be made for piloting new procedures.

Clause 2 sets out that the new rules are to be made by the civil procedure rule committee, whose membership is provided for. The balance of interests on the committee that is now provided for in the Bill represents a sensible compromise between allowing those with a stake in the system a voice on the committee and ensuring that the committee is of workmanlike size. Clause 2 also provides that the rule committee must consult before making rules, that it must meet when discussing rule changes and that it must make rules that are simple and simply expressed.

Clause 3 sets out that civil procedure rules are to be subject to the negative resolution procedure. The House will wish to know that, during the passage of the Bill in the other place, the Government gave an undertaking to provide for a debate in both Houses on the new unified code of rules, once they have been drafted, but before they are formally presented for approval, to enable Parliament's views to be reflected in the final rules.

Clause 4(1) enables the Lord Chancellor to make consequential amendments to other enactments where that is necessary or desirable in consequence of the rules made. That power is to be subject to the negative resolution procedure. Clause 4(2) will ensure that, before any rule is made that would override an existing enactment, that enactment must be amended, repealed or revoked by an order, and that the order will attract the affirmative resolution procedure.

Clause 5 provides that county court practice directions should be subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor, or someone authorised to act on his behalf. It is intended that the Vice-Chancellor would fulfil that function. The clause also sets out that practice directions can be made concerning the transfer of proceedings and that practice directions may be made for specific courts or specific types of proceedings.

The Civil Justice Council is established by clause 6. The Government have listened carefully to the views that have been expressed following Lord Woolf's recommendations on the establishment of such a council. We accept that it can assist the success of the civil justice reforms and provide useful advice relevant to keeping the system under review.

Clause 7 arises from the decision following a recommendation made by the Judges Council that the Anton Piller jurisdiction should be put on a statutory footing. Until now, Anton Piller orders have been developed by the courts under their inherent jurisdiction. They order a person to permit entry to premises for the purpose of finding or safeguarding evidence that is needed for civil proceedings. The clause does not intend to alter the basis for those orders, but will replace the inherent basis on which courts currently grant them.

Clause 8 provides the power for the Lord Chancellor to extend the circumstances in which the courts have power to order the disclosure of documents before legal proceedings. The clause is intended to give effect to Lord Woolf's recommendation that the power to order pre-action disclosure should be widened from the present power that pertains only to claims in respect of personal injuries and death.

I am sure that the House will agree that this is an important Bill, and that it provides a sound basis on which to take forward the fundamental reforms that were proposed by the noble Lord Woolf. We do not intend the momentum for change to dissipate. The civil justice system's evolutionary process continues. The Bill lays the foundation for a civil justice system that is fit for the 21st century, that is quicker, cheaper and simpler and that improves access to justice for all. I commend the Bill to the House.

5.56 pm
Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South)

The Bill, though rightly described as modest in size, is great in its significance and in its potential impact on our civil justice system and its procedures, but perhaps even more importantly, its culture. Looking around at the limited number of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Members present, I notice a great and almost overwhelming preponderance of those with a professional interest in the matter. It would be tempting to conclude from that that the matter is largely technical and that the Bill is of interest only to lawyers, but when one considers the Woolf report, which led to the Bill, and when one examines the Bill, its significance is revealed as being altogether wider.

The Bill is about justice that is delivered in an assessable way, is affordable, and is delivered in plain simple language and in procedures which reflect that. Importantly, it is also about putting into place pathways which present an opportunity for alternative dispute resolution, so in terms of its impact it is much more than simply a matter of interest to lawyers. It is of interest to all people who have a dispute and a grievance that should be settled—all those who are all too often deterred by expense and delay from pursuing legitimate causes.

We must approach the Bill in the spirit of seeking to find a way that will deliver access to a civil justice system that our citizens, who look to the House for a lead and for their interests to be represented, can afford. It ill behoves the Government to describe the measure as their first shot—the words used by the Minister—in a war to promote affordable and more easily accessible civil justice whose procedures are less obscure than at present. That first shot has been fired within weeks of the end of the Government and after years of neglect of a system that has become increasingly expensive and riven with delay.

Court staff are increasingly stretched, morale is low and they are hard pressed to deliver justice. The Government have fired their first shot within days of an increase in fees that has effectively priced justice beyond the reach of many of our citizens. The Bill cannot be divorced from that background. In the debate and in Committee we shall pursue the Government because of their failure to underpin the Bill with practical measures that will deliver justice.

The Government have gone against both the spirit and the letter of Lord Woolf's report because they have failed to address the issue of cost. Despite all advice and warnings to the contrary, they have engaged in an insistent drive to make the courts self-financing. The Bill will not pave the way for the reforms that we all seek in civil justice because the court fees system prices justice beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen.

Lord Woolf said in his report, which was published in July, that as part of the review of court fees the position of a litigant of modest means should be protected from the undue impact of increased court fees. Lord Woolf's work forms the basis for the Bill, but without consulting or giving the House the opportunity to debate the measures the Government laid statutory instruments to increase court fees. That is totally unacceptable, and we have prayed against that increase so that we can have the opportunity to debate it.

Without a broader debate, discussions on the Bill are virtually meaningless—and that has an impact on our capacity to deliver justice to our people. In the absence of a broader debate, it is futile to look to the Bill to improve access to the courts for those who have causes to pursue. The increases in court fees will cost the legal aid fund about £14 million a year, which will have to be met by the taxpayer. That money would otherwise be available to increase the access of our citizens to the legal aid system. In just one year in the Government's life, 12 million people were rendered ineligible for legal aid.

I will give some examples of the increases in court fees. A petition for divorce will cost £150—up from £80. Until October 1995, the fee was £40. A debtor's petition for bankruptcy has gone up from £25 to £50; until October 1995 the fee was £20. There are new county court fees. An application by those with judgment debts seeking to set aside court orders of varied payment terms will now cost £10. Applications by tenants and borrowers seeking to suspend warrants for possession of their homes—a vital matter that is of interest not only to lawyers—will now cost £10. That is to try to stop the bailiffs coming in and taking possession of a home. The Minister raises his eyebrows. He is clearly indifferent to those who have lost their homes as a result of the Government's negligent failure properly to manage the economy.

