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Lord Goodhart: I am most grateful for the support that I received from the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, and the

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noble Lords, Lord Borrie and Lord Higgins. The main problem arises from the fact that, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate said, before the changes to the rules in 1996, 30 per cent. of appellants did not appear for the hearings. I can understand why that is a matter of concern. It is a waste of time and money if that happens. At the same time, I am not sufficiently familiar with the procedure to know whether or not a tribunal can proceed to make a decision in the absence of the appellant. If the present position is that it cannot do so, that might be changed. If it can, and if the appellant does not turn up, it does not mean that there has to be another hearing.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I have fully taken on board the arguments which the noble Lord has advanced and they are very much present in my own mind. But in fairness, if there is an oral hearing and without announcing his absence the claimant fails to appear, usually there is at least a delay because it has to be ascertained whether something has happened to the claimant. At the very best it means that the matter is resumed a long time afterwards. If it is known that a claimant proposes not to attend, then as a matter of fact everyone knows that the hearing will be much quicker. I have seen this happen. If four claimants out of five on a morning's list do not turn up, by half-past eleven the tribunal is just sitting there and nothing is happening.

Lord Goodhart: I accept what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, has said and I recognise the problem. That has made understandable the experiment introduced in 1996. The trouble is that the figures show that it has failed because, although that may have reduced the amount of time wasted and the expense of members of the tribunal turning up and finding they have nothing to do, it has also led to a serious decline in the quality of justice administered by the appeal tribunals.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Will the noble Lord give way? I have not sat on social security tribunals, but for years I have sat on industrial tribunals where the situation is very similar. I have listened very carefully to the debate on this amendment, although I have not taken part in the discussions on this Bill. As I listened to the noble Lord presenting his amendment, I believe that there is a total misunderstanding as to how the tribunals work. I am totally convinced by the arguments put forward by the Minister on this point. If people could no longer have an oral hearing, I would have been all in favour of the amendment. But people have to go to the trouble of saying that they would like an oral hearing. That is a very good first hurdle for people to overcome because it weeds out so many claimants. I believe that of the 30 per cent. of claimants who do not turn up, there are many who know that their claim has no hope in the world, and that is why they do not appear. They have no case and they would just be wasting time.

We must not overlook the fact that if we greatly increase the number of cases by insisting that each person has an oral hearing, whether or not it is wanted--

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the lazy ones will certainly not bother to opt out--we should be delaying the whole process to such an extent that it will be to the disadvantage of the really deserving people who need to have their cases dealt with. I take issue with the Minister on one matter about the traffic lights system in America, which has something to recommend it. I am not proposing--and I do not believe that my noble friend Lady Wilcox was either--

Earl Russell: The noble Baroness had a point to make, but I believe that in this House it is not the convention to make interventions quite as long as is acceptable in another place.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I take issue with that. This is Committee stage of the Bill and we are all allowed to speak as often as we wish and at whatever length we wish. This is not Report stage, but if I am wrong I shall be grateful to be corrected.

Lord Goodhart: Perhaps I may resume. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, but I believe that there are distinctions here between industrial tribunals and social security tribunals. For one thing, those who apply to industrial tribunals are much less likely to be among those who are disadvantaged in various ways. They are less likely to be functionally illiterate. Both those categories of people are likely to be rather highly represented among those who apply to a social security tribunal. For that reason, what is appropriate for an industrial tribunal is not necessarily appropriate for a social security appeal tribunal.

It is perfectly clear that the proportion of those who attend for an oral hearing has fallen from 62 per cent. to 44 per cent.--that is, out of every seven people who attended oral hearings before, two do not attend now, with obvious consequences on their chances of success. I take the view that it is, and remains, appropriate that the default procedure in cases involving social security tribunals should be the oral hearing. In those circumstances, I do not propose to move Amendment No. 47, but it may be a matter to which we shall want to return on another occasion because, on the figures, the current system seems not to have worked and to have been the cause of serious injustice.

Finally, I was much attracted by the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, about traffic-lights for speakers. It occurred to me that we might experiment with that in this House, possibly at the Committee stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill!

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I must apologise to the noble Lord. I realise now that when I intervened in his speech, I also made a point to the Minister when I should have referred only to the noble Lord. That is where I think that I was out of order. I regret that and I apologise to the noble Lord.

Lord Goodhart: I am most grateful for that explanation.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Lord Goodhart moved Amendment No. 46:

Page 8, line 17, at end insert (", save that the time within which an appeal shall be brought shall not be less than three months from the notification of the decision in question.
( ) Regulations made under subsection (6) above shall provide that a person may bring an appeal after the expiry of the prescribed time if a full-time chairman considers that the person has reasonable excuse for not bringing the appeal before that expiry.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment relates to the time-limit for appeals. At present the time-limit is three months and I understand that the Government intend to use the regulations, which they have power to make under Clause 13, to reduce the time-limit for appeals from three months to one month. There is little real justification for reducing the time for appeals. It is perfectly true that most people apply within one month, but those who are least likely to do so are those who are disadvantaged, and the disadvantaged often need advice and help from organisations such as citizens advice bureaux. There may well be difficulty in arranging home visits to disabled people who are unable to come to a CAB office.

A statement from Richmond CAB, which runs a disability rights advice group, is typical of comments from many CABs. Richmond CAB stated:

    "We believe one month is a quite inadequate time for preparation of an appeal and will particularly work to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable who may need help to make an effective case. With the best will in the world, agencies such as CABs, who have heavy caseloads may not be able to offer a home visit to a vulnerable client in less than two to three weeks and obtaining supporting evidence within the time allowed is quite unrealistic. This assumes that the client gets in touch with us immediately the decision arrives. In many cases, it takes a while before people with disabilities who often live isolated lives find out how to contact someone who may be able to help them".

If the period is shortened, it becomes all the more essential--this is the effect of the second paragraph of the proposed amendment--to give full discretion to the tribunal to extend the period for the appeal. Since February 1996, time-limits can be extended only if the appeal has reasonable prospects of success and if it is in the interests of justice to grant leave. The reference to "interests of justice" is interpreted very narrowly and under the existing practice of the tribunals, it is considered to apply only if there are special reasons which are wholly exceptional and which relate to the history and the facts of the case, and only if the special reasons are sufficiently strong to give a reasonable excuse for the delay. The second part of that is, I think, understandable, but the first (that the special reasons must be wholly exceptional) seems to go well beyond anything that is reasonable. No official figures are available on the number of cases where late appeals are allowed, but experts believe that under current practice it is almost impossible to obtain leave.

I believe that the Government have expressed some concern about this matter. I hope that they will be willing to leave the time for appeal at a minimum of three months, but, if not, I hope that they will accept that if the limit is reduced to one month, the chairman

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of the tribunal should be given a general jurisdiction to allow an appeal out of time whenever it is fair and reasonable to do so. I beg to move.

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