Psychoactive substances bill may lead to lack of clarity over whether or not suspects are breaking the law, says Durham PCC Ron Hogg
Northumbria University research found the main market for legal highs was vulnerable young people. Photograph: Alamy
Police could face extra expense and confusion as a result of discrepancies in the laws banning the possession of drugs that will emerge once the psychoactive substances bill comes into force, a police and crime commissioner has warned.
Ron Hogg, police and crime commissioner for Durham, said he found it bizarre that the new law to ban the trade in any substances that have a psychoactive effect will not also make possession an offence, and that this could cause problems for investigating officers.
“On the ground that might mean that people are arrested, drugs seized and taken for testing, and then people are not prosecuted,” Hogg said. It costs about £100 to test a single sample of suspected drugs, one expert told the Guardian.
Amid controversy and impassioned debate, the psychoactive substances bill passed its final stages in parliament this week and is expected to be signed into law by the Queen in April.
The law is intended to shut down the trade in legal highs, also known as novel psychoactive substances (NPSs), which are designer drugs concocted to have similar effects to controlled drugs, while circumventing drugs laws.
However, there are reports that the trade in some legal highs is already moving underground and that use, particularly of synthetic versions of cannabis, has already become embedded in groups of problem drug users such as prisoners, the homeless and disadvantaged young people.
Hogg has previously called for the decriminalisation of all drug possession to allow police to focus on dealers, but he said that the discrepancy in the ban between controlled drugs and NPSs meant that it would be increasingly unclear to officers whether or not suspects were breaking the law.
“It depends how much time and energy that forces are willing to put into this. The legislation doesn’t help for not making possession a criminal offence, or taking the converse view and decriminalising possession of all drugs,” he said.
“I suspect we will find a mixed bag and it will make it very difficult for operational officers to make a decision.” The current Acpo guidance on dealing with drugs crime says that suspect substances should be treated as controlled drugs until proven otherwise.
Nevertheless, Hogg welcomed the new powers the law would give police, particularly around search and seizure, that will allow them to tackle distribution of NPSs, which are leading to a rise in antisocial behaviour in many communities.
Vera Baird, PCC for Northumbria, said her region was one of the worst affected by use of NPSs and she also welcomed the new powers. Police in Newcastle have launched a task force specifically to tackle the problem after they received 96 calls for antisocial behaviour linked to use of legal highs in just two weeks.
Research commissioned by Baird and carried out by Northumbria University found that the main market for legal highs was vulnerable young people, in particular young boys who were in local authority care.
Supt Richie Jackson, who is leading Newcastle’s task force, said the city’s problems were focused on a form of synthetic cannabinoid called methoxetamine or MXE, which is traded on the street and in so-called headshops under various names, including Black Mamba and Pandora.
Aside from erratic and antisocial behaviour, incidents linked to the substance included users found unconscious in the street and subsequently suffering breathing problems. In one case a man who had to be talked down after threatening to leap from a local landmark ended up in hospital coughing up blood.
Local police intelligence was suggesting that the substances were being imported into the area then locally cut with unknown chemicals, Jackson said. Samples of the drugs had been seized and the force was awaiting the results of sample tests to find out what they contained.
Michael Linnell, founder of DrugWatch, a forum for drugs workers and professionals, said he expected legitimate retailers to start selling off their remaining stocks of NPSs at big discounts ahead of the ban. After that, the results of the ban were unpredictable, although it is likely that the trade would continue in some form underground, he said.
“It’s important to remember it’s a market, so for a lot of people it doesn’t really matter whether it’s illegal or not,” Linnell said. “It’s a matter of if it’s desirable and whether they can get hold of it.”
MPs told fees rise was based on ‘hopeless’ evidence to plug £100m hole and hit small businesses, divorcees and employees
The master of the rolls said ‘enhanced fees’ meant users of civil courts were subsiding the family and criminal courts. Photograph: Velar Grant/Demotix/Corbis
Court fee increases that were hastily introduced to plug a £100m hole in the Ministry of Justice’s budget were based on “hopeless” evidence, according to the most senior civil judge in England and Wales.
Giving evidence to the justice select committee, the Master of the Rolls, John Dyson, highlighted the financial problems of the department under which the government is trying to make the justice system self-financing.
In what amounted to a display of judicial alarm at MoJ policy under the previous justice secretary, Chris Grayling, three of the most senior civil judges warned of the danger of raising tribunal and court fees too high.
“Enhanced fees” are designed to make a profit, charging claimants more than the administrative cost of the service.
“The users of the civil courts are subisdising the family courts and criminal courts,” Lord Dyson said on Tuesday. “I think it’s wrong in principle … but it’s a policy matter as to whether parliament should go down that route.
“It is, I’m afraid, why the risk of denying access to justice for a lot of people is so intense in these proposals.”
People in small enterprises and business would be deterred from litigation, Dyson said.
Fee increases “won’t deter rich people but small businesses. With the type of people this government said it wanted to encourage because they will be the engine for [economic] growth, many of them are most at risk.”
Dyson continued: “We have warned of the real dangers and we also warned that the reseach carried out by the government before it embarked on this course of action was lamentable.”
Only 31 calls were made to ask what impact it would have, mainly to wealthier court users who could afford the increase in fees, he said.
“We warned that this research was hopeless but the impression I had was, such was the need to rush this through because there was a great big gap in the finances which had to be plugged … There’s a big hole in the department’s finances. We were told there’s a £100m shortfall for justice.
“[The MoJ] made assumptions that demand would not be affected by these changes and they based that assumption on a very, very limited evidential base … I’m extremely sceptical about that assumption.”