Mr. Streeter


Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)


Mr. Boateng

The Minister has had his turn. I give way to my hon. Friend

Ms Walley

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not simply that people have to pay £10 to attempt to get justice through a county court, but that they may have to apply five or six times at £10 each time? That is what concerns people who are being denied justice. The Minister laughed when my hon. Friend referred to that.

Mr. Boateng

My hon. Friend is right. That is why not only the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Advice Services Alliance, but the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux and the National Consumer Council are speaking with one voice against the Government's proposals.

Mr. Streeter

I have a simple question for the hon. Gentleman. To reverse the court fee increases would cost taxpayers £50 million. In the unlikely event of a Labour Government, would they reverse those increases at a cost of £50 million? If he is not saying that, his criticisms lack credibility. This is where realpolitik comes into play.

Mr. Boateng

The Minister knows that the Opposition have been absolutely clear. We have prayed against the increases in court fees and we and others have called for a cost-benefit analysis of the increases, because we are not satisfied that the increases are in the best interests of the court service and of our citizens. There is no question of maybe—I will make the position clear: we have no intention of reversing the increases, because that would pile injury on injury. Having expended the money to bring about the change, required court staff to make adjustments and budgeted for the process, there is no point in causing even greater loss to the Treasury.

Opposition Members are concerned that in future no court fees increases should be imposed which cannot be justified by a cost-benefit analysis. We say that the current increases are not based on a cost-benefit analysis, but are the result of Conservative Members' dogmatic and doctrinaire approach to the law and to justice, because they regard the court service and justice as a business. Opposition Members do not regard them as a business, but as a public service. That is the difference between Conservative and Opposition Members.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Is the answer to the very good question of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that a Labour Government would be opposed to increases in court fees but would not do anything about them once they had been imposed? That seems to be what the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) is saying. The House, the profession and the clients are entitled to an answer, yes or no, from the Labour party.

Mr. Boateng


Mr. Carlile

If the hon. Gentleman will restrain himself for one moment and listen, I think that he will agree that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North is entitled to a yes or no answer from her Front-Bench spokesman to a very important question.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), of whom I am very fond, and who speaks for the Liberal party, really must drag himself above the level of "Focus", his local free handout.

Mr. Carlile

Yes or no? I want an answer to the question.

Mr. Boateng

No, we know that every remark uttered by the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a party spokesman, has a party political purpose—of course it does.

Mr. Carlile

Yes or no?

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman should not pretend for one moment that his concern in asking that question is anything other than pressing his own party advantage.

Mr. Carlile

Yes or no?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I remind the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) about the rule against seated interventions, however provocative he may feel the position to be.

Mr. Boateng

The answer—which I give without any provocation or prompting—is that we do not intend to reverse the increases, even though we are opposed to them. We do not believe in the philosophy that underpins them, and we do not intend to carry on with that philosophy. However, the increases have been made and the budget has been set; it would therefore be quite irresponsible to reverse them, and we do not intend to do so.

We do intend, however—this is another difference between Conservative and Opposition Members on this issue, as on so many others—to ensure that we do not introduce proposals, whether for increases in court fees or for any other proposed reform, that have not been properly costed and subjected to a cost-benefit analysis.

Mr. Streeter

We have done that.

Mr. Boateng

If the Minister has done that, why has he failed, time after time, to tell us how much the Bill will cost, or how much it will cost to implement the Woolf proposals? We have given him that opportunity before, and I will give him the opportunity now. I will happily sit down and allow the Minister to tell us how much the Bill will cost.

Mr. Streeter

The hon. Gentleman will realise that the main cost features of the Bill are for training and the implementation of the appropriate computer systems. Next year's training budget is about £3 million, and the budget for computer technology for the county courts alone is £5.5 million. All that training and technology will be geared to making a success of the Woolf reforms.

Mr. Boateng

The Minister has not told us where the money will come from.

Mr. Streeter

It is in the budget.

Mr. Boateng

If it is in the budget, what will be cut to pay for it? When the Lord Chancellor was asked that question, the Government displayed a remarkable reticence about where the money would be found. The Minister's own strategy document tells us that there will be transitional costs in implementing the reforms. Is he saying that the only transitional costs will be those that he has identified today? Is that what he is saying? There is suddenly an unexplained reticence on that point.

Mr. Streeter

I shall be replying to the debate, and I shall of course deal with the issue of resourcing.

Mr. Boateng

We may take it, therefore, that inquiries will by then have been made and that an answer will be given. Or perhaps there will be no answer: if there were an answer, we would have heard it

Mr. Streeter

Get on with it.

Mr. Boateng

We have no intention of getting on with it.

Mr. Streeter

That is obvious.

Mr. Boateng

I make it clear that we have no intention of getting on with the Bill or with the proposals without knowing how much they will cost. We shall subject all the reforms to the most rigorous cost-benefit analysis before proceeding with them. It is absolutely clear that the Minister and the Government have not done so. They did not conduct such a process on court fees and they have not done so on Lord Woolf's proposals. They have introduced a Bill in a cost-benefit analysis vacuum—on a wish and a prayer—and they cannot say where the money will come from to pay for it.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Reducing tax allowances.

Mr. Boateng

The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) mutters from a sedentary position about reducing tax allowances, so there it is: there have been 22 tax increases since the most recent general election, and the increase in court fees is just another tax. The next time my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor produces a briefing on Tory tax rises, we shall have to include increased court fees as a tax rise, because that is precisely what they are—a tax on the poor and the under-privileged when they seek justice.

We have come to expect Conservative Members to impose taxes on people who go on holiday and those who want to do business. Now there is a tax on people who go to court to seek justice. The Government should be ashamed of themselves for introducing a Bill in that context.

How do the Government propose that the Bill should be implemented, and what training and information technology will be provided to ensure that it is successful? The Government have signally failed to realise the likely fundamental impact of these radical—a word that the Minister used, albeit in a rather tentative manner—proposals? He described them as radical, and they will indeed make a real difference to the way in which the civil justice system operates.

