Legislation that will make fundamental changes to the court system and to personal injury litigation has passed its first parliamentary test without trouble.
The Prisons and Courts Bill proceeded through its second reading in the House of Commons last night, and will now move onto the committee stage.
It is likely Labour will table amendments to the legislation at that point, although it was unclear exactly what those proposed changes will be.
The prospects of meaningful change to a bill which, among other things, sets up online courts for civil cases, allows for online guilty pleas and creates a tariff system for whiplash claims, would appear limited, given ministers’ enthusiasm for the legislation.
Closing the five-hour debate on the bill, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald said: ‘Our courts will provide straightforward access for all users. There will be stronger confidence in the justice system.
‘We will enhance our global reputation for the excellence of our legal system. This is a bold, reforming ambition for justice.’
On whiplash, Heald said the government’s response was ‘appropriate’ given the 50% increase in claims over the last 10 years.
‘These cases are obviously exaggerated to some extent, and perhaps fraudulent,’ he added. ‘No government could ignore these sorts of statistics and not take action. We have not taken extreme options but gone for moderate options such as a tariff of damages for the very minor cases.’
Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds said Labour would seek to find consensus on areas of the bill where both parties could agree, but the party will table amendments at committee stage.
Labour would look to amend the whiplash proposals in the commons ‘based on what it does for access to justice’, while on modernising the courts the party would seek amendments which ‘embed the principles of justice and fairness and to ensure that innovations come with safeguards and appropriate statutory reviews’.
Campaigners against the whiplash reforms found few allies on the government side of the house, although Bury North MP David Nuttall was an exception.
He told the debate that claims management companies would enjoy a ‘field day’ as they expand their operations because of the bill, and he feared there would inevitably be an increase in nuisance calls.
‘There will inevitably be a transfer of cases from qualified legal practitioners to unqualified claims companies – McKenzie friends and so forth and thousands of high street practices will face closure or, at the very least, job losses,’ he said.
‘Why should the vast majority of innocent, law-abiding citizens be penalised for the actions of the dishonest few?’
The debate featured an array of former justice ministers, including Jonathan Djanogly and Shailesh Vara, who gave the proposals their wholehearted support.
Djanogly engaged directly with shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, saying it was right that litigants pay some sort of fee for using the court and tribunal system.
The Huntingdon MP added: ‘Is it not the case that if someone can get something for nothing, they are likely to take it up? That was the core problem with employment tribunals when people had to pay nothing to get access.’
Burgon said his comments show how the priorities of the justice system had been ‘warped’ by government.
Justice committee chair Bob Neill said he welcomed the bill and noted it acted as a framework for further improvement of the justice system. He was most enthusiastic about the prison rehabilitation elements of the legislation, saying it was now time for the government to find radical solutions to reducing reoffending.
He added: ‘That political will does sometimes require us to stand up against the writers of the lurid headlines and those who pose as the voices of public opinion but in fact seek to be manipulators of it, and to say the truth - that it is in everybody’s interest that we reduce reoffending because the more we do so, the fewer victims of crime there are, and that is in everybody’s interest.’