Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 40-59)



  40. When do you hope to have the conclusion of those inquiries?
  (Mr Magee) I cannot speak for the Magistrates' Court Inspectorate report. I think some time later this year. As far as the information from the cracked and ineffective work that we have put in hand is concerned, again it will be later this year before results start to come through that we can act on. What we will then do is seek to engage with Justices Chief Executives in different areas to compare and contrast levels of performance and try to get underneath the figures and statistics.

  41. What do you think is a realistic target to get the unnecessary attendance down?
  (Mr Magee) I do not know. It is not all within our gift either. I think the targets that we have got are proving quite challenging to get down, and our first efforts must be to try and get there with the help of the sort of methods that I have explained to you.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think the recommendations in the White Paper, as they progressively come on stream, particularly in relation to tighter case management by judges and getting a grip on criminal cases earlier, as we have successfully done in the civil side, will over time make a real difference here, because if you get defence, prosecution and all the witnesses in advance of the trial to sign up to the key issues and a timetable which really does work and in which you get co-operation, then I think we should see quite a major change in the way things are done. That is the world we look forward to and, also, one in which the Lord Chief Justice can give practice directions about process not just in the High Court and the County Court but right through the totality of the criminal justice system, which he cannot at the moment—magistrates' courts are quite separate. I think in that way we can really make a much further advance, if we had those tools.
  (Mr Magee) May I mention one more thing, which is quite exciting. In Essex, around Chelmsford and Basildon, we have introduced a scheme called XHIBIT which stands for eXchange of Hearing Information By Information Technology. That, for example, allows us to contact the different agencies in the justice system and give them a real-time update on what is happening in the Crown Court there. What we have found is that it has an interesting effect, due at least in part to the strong leadership that is given by the resident judge there, on all of the parties to a case, including the defence. This sort of system will only work and work well if everybody understands what is required of them and works towards it. So, again, it reinforces the points that Sir Hayden was making about case management and case control as an effective example of how one can use IT—I realise I am leading with my chin talking about IT in any public sector environment—to effectively speed up the justice process, and to change behaviour in the justice process too.

  Chairman: I think the mention of Essex calls for a visit from Mr Russell.

Bob Russell

  42. Actually, Chairman, it was a general question. I am assuming that the closure of the magistrates' court programme is not going to be halted, let alone reversed. That leads us on to the quality and the location of the new super court. I wonder if I could ask Sir Hayden whether the PFI route is delivering quality new court buildings or is there a danger, by the very nature of a Private Finance Initiative to generate a profit, that corners are being cut in order that PFI companies can generate a bigger profit? What is the quality of the new court houses, both interior and exterior appearance?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Speaking for courts that we are involved now in designing, Cambridge, Exeter, Bristol and Manchester, I can absolutely say that architectural quality and design quality has been built very well into those courts. I do not pretend to you that every single new-build court would necessarily meet the standards you and I might want, and there may be some risks in PFI, but there is no reason why—whether you are going through a Public Private Partnership route or a straightforward, normal public expenditure route—you cannot build design and architectural quality into the nature of the deal. It gets more complicated where we are not in direct charge—say, in the magistrates' courts—but it can be done and, frankly, the Lord Chancellor and I want our Department to actually be recognised for taking this very seriously and trying to make sure that architecture and design quality is built in. It has a cost but it is very, very important. These are major civic buildings.

  43. So there is no dumbing down?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. We have actually won an award from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) for our approach to the creation of new courts. We want to hang on to that award, and that is a clear commitment on the part of the Department and of the Lord Chancellor.


  44. Can we turn to fees now? You have introduced individual case contracts in both civil and in criminal cases. Is that right?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  45. The purpose of that is to remove incentives for delay.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The central purpose of contracts is two-fold: it is, first of all, to make sure that you have a better grip on costs of cases and you are not simply reacting to people's bills and just having to pay them. The second purpose is to assure the users of the quality of the service that is being provided. In other words, in exchange for a contract the Legal Services Commission will check on and audit the quality of the service being provided. They are the central reasons, in general. There are particular types of classes of case—for example, very big cases—where we are introducing a specific contract for an individual case and which we pay as the case goes along, in agreement with those who are delivering it. That has the potential, although it brings money forward, in the long-term to reduce expenditure and certainly to reduce delay in relation to payments—so you do not find yourself, long after the event, arguing about how legal aid should be provided in a particular case. Obviously, we hope that that mechanism, as it builds up and is going quite well, will also assist us with the general problem of delay.

  46. Have the lawyers signed up to this?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  47. So you have not had difficulty finding lawyers to take on that work?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No. I think it is right to say that across the country as a whole there are sufficient contracts. There are certainly sufficient contracts across the criminal system. We are a bit worried about the supply in relation to family cases and asylum in certain parts of the country, some rural and suburban areas. We have mentioned in our memorandum that there had been a drop, particularly I think in the family area. With the Legal Services Commission we have to keep a very close eye on that, not just for the short-term but for the longer term. One of the things we have done is to put some money—I think about £1.5 million—into training and development contracts into firms to encourage people to come into this sort of work so that we are continuing to build a long-term supply base in publicly-funded work. There are various other things that are being done as well. So the overall position is satisfactory, but with some spots of difficulty which we really have to watch.