Have the Government considered establishing pilot projects to test implementation of the Bill's provisions? We welcome the fact that in another place the Bill was improved in one important respect, with the inclusion of what is now clause 6, which establishes the Civil Justice Council. That proposal was one of many which emanated from Lord Irvine of Lairg, the shadow Lord Chancellor.

The advantage of the Civil Justice Council is that, as an advisory body with functions related to promoting the aims of the civil justice system, it will be in a unique position to comment on any pilot schemes established to ensure that the Bill is effected in such a way as to achieve the objectives hoped for it. The need for such pilot projects is vividly illustrated by the impact that the Bill will have on fast-track procedures in relation to personal injuries. At this point, it would be right for us to outline some of our concerns about at least one of the recommendations made by Lord Woolf in his important, landmark report.

When it comes to personal injuries and claims designed to achieve a remedy for those who have suffered such injuries, Lord Woolf's report is perhaps lacking in the sense that he was precluded from addressing substantive issues of law reform. To that extent, therefore, an important opportunity for radical and positive reforms to personal injury law—linking the reform of the substantive law to reform of procedure—has been lost.

There is a real danger that the recommendation on the introduction of fast-track litigation in cases worth less than £10,000 will in fact lead to injustice for victims of personal injuries. There is a danger that there will be a shift of the cost burden away from those most able to bear it—those backed, very often, by the considerable resources of an insurance company—on to those least able to bear it, such as the worker injured in the course of his employment or the person who sustains an injury on the sidewalk as a result of local authority negligence; we all see such cases at our constituency surgeries. In other words, the cost burden could be shifted on to the small person who comes to court with a relatively modest injury in terms of the quantum of damages to be awarded, but who finds himself at a disadvantage as a result of being placed on the fast track, with all its limitations. We seek some assurances from the Government in that regard.

We are also eager to ensure a valuable consumer input into the functions and work of the civil procedure rule committee and the Civil Justice Council. It would be wrong if the rules to be made up and developed by the committee—rules that will govern the practice and procedure of the civil courts—were to be brought into effect without the affirmation of at least one lay or consumer representative on that committee. Such representation accords very much with the spirit and the letter of the Woolf proposals, which were concerned always to make sure that the law in this respect did not develop outside the world occupied by lay people, where the consumer interest rather than the interests of lawyers ought to be to the fore. We therefore seek some assurances from the Government on this point and some proof that the concerns expressed by consumer organisations, among others, have been met.

Finally—[Interruption.] I hear muttering and moaning from Conservative Members; they will soon be learning that one of the prerogatives of opposition is the capacity to go on and on in the public interest. I look at one or two Conservative Members who may be back after the general election and say, "You'll learn the rights of opposition soon enough and find in me and my colleagues"—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should be addressing me. I have noticed that the capacity to go on and on is not confined to one side of the House.

Mr. Boateng

I am suitably chastised, Madam Deputy Speaker, but let me point out to Conservative Members—including a new and only too happy arrival, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff)—that we are concerned about the introduction of statutory instruments. It is only right that those instruments should be subject to the affirmative procedure, and not only in the early stages of the implementation of the proposals. The House is made up largely of lay people and should be able to bring to the consideration of matters of civil justice the common sense and practical grounding that ought to be their basis.

With those caveats, and having set out our concerns about the Government's failure to subject their proposals to a proper cost-benefit analysis, we welcome the Bill and will give it a fair—indeed, effusive—wind.

6.28 pm
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I begin by declaring an interest as a practitioner in this area of the law. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) on speaking for about 35 minutes on this uncontroversial Bill. It was, as always, a pleasure to listen to him. It was rather like watching one of those fellows at the funfair making candyfloss. I draw his attention to paragraph 39.5, subparagraph (2), on page 206 of the draft civil proceedings rules. He may find it instructive.

I was once told by a Government Whip that there was nothing worse than a Member of Parliament talking at length in Government time about a subject that he claimed to know something about. Lest my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), who sits in silence on the Front Bench, should at some stage return to his previous existence—he once instructed me, and would be discouraged from doing so again—I shall confine my remarks to a few moments.

I broadly welcome the Bill. I have never understood why we needed a green book and a white book. I hope that the amalgamated rules will prove useful.

Mr. Boateng

A pale green book.

Mr. Garnier

Whether it will be a pale green book, a zebra book or any other colour of book does not really matter. The main thing is that the rules will be simple and simply expressed, which is welcome. I am also pleased to hear that we shall have a debate in due course on the rules. I am sure that the hon. Member for Brent, South will entertain us on that occasion as well.

I pick up on one reasonably good point that the hon. Member for Brent, South made about costs. I gently remind the Government that we should think carefully about the legal aid reforms referred to by my hon. Friend the Minister, and the increase in court charges, in the interests of public access to justice. I do not want to bring up the old cliché about the doors of the Ritz, but it is at the back of all our minds.

I should like to mention two or three issues in the Bill. The first relates to Anton Piller orders. I am glad that clause 7 will bring them under a statutory basis. May I, perhaps wickedly, ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the desire to provide judicial authority for entry into private premises in civil litigation will inform our debates on the Police Bill?

Secondly, what extensions to the provisions on pre-action disclosure are envisaged under clause 8? As a libel practitioner, I am concerned that we should not allow—or at least we should be wary of allowing—irresponsible defendants to get pre-action discovery of documents to fish for a defence, having made an unsubstantiated allegation. I am reasonably sure that the Lord Chancellor does not have in mind allowing irresponsible defendants to go on fishing expeditions, but help on that would be gratefully received.

Finally, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I thought that I was beginning to interest you, Mr. Deputy Speaker Paragraph 2 of schedule 1 says: Civil Procedure Rules may provide for the exercise of the jurisdiction of any court within the scope of the rules by officers or other staff of the court. I know the definition of officers, who are judges, but not of the "other staff". Will my hon. Friend write to me, if he does not have time to deal with it this evening, to tell me who those other staff are?

