HL Deb 26 April 1999 vol 600 cc4-7

2.44 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Wirral asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that all necessary systems and resources are in place for the introduction today of Lord Woolf's civil justice reforms.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, through new unified Civil Procedure Rules which come into force today throughout all our courts, civil justice will be transformed. There will be a major shift in the control of litigation from lawyers to the courts through a system of hands-on case management by judges, and by bearing down on excessive delay, cost and over-manning by lawyers. From today there are systems and resources in place to ensure immediate benefits for court users. The development of fuller IT systems over time will benefit from developing experience in the new working methods and processes which start today.

Lord Hunt of Wirral

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that although there is widespread support for the way in which he has continued the crusade started by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and spearheaded by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, for these tremendous reforms, the most important for over 100 years, there are some continuing concerns? The complicated IT system is not yet in place. There are a number of deputy district judges not yet trained in the new rules, and last week some further amendments to the rules—69 altogether—were announced, including six new practice directions. Bearing that in mind, and the desire to achieve fairer and faster justice, will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor institute a careful system of monitoring so that we can ensure that such rules and changes will produce the desired effect?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord's interest in and valuable contributions to this subject are well known. From today there will be in place administrative systems plus an enhancement of the existing Caseman IT system in courts. There will be a new IT system to support diary managers in case progression and an upgrading of the IT system in the County Court Bulk Centre. I expect a full administrative IT system to be in place during 2000, but there will, with immediate effect, be vital experience and great benefits for court users to be gained. I certainly bear in mind what the noble Lord said about the need for evaluation. We are currently working on evaluation plans which will bolster the qualitative and quantative element. I will keep him informed of the development of such plans. In the shorter term, on 16th July there will be a review conference of designated civil judges, court service staff and court users. I will report to him on the outcome of that conference too.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree with me that among the beneficiaries of the new reforms will be those who are seeking to recover unpaid debts, and that small businesses will particularly benefit? Has he any plans for ensuring that the enforcement of judgments is made more effective than at present so that judgments are not mere pieces of paper?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that all is not satisfactory with the system of enforcement of judgments. There is not much point in winning in the court if you do not recover the money to which you are entitled. Within my department there is an ongoing investigation and consultation exercise aimed at modernising the enforcement process.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor happy with the timing of this change in view of the published concerns of the Law Society about the impact of the early introduction of such reforms; its concerns at the lack of resources available for IT; the fact that no further judges will be appointed and the court staff are to be reduced by 800 over the next three years?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there has been the fullest of consultations. We have listened to all the concerns. The House debated these changes in July last year and further amendments were laid before Parliament on 30th March. Every full-time judge in England has been fully trained and the court staff are trained. I have visited courts up and down the country including the Mayor's Court in London on Friday. Everybody is brimful of confidence and enthusiastic. I have to say to the noble Lord that he should take what comes from the Law Society with a pinch of salt.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, am I right in believing the newspaper reports that one of the changes being instituted is the modernisation of legal jargon? If so, what steps are being taken to ensure that Acts of Parliament on which the courts base their judgments are similarly modified?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, no one is more in favour than I of a simpler statute book. But the principle benefit for court rules arising from these reforms is that the Latin language is to be expunged. Lawyers therefore will have to talk to one another in Latin in private from now on. However, of the many vices from which the statute book suffers, Latin is not one.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord accept my hearty congratulations to him and his colleagues on reaching this stage in these important reforms? Notwithstanding his heavy commitment this morning on the "Today" programme in debate with the Law Society, has the noble and learned Lord had an opportunity to read Professor Scott's letter in The Times? If so, does he have: any comment on it?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I confess that: I have not read it. However, as soon as I leave the Woolsack I shall do so because I take my guidance on reading from my noble and learned predecessor. Perhaps I may take this opportunity of saying that great credit is due to the noble and learned Lords, Lord Woolf and my predecessor, for taking important initiatives in this area which this Government are now carrying through to success.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, my question has already been partly answered. But will the noble and learned Lord inform the House whether the courts are ready to cope with the new system? Also, is he satisfied?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, we put an extra £1.5 million into the pay bill recently to help clear the backlog of cases; there were an extra 2, 400 sitting days in the last financial year; and despite a falling workload and additional computer support for family work, staffing levels have not only been maintained but 124 new posts have been allocated with 60 assigned to support case tracking. The circuit administrators assure me that the courts are ready. As I said earlier, I visited the Mayor's Court in the City on Friday. Everything that I have heard is encouraging and the reports coming back from the courts today throughout the country are extremely good.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, who said it would help small businesses, will the noble and learned Lord tell us how ordinary people will find out how to use the simplified procedure at the very bottom of the scale where in the past they would simply have applied for a county court summons for the debt?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not know whether ordinary people, as the noble Baroness refers to them, have access to websites. All the new rules, protocols and guidelines—I encourage the noble Baroness to follow my advice—are available on my department's website and can be accessed free of charge.