HC Deb 19 December 2000 vol 360 cc198-9
29. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

What plans he has to finance the building of a new courthouse at Colchester. [141592]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock)

I recently visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency and saw the magistrates court at the town hall for myself. I accept that present conditions are unsatisfactory and require improvement. A bid has been made to my Department for improvements, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to support it.

Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer's superb management of the economy, the Lord Chancellor's Department is able to commission £70 million of improvements and new court buildings in each of the next three years. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to welcome that as we approach the season of good will.

Mr. Russell

The closure of many magistrates courts was based on the argument that centralised courts would be provided with the most modern facilities. Although I welcome the Minister's answer, it does not tally with the information that I have received from the north Essex magistrates bench, which has received information from the Essex magistrates courts committee. Will the Minister therefore convene a meeting of the local magistrates, the Essex magistrates courts committee and Colchester borough council, so that we can flush out exactly what is going on? I hope that what the Minister said is correct. If it is, we can get on with building the new courthouse.

Mr. Lock

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman was not able to welcome the very substantial investment that we have made. He asked what was going on, so I inform him that the revenue allocation for magistrates courts in Essex is rising from £7.4 million this year to £8.5 million next year, which is an increase considerably above the rate of inflation. The bid that the magistrates courts committee has put in for new premises in Colchester is being assessed, and I expect that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to make an announcement about it before too long. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will just have to wait a little.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Does my hon. Friend agree that an issue that arises from the financing of court cases in Colchester and elsewhere is the recoverability of conditional fee insurance, which urgently needs to be dealt with by the insurance industry?

Mr. Lock

As always, I admire my hon. Friend's ingenuity for linking issues. He is right. The Government's policy is that the premium paid for cover against the risk of having to pay legal costs should be recoverable from the losing opponent. That ensures that the damages paid to claimants are not unreasonably eroded. In our view, that is the effect of the Access to Justice Act 1999. Although the interpretation of individual agreements is a matter for the courts, the Government believe that recoverability includes premiums on policies taken out before proceedings are issued in any particular case.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Minister has managed to find money to build a new courthouse in Colchester, but does he think that that helps in the administration of justice while we still have cases such as that of Stephen Downing, in which the Crown Prosecution Service last week said that it had not been notified of the case until 4.30 pm the day before? Will the Minister look into that and report back to the House?

Mr. Lock

I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Gentleman has raised his constituent's case and has diligently pursued the matter over a considerable period. The case is a matter for the Attorney-General, and I understand that my noble and learned Friend has spoken to the hon. Gentleman and is looking into the serious questions that he raises. I am sure that he will get back to the hon. Gentleman before too long.