Those are my remarks for this evening. I trust that you have found them fascinating, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

6.33 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

That was indeed the fast track. The Bill and the "Access to Justice" report on which it is based represent the fruitful coming together of two men. The Lord Chancellor had the foresight to see the need for reform, the flexibility to change his position on the Civil Justice Council, following his reluctance about it on Second Reading, and, perhaps most importantly, the wisdom to pick the right man for the job—Lord Woolf.

Lord Woolf is a man of enormous diligence, towering intellect, vast legal experience and diplomatic skills. It is clear from the report that he consulted widely. The annexe shows those whom he consulted over two years, which included several overseas visits. He showed a commendable willingness to learn from foreign experience.

Similar reforms have been adopted in response to similar problems in some of our Commonwealth common law jurisdictions, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as several states in the United States. However, he did not go as far as the German system, under which fixed-price contracts are negotiated in advance between lawyer and client. That might be the most effective deterrent to time-wasting. It might have been instructive to look more closely at that aspect of the German system.

I first came across Lord Woolf when I was parliamentary private secretary to the then Attorney-General, the late Sam Silkin, who had an enormous regard for him, and who set him on the path to his well-deserved accelerated promotion. He is also the author of a very civilised report on prisons, which is light years from the attitude of the present Home Office team.

At one level, the Bill is a technical enabling Bill, giving a statutory framework to the recommendations in the report. The 370-page report is put into 11 clauses and two rather brief schedules. Perhaps the report is not very revolutionary, although Lord Woolf pointed out on Second Reading in the other place that the concept of a unified rule committee for the High Court and for county courts was first recommended by the judicature commission of 1872. The wheels grind rather slowly. The change is certainly welcome, and the merger should ensure consistency of practice at all levels of our court system.

The debate in the other place showed a substantial consensus, which has been largely reflected today. Given the importance of the subject and the fact that a number of other key issues depend on the passage of the Bill, I hope that the usual channels will ensure that it passes through all its stages before the election, whenever that may be.

I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) in expressing sadness that the Bill, which purports to reduce the cost of justice, almost coincides with the County Court Fees (Amendment) Order 1996, which introduces such dramatic increases in fees. Everyone who has practised knows about long delays, often caused by having to wait until the relevant case papers reach the top of the solicitor's in tray. All such delays are for tactical reasons, of course.

I remember calculated delays in one case going on for so long without rebuke from the judge, who took a passive view, that, although the proportion of interest in the sizeable property in question had been determined, the value of that property doubled. Those delays were clearly wholly tactical, and were against the interests of the public and the legal aid fund.

By setting a timetable, we are seeking to put an end to delays, which, alas, arise mostly for the wrong reasons, although I concede that in many cases the delays from experts, for example, are outside the solicitor's control. However, although we hope to overcome delays, there are dangers in switching to judicial case management with the judges in the driving seat throughout. The new-style judges could possibly become over-zealous in their work, and therefore work to the disadvantage of justice.

I am not sure how that greater zeal can best be guarded against, but, if the new culture—the buzz phrase in the report—is to succeed, there must be a spirit of co-operation between the Bench and the Bar to ensure that there is a willingness to be flexible, to understand and to enter into proper and informed negotiations, instead of any dictatorship. That depends not only on the personality of the judges, especially district judges, whose role will be much enhanced, but on adequate training.

The purely adversarial system must be modified, and wherever possible, alternative disputes procedures encouraged. I recall that I once marshalled for the late Judge Leslie, who said something to the effect that the worst agreement is better than the worst imposed judgment. The willingness to find alternative disputes procedures and to avoid rancour and adversarial excesses should be sought through genuine discussion on timetabling and modifications, if necessary, in the light of difficulties that unexpectedly arise, and implemented with the co-operation of lawyers and the public.

Success obviously depends on training, especially in information technology, which in turn depends fundamentally on resources. I return to the point, which was made so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South, that resources must be made available and in time. The explanatory and financial memorandum mentions the very tip of the iceberg of resources.

Mr. Streeter

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning in response to his intervention that the £250,000, to which he is referring again, was for the rule committee. That sum is in fact for the Civil Justice Council.

Mr. Anderson

I noticed the inadvertent mistake, but thought it prudent not to intervene at that point.

There are no costings in the Woolf report. All of us recognise that, come what may, no crock of gold will appear after the election. This important reform will have to take its place alongside all other pressures. Although it will involve short-term expenditure, it is clear that, in the medium and longer term, there should be substantial savings to the public purse.

I could detain the House on a number of points of detail, such as consumer representation, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South referred; the difficulties that might arise in the fast-track procedure; the implications for the legal aid fund; and the affirmative or negative procedure for statutory instruments. I am, however, personally satisfied with the fact that the Government have said that there will be a debate in the House on the rules, and not persuaded that one would need to have other than the negative procedure thereafter for the generality of modifications.

The debate is important; its subject is likely to affect very many of our citizens. It is sad that there are not many more Members present, which is perhaps a reflection of the fact that it has become more and more difficult for lawyers to find their way, or to want to find their way, into the House. When I first entered the House, rather too long ago, very many heavy civil practitioners would have spoken in such a debate.

To a large extent, therefore, we must rely on the wisdom and expertise of those in the other place. It is significant that both the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls contributed to the debate in the other place, while, save for those in the field of defamation law, it is difficult in this House to find any hon. Member who has a heavy civil practice. That is bad for the public, and bad for Parliament. Lord Woolf and the team of assessors around him deserve the thanks of the public and Parliament.

6.44 pm
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

It is difficult to find in the House any members of the Bar who have any practice at all, such are the pressures of modern legislation.

I hope that I can take it from what the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that we should not expect an ambush in the Lobby. Oh dear, I notice that the ogre at the feast, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), is walking into the Chamber, assessing the possibilities of an ambush. I can inform him that many of my hon. Friends are even now populating the Tea Room and various other Rooms, and are ready to run back into the Chamber to vote.

I commend the hon. Member for Swansea, East for not indulging in the windbaggery in which his hon. Friend the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) indulged. We are getting used to being told that the Labour party will make things clear, but it never does. Labour Members huff and puff like the hon. Member for Brent, South, who raised his voice in anger at the court fees provisions, which are, of course, not directly relevant to the Bill. When he was asked the simple question, "Will Labour pay the money?" we did not get the answer.

