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Freedom of Information Act

Dr. Kumar: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will make a statement (1) on the date for the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000; [19974]

Mr. Wills: There has been no decision to defer the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Act itself makes it clear that it must be implemented by November 2005 and the timetable announced on 13 November by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor ensures that the Freedom of Information Act will be fully implemented by January 2005, 11 months before the deadline set out in the Act itself.

The Publication scheme provisions of the Act will be implemented first, on a rolling programme, starting with central Government in 2002. This roll out will be completed in June 2004 and the individual right of access to information held by all public authorities will be implemented in January 2005.

This approach will give public authorities the time they need to put into effect the change of culture necessary to ensure that new legal rights are delivered effectively in practice. It also aligns with the 2004 target for the completion of the Government's electronic records

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management. This initiative will enable the fast retrieval and accurate creation and storage of records that will be necessary to meet the demands of the Freedom of Information Act.

Criminal Courts

Andrew George: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what assessment he has made of Lord Justice Auld's report on the operation of the criminal courts. [20323]

Mr. Wills: The Government are grateful to Sir Robin Auld for his very substantial and important review of the criminal courts at every level. The Government have taken no decisions on his report and we are keen to encourage wide debate on these issues before we reach decisions. The on-going period of public comment ends on 31 January.

Gravesend County Court

Mr. Pond: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, pursuant to his answer of 27 November 2001, Official Report, column 830W, on Gravesend county court, how many cases were dealt with by Gravesend county court in each six month period beginning in January 1999. [20821]

Mr. Wills: The table contains the total number of default and fixed date claims issued and the number of small claims hearings held during the period requested. It should be noted that Gravesend county court has one district judge assigned to it and as such hears no civil trials, which are dealt with by the trial centre at Croydon county court. Further, the court does not have divorce, family or bankruptcy jurisdictions.

Claims issued, small claims hearings and possession applications heard at Gravesend county court during selected periods

Total claims issued(49)Small claims hearingsMortgage and rent possession applications
January to June 199976946197
July to December 199980234252
January to June 200069933215
July to December 200072435182
January to June 200157517190
July to October 200153121187

(49) Includes default and fixed date claims

Victims of Crime

Andrew George: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (1) what means of communication there are between a (a) victim and (b) victim's family and the prosecuting counsel during court sittings; and if measures are under review; [20327]

The Solicitor-General: Communications between the prosecuting advocate and witnesses prior to a trial are governed by the Bar's Written Standards for the Conduct of Professional Work. The standards provide that a barrister may have contact with a witness with a view

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to introducing himself or herself, explaining the court's procedure and answering any questions about it which the witness may have. They also place upon the barrister a responsibility to ensure that witnesses are put as much at ease as possible. Victims, or the members of a victim's family, should be treated in the same way. Crown Prosecutors who are solicitors should also adhere to the same standards.

In the Crown court the prosecuting barrister will be supported by a CPS caseworker. If the victim or members of the victim's family wish to contact the prosecution barrister during the hearing itself, the first point of contact will be the caseworker. In many cases, the caseworker will be able to deal with the query without reference to the prosecuting barrister. In some cases the caseworker will need to refer the victim's comments to the prosecuting barrister. If the caseworker is engaged on another case in a different court, the usual means of communication between the victim or the victim's family and the prosecuting barrister will be via the usher or a police officer.

In the magistrates court the prosecutor will not have the support of a caseworker and is, as a result, reliant in practice on the usher or a police officer to communicate to him or her any comments that the victim or the victim's family may have during the hearing.

The Crown Prosecution Service believes that more could be done to encourage victims or the families of victims to make the prosecutor aware of things said in court that are material and are factually incorrect.

The CPS is therefore currently considering in consultation with Victim Support how victims could be better informed as to when it is appropriate to communicate with the prosecutor and the means by which it can be done.

Andrew George: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (1) what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Bar Code of Conduct in respect of guidance that defence counsel should advise the prosecution with sufficient advance notice of the proposed use of any derogatory remarks to be made against an alleged victim; [20330]

The Solicitor-General: The guidance to defence counsel is set out in the Standards Applicable to Criminal Cases, which are annexed to the Code of Conduct for the Bar of England and Wales. The relevant paragraph (Annex F12.2(k)) is worded as follows:

All practising members of the Bar are expected to be familiar with the Code of Conduct and to apply its principles and standards. The Code is issued subject to the

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approval of the Lord Chancellor. Neither the Bar nor the Lord Chancellor routinely monitors compliance with the Code but the Bar, through complaints referred to its Professional Conduct Committee, is able to assess the effectiveness of particular parts of the Code upon which a complaint is based. No complaints have been made about individual barristers failing to observe the guidance set out above.

I have made no representations, nor had any discussions with the Bar in relation to the Code of Conduct and the operation of the specific guidance on derogatory mitigation. I am able to confirm that no such discussions have taken place involving the Attorney General or the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Andrew George: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what plans he has to ensure that alleged victims of crime have adequate time in which to (a) consider the decision of the CPS to accept an alteration of a plea and (b) be told when the appeal is to be heard. [20326]

The Solicitor-General: The right hon. Lord Williams of Mostyn QC, published guidelines 12 months ago outlining the approach that should be adopted by a prosecution advocate when considering the acceptability of a defendant's plea. The guidelines emphasise that the prosecution should keep victims or victims' families attending court informed of developments in a case and, whenever practicable, speak to them so that their views and interests can be taken into account as part of the decision-making process.

The police are responsible for keeping the victim or victim's family informed of the progress of Court of Appeal cases. The police receive this information from the Criminal Appeals Office in all cases involving a death or sexual offence and in any other case in which the victim has indicated that he or she wishes to be kept informed of case progress.

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