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Lord Dubs: My Lords, we have a series of amendments all expressing unease about the Minister's statement at Committee stage--which came as a shock to us--that he thought that the fees might be as much as £2,000 per day for access to the LVT.

It was a shock to many noble Lords listening to the Minister. Indeed, it was a shock to people who happened to be in the Public Galleries or who read Hansard and came to me and said they were absolutely astonished. Indeed, one individual concerned with an organisation representing leaseholders said that he thought that at that level it would be better if they took their chances in the county court than have to run the risk of paying £2,000 a day merely for access to the tribunal, to say nothing of any other costs that they might have to incur.

I very much agree with the points made by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer when he moved the first of this set of amendments. I received yesterday a briefing from the Bar Council--as perhaps did other Members of the House. I should like to quote from that briefing, which is concerned about the proposal to charge fees for access to the tribunal:

It goes on to say, in relation to service charge disputes,

    "There is nothing special about service charge disputes that warrant these provisions. They are disputes about the cost of maintaining people's homes. They are no more or less worthy of the provision of free judicial services than any other civil dispute. In practice they are more important than many disputes that are determined in the County Court because they cause great anxiety and can arise out of circumstances of real distress, particularly where lessees are being exploited by lessors with greater resources who are unprepared to co-operate with or consult lessees on the provision of builders' estimates, specifications or quotations."

I appreciate that we are dealing with matters which are complicated. But that, of course, is a consideration which leaseholders or freeholders would have to consider. They might, of course, incur additional costs in seeking legal advice. But we are embarked here on a principle which is, as far as I am aware, quite novel in this country that one has to pay for access to a court or a tribunal. Of course people have to pay their legal costs when going to court or to a tribunal, but surely having

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to pay for access is an entirely different proposition. There is a cost in running tribunals and courts but, as the Bar Council said, it is the hallmark of a civilised society that access to a tribunal should be at the cost of the state. I should have thought that that was an elementary principle. Until now it has been accepted with regard to all courts and tribunals in this country.

I have tabled an amendment to try to ensure that the maximum cost will be £500, which compares with a possible cost of £2,000 a day. I should be happier if there were no cost, so in a sense I prefer my noble and learned friend's amendment to mine. However, I tabled my amendment because I understood that in so far as a compromise was possible, the sum of £500 might be such a compromise. I am, however, reluctant to accept a compromise on this and I regard my amendment as a very poor second choice to that of my noble and learned friend because my amendment breaches a principle. In practice, it might not represent as much of a deterrent as might result if the Bill is unamended, but I think that the Government are wrong in principle. They are setting a precedent which may deny justice to a lot of people. If they take that precedent further, they may deny justice to a lot more people. This is a very wrong move and I hope very much that the Government will see their way to modifying their position.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I have added my name to that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on Amendment No. 137 which I strongly support and to which I shall speak in a moment. However, I should like to comment first on Amendment No. 136 which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, moved so well. I do not like Amendment No. 136 because I think that it is too sweeping. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that transferring from county courts to leasehold valuation tribunals is welcome. However, his amendment is too sweeping with regard to that process.

I have never agreed with the noble and learned Lord--I still do not--on the--

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for allowing me to intervene, but nothing in my amendment in any way affects the proposal to transfer the jurisdiction to leasehold valuation tribunals. The amendment simply states that people should expect there what they have expected for generations in this country--that is, justice at the expense of the community.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that explanation. However, I disagree with him on the question of legal aid in relation to tribunals. The noble and learned Lord has heard me on this point previously. I would be appalled if legal aid were introduced for tribunals, because the whole purpose of tribunals is to have a cheap, simple and effective way of hearing cases. We have argued in the past about industrial tribunals and I have said that my experience is that people who present their own cases often do it very well--and inexpensively.

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Therefore, I do not believe that anyone is barred from bringing a case under the tribunal procedure--that is, if they are able to speak for themselves.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness again. Lest anyone should be misled, the noble Baroness and I have had this debate over quite a long period and I have no doubt that we shall continue until one or other of us leaves this mortal coil. However, this point has nothing to do with my amendment. Does the noble Baroness recognise that my amendment is in no way proposing to introduce legal aid?

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord again. However, when moving his amendment he said that he wished to see legal aid being made available for those attending leasehold valuation tribunals. I am responding to that point. I do not want that to happen.

Perhaps I may return to the basic point of my argument and to why I have added my name to that of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on Amendment No.137. I repeat that I believe that we are looking for a cheap, simple and effective way of resolving disputes over service charges. Such a simple and cheap way should appeal to both landlords and tenants. I believe that it does. Even the richest landlord does not want to have to spend days and huge amounts of money defending some minor point. That is why a tribunal system is welcome.

As I have said, if you represent yourself, you can do it for nothing. That too is a merit of the system. I have said before that I believe that the noble and learned Lord is a little protective of the legal profession. He believes that everyone should be represented, but that is costly. If you are a tenant complaining about an over-charge of £1,000 on your service charge and it will cost you £2,000 to have the case heard, you are in a no-win situation because it will cost you £1,000 more to have the case heard than you would have gained if you had won the case. That is total nonsense.

I am glad that we are now talking about the reform of legal aid, but I shall not get into that debate now. However, I do think that the provision of legal aid would be unfair to property owners because people who would never entertain the thought of bringing a case if it depended on their own personal effort might well do so if the procedure was served up to them on a platter. That would be unfair to the other side. If we are to obtain a satisfactory position on this, we should recognise that both property owners and tenants would have their interests served if we had a simple, cheap and effective way of resolving disputes.

I am absolutely shocked--the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that he was shocked also--that there should be any suggestion that people should pay towards the whole cost of running a tribunal service. I believe that there is such a suggestion in this clause. I ask my noble friend on the Front Bench to clarify this because I take it to mean that not only does one have to pay costs if the case goes against one, but that one has to pay also towards the structure of the building and its staff, including for the judge in a court or the chairman in a

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tribunal. Are we saying that someone who wants to take a simple service charge dispute to a rapid determination will find that they are financially supporting the great structure of a tribunal? That would be impossible and unfair to all parties.

I am no expert on British justice and I defer to the noble and learned Lord on this, but I believe that it is totally contrary to British justice that someone should be asked to pay in that way. The taxpayer has always supported the system of justice. There are provisions in tribunal regulations to ensure that if someone brings a frivolous or vexatious case, costs can be awarded against them. I presume that there could be a similar protection in this system to ensure that people are not encouraged to waste the tribunal's time. I do not think that it is overstating the cost to say that it might amount to £2,000 a day. In fact, that might be an understatement of the cost at a tribunal because such costs can be very high.

As I have said, I do not agree with the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord. Nevertheless, I am impressed by his arguments on the legal aspects and by those of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lord Gisborough. It was a lottery as to whether I would add my name to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, or to that in the name of my noble friend. However, the noble Lord's amendment came first and covered more or less the same ground. That is why I added my name to that amendment.

The important thing is to establish the principle. I hope that this House will deplore any suggestion that we should ask those who are seeking justice to support financing the establishment of justice other than as taxpayers, as happens now.

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