I should like Labour's Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Garscadden, to know just what a valiant effort his hon. Friend made to protect the Labour party's integrity—notwithstanding a tartan tax, a council tax, a young children's tax and a windfall tax, all of which could pay the £50 million for the court fees—because otherwise the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) would have had his guts for garters, as of course would the Opposition Chief Whip. I am afraid we must sidestep such issues in order to take this important piece of legislation seriously.

I congratulate my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on realising that, in this modern world of extensive rights and the extending perception and demanding of rights, we simply must have a civil justice system that allows ordinary people of modest means access to justice as cheaply as possible. I commend the team for getting to grips with the problem in the way that it has.

What makes an elderly system expensive and prohibitive is its complexities and old-fashioned practices and attitudes. Once the problem was identified, it was obvious that Lord Woolf had the precise capabilities for sorting it out. The Woolf report has achieved just that, with the help of most able assessors.

Everyone concerned with the exercise, from my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and Lord Woolf downwards, must be congratulated on not only making comprehensive recommendations but getting them so nearly right that there is hardly any legitimate complaint from any direction. I hope that that is not because the area from which complaints and criticism is most likely to come is not convinced that the Woolf proposals will ever, effectively, see the light of day. That is a possible but—I hope—unlikely explanation for the silence of the genuine non-windbagging critics.

This Bill, as a first step, starts the process of improving access to justice according to Woolf. We have the amalgamation of court procedures and how to access them in one book. We have extended case management, which includes identifying and better defining the issues earlier; identifying the right court earlier; penalising time wasting; easing some of the unsatisfactory rules of evidence; and encouraging alternative methods of resolving disputes, so that litigation may become the last resort and not the first. All that is to be implemented by the end of 1998.

The Bill got off to a good start in the other place. It was improved there, especially by the inclusion of the Civil Justice Council, which the Lord Chancellor accepted. The Bill answers the headlines such as the one that appeared in The Independent on 4 December 1996: Foxing Woolf … Efforts to put radical civil justice reforms into practice are being hampered by a lack of co-ordination". Such criticism has no foundation now that the changes in the other place have been accepted.

The Bill and the Woolf proposals are not the end of the matter, as is obvious from our debate. For the proposals to work, judges, counsel and solicitors will have to be trained and retrained at some cost. Judges will have to make more time to read cases, which happens in the criminal courts—where I work occasionally—only with much difficulty.

One of the main avenues of justice is legal aid. Unless we improve the legal aid rules and make it more widely and more fairly available, the system will not much improve, however impressive Lord Woolf's contribution to improving access to justice. Improvements in the system and in legal aid are the twin pillars of improved access to justice. However, those and other effects of Woolf will almost certainly mean more money, and no one and no party is keen on that. That fact may prevent us from getting too euphoric about Woolf, and therefore about the Bill.

For example, information technology always sounds as if it will reduce costs, but I am not sure it always does. I worked on a fraud trial with the help of computers and it was great fun, but I am sure that old-style booklets with coloured pie charts would have been cheaper, better and probably quicker.

One element that shines out from Lord Woolf's report, and its implementation in the Bill, is the degree of consultation and co-operation that has been not only permitted but encouraged between the many interested parties, including the Bar, solicitors, the Bench, consumers, operators, the Government and civil servants—the list at the back of Lord Woolf's report is endless.

A lengthy consultation does not, of course, always mean a good outcome, but absence of consultation usually leads to a bad outcome. The speed with which we introduce some criminal legislation sometimes leads to unnecessary aggravation and doubtful results, as the Government are currently experiencing with the Police Bill and the Crime (Sentences) Bill. I am sure that the two main problem areas in those Bills could have been solved with more consultation and agreement among all concerned before they were launched. The present example of consultation and co-operation in civil legislation may in time spread to criminal legislation.

When the Home Affairs Select Committee considered the subject of legal aid—principally criminal legal aid—two or three years ago, we were struck by the comparative lack of co-operation between the Law Society and the Bar Council. One of our recommendations was that they should get their acts together. No such criticism is possible of the Bill, and I hope that co-operation and the opportunity for reflection will be the norm in the future.

One legal wit recently remarked that the appointment of Lord Woolf as Master of the Rolls, Sir Richard Scott as Vice-Chancellor and Lord Bingham as Lord Chief Justice showed that any Tom, Dick and Harry could rise to the top of the legal profession. All those eminent and distinguished gentleman have, together with Jim, risen to the challenge of the reform of civil procedure, and we should wish that their labours bear profound and abundant fruit.

6 54 pm

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

This is an important Bill that should, and is likely to, change the operation of civil litigation for the better. I am sure that all hon. Members have experience of constituents who have relatively small claims and who are afraid of going to law. They expect their Member of Parliament to wave a magic wand that would avoid the need to go to law. Often, we cannot do so. We have to tell them that their only recourse is to go to court and the best we can do is to recommend a competent solicitor. There are one or two such in the House today and I can see at least two on the Conservative Benches.

We steer our constituents in the right direction, but often they do not go to the solicitor because they remain afraid of litigation. They have two main fears. The first is the formality that they believe they will face in the courts because the rules were designed by lawyers for lawyers, not for the public. The second is, of course, the cost of going to court. Barristers, such as myself, who have conducted civil litigation find no pleasure in telling clients who are brought to see us that the cost of litigation for a relatively small claim simply is not worth the candle. We have to tell them that any claim for a few thousand pounds is not worth pursuing because of the risk that they might have to pay costs. That is not acceptable. If somebody has a claim for £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000, surely the civil justice system should enable them to claim that money and recover it without the risk of more than that sum being swallowed up in costs. I have often given that advice to a client who has said, "But Mr. Carlile, it is a matter of principle." The only advice one can give is that litigation is not a matter of principle but a matter of business.

Small claims have become a very risky business. We must also bear in mind the fact that legal aid is not limitless, and nobody can pretend that it is. It could be better targeted in some areas and there is always room for improvement in a complex system. Reforming the civil procedure rules could help us to target legal aid on those cases where legal aid is really needed.