  48. You are getting value for money?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think we are in a position now, through contracting and quality assurance, to be able to give the Committee much more assurance about value for money than we would have been able to have done two or three years ago. Indeed, the Legal Services Commission is looking at that the whole time, and it would not, indeed, be giving out contracts to those people it did not think represented value for money.

  49. The complaint used to be that the legal aid budget was going up and the number of cases being dealt with was going down. Is that no longer the case?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) The legal aid budget in relation to crime is going up, and I think it is right to say that 49% of criminal legal aid goes on 1% of cases—the most expensive and the most complex; the big, heavy serious fraud, or organised crime cases. That often is not clearly known. That is going up, and we would expect that to gradually go up; it is not something which is within our control. We are required, obviously, to fund the defence. In relation to civil provision, what we call the—

  50. Just to be clear: are you saying that criminal legal aid is now dealing with more cases?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) As to the number of cases, I may have to be assisted. I think it is certainly dealing with heavier and more complex cases, which I think is the main driver for the increase in costs. In relation to the Community Legal Service—ie, civil legal aid—it was £2 million below provision last year. In real terms it is now at the same level as it was in 1994-95. In other words, we have got much greater control over the budget, partly as a result of taking personal injury out and through Conditional Fee Agreements coming in, and as a result of that we can target legal aid better than before. I think I am right in saying that 90% of all new business in the last year was targeted on children, family cases, social welfare cases, immigration, housing, debt and education, which is where the Government really has wanted to see legal aid money going. So I think, in a small way, I would claim that is quite a success story compared to what was in place before.

  51. And the lawyers are all co-operating?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) As the first non-lawyer Permanent Secretary of the Department, I am surprised at how co-operative they are, yes.

  52. You have not had to stuff their mouths with gold?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) No, we have not, actually. Indeed, we have held down rates. As you know, the Lord Chancellor has reduced the use of QCs in the criminal courts and there has been a substantial saving there. We have tended, where we are doing remuneration increases, to target those on the areas where we are shortest in terms of expertise. I forget the figure now, but the general increase in legal aid remuneration has been very low compared to increases in private remuneration, which is something we, again, have to watch because if the disparity is far too great there will be no incentive for a lot of solicitors, for example, to stay with publicly funded work.

  53. You have abolished the means test for criminal legal aid, I believe.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.

  54. Have you been able to quantify the effect of that?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I can give you some figures. The numbers in terms of the money flowing through from what are now called "Recovery of Defence Costs Orders" is not that great, but the key thing was to do two things: one, it frankly was a waste of time and energy to go through this immensely complicated process, which on the whole was got wrong in a sufficient number of cases for the accounts of this department to be qualified every single year. That was just unnecessary and unacceptable. Secondly, it built into the magistrates' courts a period of delay while this work was done, which was much better used if it was not there at all. I think there has been a considerable improvement as a result of that.

  55. So you have abolished a lot of bureaucracy, it has not cost an enormous amount of money and you have reduced delays.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Yes.
  (Ms Rowe) To date, 193 orders have been made against income and 66 made against capital. In relation to the orders made against income, they amount to £112,000 and the 66 against capital amount to £89,000.

  56. Right. The main point, anyway, is not to get the money back, it is to get rid of the delay and bureaucracy. Is that right?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Absolutely. Delay and totally unnecessary bureaucracy, which is a complete waste of time.

  57. It has been a success. Good. Turning to the Criminal Justice Reserve Fund, has it worked in practice? Has it given you the flexibility you need?
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) I think it has been a successful innovation. It has enabled us to be able to deal with new pressures that have arisen since any settlement has been made and it has enabled us to take some new initiatives. There are a number of examples I could give, Chairman.

  58. Just one or two, yes, please.
  (Sir Hayden Phillips) Well, if we take victims or witnesses, money has gone in to deal with increased help for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses and for extended witness support to the magistrates' courts. We receive money from the CJS Reserve for developing the criminal justice information technology in our own area and that now, as one of the results of the SR2002 settlement, is very large sums of money. Something like £600 million over three years will go into IT in the criminal justice system. We have been able to fund increased sitting days in the courts as a result of, as it were, more cases coming through from the police than we had originally anticipated and some money has gone from the CJS Reserve to the Street Crime Initiative which is now under way, so it has been quite a quick response mechanism for putting resources into new initiatives and new areas. It has also been good as it required three ministers in charge of three departments to agree on the priority to give to it and that has been a discipline on all of us to make sure that we do actually work together and are choosing priorities that we share in common, so, on the whole, a good story and the fund will continue at, I think, £225 million a year over the three years from the beginning of next year.

  59. That seems to be a rather large increase. I think the total allocation in 2001-02 was £85 million. Have I got that wrong?
  (Ms Rowe) The total money available in 2001-02 was £100 million, but it was raised to £200 million in the current year and then to £225 million next year.

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