I applaud the efforts of Lord Woolf. He has already rightly been described as a remarkable judge. He is clear-thinking and he has produced excellent reports. He has also been flexible—he has listened to the representations made to him and made many changes to his preliminary ideas. He has responded to the concerns of consumer groups, of the profession and, of course, of the Government. I believe that he has produced a blueprint for a civilised civil justice system, which was certainly improved in the other place. I join the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) in commending the other place for introducing the Civil Justice Council, and the Government for accepting that important amendment.

When Lord Woolf was kind enough to ask for my views on certain aspects of his proposals. I suggested that he was slightly too tentative on the wise use of legal aid, and that the small claims procedure could be used for a more extensive range of cases. My experience as a constituency Member of Parliament of the small claims procedure is that, on the whole, district judges run it well.

The new breed of district judge, like the new breed of circuit judge sitting in the county court, is fully capable of sensitive judicial case management. As long as constituents present their cases in a measured, balanced and rational way and write down the basis of their claim, they tend to come back satisfied with the way in which the district judge has tried the case, sometimes even when they have lost or failed to recover the full amount of their claim.

I do not accept for one moment that there are special complexities in personal injuries actions. I have conducted many such actions over the years, for both plaintiffs and defendants, for trade unions on legal aid and for private clients who simply come through the doors via solicitors, and it has long been my view that the small claims procedure and the limit for those claims could be extended and that district judges could easily save the legal aid fund a great deal of wasted money by dealing with claims of a higher value. If that were done, legal aid could be much more specifically targeted where it is deserved.

I do not believe that plaintiffs making relatively small personal injuries claims would be substantially disadvantaged if they had the assistance of a better-trained court staff and the judicial case management that a district judge—usually a solicitor with long experience of preparing cases—is able to offer.

I applaud the introduction of an extended provision for pre-action discovery, which will be extremely useful, especially in cases of alleged breach of contract or in the many Welsh boundary disputes that those of us who practise in the Principality have experienced. Often, in pleading a claim over a boundary or right of way dispute, a huge amount of money is wasted in seeking to discover the contents of abstracts of title held in dusty boxes in solicitors' offices. It would be so much simpler if one could go for pre-action discovery before deciding whether to pursue the claim, and a great deal of money could be saved.

There is no doubt whatever that there is much dissatisfaction among staff in county court offices throughout the country. They work extremely hard, often under great pressure, and try to manage offices and courts, often without replacements for those who leave. If the Woolf reforms are to work, whichever Government implements them will have to ensure that staffing levels are brought to a proper establishment.

We must remember that, under the Woolf system, court staff will have to give an awful lot more advice to people handling their own actions, who will perhaps have been given guidance, but not detailed legal advice, by consumer advice centres—citizens advice bureaux and the like. There must be enough staff to deal courteously and quickly with members of the public, and to do that successfully the staff will have to be trained.

At the moment, it is extremely rare—it sometimes happens in country towns—for the court staff to be willing to take the time to advise in person a litigant making a small claim to put into that claim phrases such as "breach of contract", "interest", "damages", "pain, suffering and loss of amenity" and all the other phrases that trip off lawyers' tongues with such ease. Court staff will have to be properly trained to give such basic advice without compromising the essential impartiality of a court officer.

It is extremely important, as we go down this exciting road in developing the civil courts, that we should not close county courts, so that the system becomes more user-friendly but the user cannot get to the system because it is too remote. In mid-Wales, where I live and have practised for many years, and which I will represent until the general election, and in north Wales and all rural areas, the provision of reasonably accessible county courts is important; it is worth paying for, because it gives the fundamental access to justice that people require.

In early discussions of the Woolf proposals, there was a fear that there would be far fewer centres dealing with civil proceedings. That proved to be unfounded, after Lord Woolf listened carefully to representations. I hope that the Minister will express a commitment to retaining as many county courts as possible, so that people living in the remoter areas of England and Wales will be able to have access to those courts and to use their facilities.

I deplore the level of the fees increases, which will make some litigation extremely difficult to afford. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) was absolutely right to raise the matter earlier. I also deplore the way in which her question was responded to by the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng).

The hon. Gentleman has a burgeoning career in the media: we see him as a pundit, a television judge and a presenter of great skill, but he will never find a place on the radio programme "Just a Minute". With a great deal of repetition, deviation and hesitation, he told us that although he, too, deplores the swingeing increases in court fees introduced by the Government, if he is in government in a few weeks' time he will not do anything about it. I find that a bit of a puzzle. I suppose that I must learn more about new Labour to understand how we can achieve a better standard of living without spending any more money. Perhaps the magic will be revealed to us at some time in the future, but it does not sound logical to me—a mere humble journeyman lawyer.

I hope that whatever Government is in office after the general election will be prepared to review court fees. If those fees serve to discourage members of the public from using the civil litigation system in their proper interests, I hope that the Government will be prepared to reconsider them and, above all, will try to ensure that the Woolf reforms themselves are kept under review, so that we do not have to go for 50, 75 or 100 years before reforming another collapsed and creaking system.

7.8 pm

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Unlike many hon. Members who have spoken this evening, I do not have a professional interest in the subject. I must take issue with my very good—and hon.—Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and say that, as well as being discussed by those with a professional interest, the issue of access to the criminal justice system for everyone should be considered by other hon. Members, because access to social justice is extremely important. That is the impression that I get from the many constituents who attend my surgeries.

I sometimes think that, if I had been a lawyer, I would be a millionaire, because of the fees that I would have received for all the letters that I have written. I see some hon. Members shaking their heads, but I wonder.

The Law Society is not an organisation that I have had a lot of time for, because of what has happened in Stoke-on-Trent and the problems with mine shafts. There has been much talk of consultation and new partnerships. I wish that those partnerships had been extended to prevent some of those problems. Along with other hon. Members representing North Staffordshire, however, I have been approached by lawyers who operate there and I value my close working relationship with them.

Broadly speaking, the legislation is a preliminary and necessary step to implementing Lord Woolf's proposal by consolidating the complex rules for both high and county court civil actions. I cannot help thinking, however, that—as is typical with the Government—the Woolf proposals are being viewed in isolation. That theme has emerged in this debate. The Government are dealing with the recommendations in isolation, separate from the equally important area of legal aid reform. Like the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) I hope that we can consider that matter in detail.

After the general election, it will be up to a Labour Government to look more fully into how we implement Lord Woolf's proposals, with an overall review of the justice system. We should consider not only legal aid but the provision of legal services.

The main problem with the Bill is the inadequate funding of the reforms. I heard what the Minister said and his reply about costings and additional costs, but we have not had an assurance that there will be adequate funding of the various measures in the Bill. I am also concerned that most of the legal profession, especially the high street firms, will be inadequately prepared to meet the new demands, regardless of what has been said about training. I urge the Minister to consider those issues carefully.

Another fear is that the Government seem to be using the Woolf proposals as an excuse to consumerise, which might lead to further privatisation of justice. We have to be careful not to go down the road of business interests above public service. That is a crucial issue and we need to keep a close watch over it.

What it comes down to is, have we got a guarantee that all citizens have access to the law? Judging by their letters, many of my constituents for one reason or another—largely cost—do not feel that they have access to the law. In 1979, under a Labour Government, 74 per cent. of households qualified for legal aid. After 18 years of Tory misrule, only 48 per cent. do so. In effect, that amounts to a denial of people's rights.

Access to the law is becoming a luxury, as I see in my daily contacts with constituents—for example, those who have worked all their lives in the potteries and have repetitive strain injury or some other injury. They do not have access to the law, because they cannot afford it. I urge the Government to deal with those issues. With the withdrawal of legal aid, people either have no recourse to the law or are thrown on to the contingency fee scheme, on a no-win, no-fee basis and are, again, at the mercy of lawyers. To me, that is not equal access to social justice.

Most important, I wanted to make a short contribution to the debate because, in addition to the withdrawal of legal aid the Government have increased the cost of using the courts. I have been lobbied extensively, not least by the Stoke-on-Trent citizens advice bureau, which, with its expertise, brought it home to me what a difference the increased costs will make to people in Stoke-on-Trent. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), it is not merely a question of the £10 increase for access to one county court. People could find that, for various reasons, they needed to raise about eight different aspects and could thus end up with a bill for £80 or £100. That is outside the budget of many of my constituents, who cannot afford to pay and so do not have access to the county courts.

I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South to pray against the proposals to increase costs. It is not a question of what happens after the increases have been implemented. We all understand the situation. The important thing is to stop such increases getting on to the statute book in the first place. If we are really concerned about access to the social justice system for all, that is where the emphasis must lie.

It concerns me that the Bill has been proposed in isolation from the other main legal issues that must be tackled. It is typical of the Government that we have had to wait so long—18 years—for some progress, but that it is not all-embracing progress giving everyone access to the law. I want civil justice to be discussed and reformed as a whole and I shall be looking to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South to ensure that he and my hon. Friends do just that in the months ahead.

7.16 pm
Mr. Boateng

We have had a good debate, and it is right that we should have ended on the note provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), who reminded us—on the basis of representations that she had received from solicitors and people giving advice and assistance throughout north Staffordshire—of the impact of our deliberations on civil justice on ordinary people and of their concerns.

Opening the debate, the Minister told us that he believed that it was right that the reforms of civil justice and of legal aid should go hand in hand. Those were his words and he said that that was the Government's intention. The Opposition's response is, "If only that were true." Let me share one example of where it is patently not.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), who speaks from the Liberal Benches, reminded us of the role of the county court and of county court and district court judges and their staffs in the delivery of legal services. They will undoubtedly have an even more important role to play after enactment of the Bill in the light of Lord Woolf's report, as he envisaged that they would provide information and help litigants to progress their case.

What court staff? How are they to be trained? I ask, "What court staff?" in the context of the redundancies that have already been announced in the light of the introduction of information technology. It has been made clear that staff will have to go as information technology is introduced.

Information technology is to be introduced on the basis that Lord Woolf has recommended it and that it is cost effective and makes sense. How can it make sense to lay off staff as information technology is introduced when it is envisaged that county court staff will have to play a greater role than ever in that they will be holding out an offer of a service of providing information and help to litigants whom they are currently not in a position to help? Indeed, county court staff are currently officially prevented from giving advice and assistance to litigants. Even though many of them wish to do so, their job specifications and the rules under which they operate preclude it.

Where are the staff to come from? Never mind how they are to be trained and how their training is to be paid for, where are the staff to come from if they have been laid off, and how much will it cost to keep them in place? That is not a transitional cost. The Minister has not even mentioned staff costs.

The matter goes beyond that, to the important role—the key role—of district judges. We are told that the Government's reforms of legal aid and of civil justice go hand in hand, but they do not. They do not for one clear reason. I shall give a practical example. We know that there is a pilot project for a legal services committee in the north-west. We know that the committee does valuable work, ensuring that the interests of the whole community are represented and that the resources of personnel within the community are marshalled in the interest of the development of legal services. The consumer is there; the producer is there; the local authority is there; and, most important, the district judge is there, representing the branch of the judiciary that is closest to the people, and deals with the small claims court and with the litigant in person.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has announced that district judges are not to serve on the soon-to-be-appointed legal services committees. Why? Lord Woolf clearly envisages a greater role for district judges in case management and in the delivery of legal services, yet the very branch of the judiciary which is best placed to deliver that service, that has an overview of the service, that reflects the ethos that the Bill seeks to encapsulate—the culture of common sense, practicality, speed and plain language—and which is most closely aligned to all those characteristics is precluded from serving on the legal services committees. It makes no sense, and gives the lie to the Government's suggestion that the two reforms are going hand in hand.

I ask the Minister to respond to that and to show that the Government will make no final decision on the role to be played by district judges on the soon-to-be-appointed legal services committees. That is essential if we are to see the Bill as the grounding for changes that are to come.

It does not end there, because the Minister has to answer the question about resources that was raised by several Opposition Members. It is not enough for him to seek to limit the cost as he has. He is being disingenuous, even if we are talking only of the training in case management that is required. Lord Justice Henry, the chairman of the Judicial Studies Board, said that there would need to be a substantial increase in the Board's Annual Budget", which is now £3.2 million. How much is that substantial increase to be? Have the Government budgeted for it in the existing budget of the Lord Chancellor's Department? We want to know.

Lord Woolf himself recognises the importance of case management—[Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) shaking his watch arm. The advice that his silent, sedentary friend is giving is absolutely right, because Lord Woolf makes the point that we have to have realistic provision made for reading time for judges". How much reading time, and at what cost? The hon. Member for Worcester is quite right to wave his watch. We want to know how much that time will cost, and if the hon. Gentleman chooses to give a graphic demonstration—albeit limited to his own wrist—of the significance of time, so be it. We need to know, and the Minister must take time to tell us and those who look to this House. Members of the profession, consumer organisations and the public are concerned about the Government's seriousness about the reforms. We ought to know how much they will cost.

With all those issues as yet unresolved, the Minister cannot expect us to take seriously his protestations that he and the Government have been candid about their disclosure of the costs of the report. They are not being candid. They are not being candid about the costs, and they show no sign of any real willingness to publish those costs. Until they do, the suspicion among the public will be that the Government intend to embark on a process in which they wish the end without willing the means. That simply is not good enough.

That is why we have made it clear that, immediately after the next general election, when the people have given their verdict, we will undertake a wide-ranging reform of both the civil justice system and civil legal aid. It will be a combined reform that will subject the Woolf report and the Bill to the rigorous cost-benefit analysis that is needed. Without such an analysis, there is no way forward for the Bill. There is no way forward for the necessary changes in culture—the emphasis on speed and efficiency, the practical, cheaper and simpler resolution of disputes, and the availability of early resolution to disputes that we all seek.

7.28 pm
Mr. Streeter

This has been an important debate on an important Bill, and every hon. Member who has spoken has made a valuable contribution. I should like to deal quickly with some of the important points that were raised.

I can assure the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) that we will be the Government who introduce these reforms over the next few years. That is why we are taking great care to get them right and to resource them properly.

On the increase in fees, which was raised by several Opposition Members, I wish to make four concise points First, people on legal aid will continue to have their court fees paid for by the Legal Aid Board. Secondly, those on income support will of course have the benefit of a minimal fee. Thirdly, as we all know—there are quite a few practising barristers in the Chamber tonight—court fees are a tiny fraction of lawyers' hourly rates.

Fourthly, unless the Labour party can commit itself to reversing the increase in civil court fees in the unlikely event of its forming a Government, it must accept that it is open to the charge of hypocrisy and a total lack of credibility. Reversing these increases—which have already been introduced, with effect from 15 January—will cost the taxpayer £50 million. Unless the hon. Member for Brent, South can say that Labour, in the unlikely event of its forming the next Government, would reverse that increase, he had better keep his counsel on that subject.

I can reassure the House that there will be sufficient resourcing for these important reforms. The current budget for computers in the county court service is in the region of £4 million. The budget for 1997–98 is about £5.5 million. We shall ensure that the best possible use is made of modern technology.

The current training budget for the Judicial Studies Board is £2.6 million. It is planned to increase to £3 million in 1997–98. In addition, conference facilities costing more than £500,000 are in the process of being refurbished to enable much more streamlined, up-to-date training to take place. Those are the major costs of the reforms, and they have been specifically provided for.

There will be sufficient staffing, and staff will be adequately trained. The budget will be adequate for that, and no doubt we can return to these matters in Committee. As the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said, it is expected that there will be significant medium and long-term savings as the reforms are implemented over the years.

We are actively considering piloting. The rules will enable us to take the power to do that. As a Government, we believe in piloting, which we are using in the case of many of our legal aid reforms.

Personal injury law was mentioned. Lord Woolf is considering that issue, which was also raised by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.

Of course we will take the view of the consumer into account. Provision has been made on both the rule committee and the Civil Justice Council for the voice of the consumer to be heard.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made an important speech. I thank him for his welcome for the reforms and for his helpful comments. True to his personal style, he made a very analytical assessment of the Bill and raised several detailed and important points. I hope that it will be in order if I write to give him the answers to those important points. He may be fortunate enough to serve on the Committee that will scrutinise the Bill and to make some of these points again.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Swansea, East, who rightly paid a warm tribute to Lord Woolf and agreed that it was important that the Bill was passed in this Parliament. He also made an important mention of alternative dispute resolution. I thoroughly agree that the importance of ADR has yet to be fully recognised. I thank him for his warm support for our reforms.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) made a helpful and important speech. He exposed Labour's new idea of a windbag tax, which could raise an awful lot of money from one or two Opposition Members. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his warm support for these justified reforms.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) spoke in support of the reforms, drawing on his many years of experience at the Bar. He accurately described people's concerns about going to law and the costs risk to litigate small amounts. I am grateful for his kind comments about Lord Woolf. He expressed his anxiety about the number of Welsh boundary disputes, and I can confirm that the English rugby team will cross the Welsh line often at Cardiff Arms park in a few weeks' time He recognised the important role played by county courts, especially in rural areas.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) made an important contribution. She is right to say that this issue is not only for lawyers, but for everyone, because it concerns justice; but she is not right to say that we have reviewed these reforms in isolation. We regard them as part of a twin-track approach with our legal aid reforms. Lord Woolf paid tribute to the way in which we have taken both sets of reforms forward together.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North fell into the trap of claiming that there was not enough money, that the increase in court fees was wrong and that our reforms on legal aid were penny-pinching. Unless the Labour party can say that it would put more money in—in the unlikely event of winning the next general election—it has no credibility in raising such points.

Finally, the hon. Member for Brent, South raised new points in his extended winding-up speech. I will respond to him on the subject of district judges in due course. He is right that reading time has been made available for judges in our reforms. We have 18 months to get the detail right. Our commitment is to do so.

The Bill wages war on delay, excessive cost and bureaucracy. It will make access to justice quicker, simpler and cheaper. It will take the British justice system into the 21st century, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).