Dyson acknowledged that £700m had been made available for court modernisation, but observed: “The government’s track record on IT projects is not exactly shining.”
Sir James Munby, the judge in charge of the family courts, said the administrative cost of a divorce was around £200 but the MoJ considered charging £750. It was eventually fixed at a profit-making level of £550.
Any divorce must go through the courts.
“Can we continue putting fees up until it becomes another poll tax on wheels?” Munby asked. “Those who want to divorce will probably still do so through gritted teeth but it doesn’t mean you can keep on putting up the fees.”
By comparison, he said, it cost around £100 to register a marriage. “People will see that it doesn’t cost six or eight times as much to get divorced as it does to get married.”
He said one of the first legal functions to go online was likely to be divorce. “It won’t take long to work out that the cost of administering it online is a fiction.”
Making it possible to process a divorce online was fairly straightforward compared with other types of cases, Munby added.
“If it can’t be done we are in very big trouble. I have been discussing online divorce with [MoJ] officials for several months now.
“I’m becoming increasingly concerned and the current position is that the ability to deliver it is a question on which the jury is out. I’m disappointed about where we have got to after many months of work. I still have no clear answers to such basic questions as what is the overall timeline for this process.”
Sir Ernest Ryder, who is in charge of employment and immigration tribunals, said increases in fees for employment tribunals had resulted in a 70% fall in the number of claims being brought over a single year.
“That’s an extraordinary position that demands an explanation,” he told MPs.
There was no evidence, as some had argued, that a rise in fees had deterred supposedly spurious claims, he said.
At justice questions in the Commons shortly afterwards, Labour justice spokesman Andy Slaughter took up Lord Dyson’s comments. “The Master of the Rolls described the fee increases affecting civil litigants of small businesses as a desperate way of carrying on based on hopeless research,” he said. “It is another car crash. Is it time for another U-turn?”
The justice secretary, Michael Gove, replied: “One of the biggest barriers to justice, as the Master of the Rolls and others have pointed out, is costs. Action needs to be taken to reduce costs in civil justice. It is not enough simply to say that the taxpayer must shoulder the burden. We need reform of our legal system to make access to justice easier for all.”
Vital information about prison attacks, penalty fares on London trains, NHS whistleblowing policies in the NHS and parking tickets has all been withheld
Currently withheld information includes complaints made against the services provided by the private security firm G4S Rex
Companies who operate everything from prisons to parking services and prosecuting TV licence evaders must be made more accountable, campaigners say.
A legal loophole in the Freedom of Information Act which exempts major contractors from revealing details of the public services they provide must be closed, they say.
Vital information about prison attacks, penalty fares on London trains, NHS whistleblowing policies in the NHS and parking tickets has all been withheld under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act because this information was held by public authority contractors and not by the authorities themselves.
The Campaign for Freedom of Information say currently under the FoI Act, information held by contractors can normally only be obtained if the contract specifically entitles the authority employing them to it.
If the contract is silent, the information cannot be accessed.
Maurice Frankel, the Campaign’s director said: “Information about public services provided by contractors, whether commercial bodies or charities, should be covered by FoI. The loophole in the Act, which excludes such information if the contract doesn’t refer to it, should be closed. The public’s right to know should not be arbitrarily cut off because the staff who provide the service are paid by a contractor, not by the authority itself.”
The Campaign has highlighted 10 examples of information about public services withheld because of the loophole.
Withheld information includes
• The number of complaints from the public against court security officers provided by G4S and the number of officers charged with offences.
• the number of prison staff at HMP Birmingham and the number of attacks at the prison. Also held only by G4S.
• the ratio of prison officers to prisoners at Liverpool’s HMP Altcourse, managed by G4S.
• information about rehabilitation projects at HMP Bronzefield, near Ashfield in Surrey run by Sodexo.
• the value of penalty fares issued on the London Overground and Docklands Light Railway by private sector inspectors.
• the costs of bringing TV licensing prosecutions, which is held by Capita and not known to the BBC.
• whistleblowing policies applying to Virgin Care staff providing NHS services.
• the numbers of parking tickets issued, then cancelled on appeal, by Islington traffic wardens offered Argos points as incentives to issue tickets by NCP Ltd.
• how often a contractor managed council swimming pool in Southwark had been needlessly closed to the public after being booked by schools which did not use their slots.
• arrangements made by a subcontractor to restore Leyton Marsh after its use as a temporary basketball court during the Olympics.
The Campaign have called for major contractors, whose work mainly involves providing public services, to be brought directly under the Act in their own right in relation to those contracts. Information held by other contractors should be available via an FOI request to the public authority, it says. This approach has been endorsed by the Information Commissioner.
The Public Accounts Committee has recommended that “Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services” and that “where private companies provide public services funded by the taxpayer, those areas of their business which are publicly funded should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act provision”.
Force says BBC story was inaccurate and has damaged community relations with the police
BBC newsroom studio at Broadcasting House. Lancashire’s police and crime commissioner has written to BBC Lancashire about its reporting of the story. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA
Police have criticised the BBC for publishing a story that claimed a spelling error led to a 10-year-old Muslim boy being investigated over terror allegations, and warned the press of the impact it could have on community relations.
On Wednesday, the BBC reported that a boy who attends a Lancashire primary school was interviewed by police after he had written that he lived in a “terrorist house”. His family claimed this was a spelling mistake and he meant to say he lived in a “terraced house”.
Lancashire Constabulary’s police and crime commissioner, Clive Grunshaw, has written to BBC Lancashire about its reporting, which he said had damaged relations. The police said the family were not interrogated as potential terrorists.
The police visit took place because of other worrying issues in the boy’s school work, not just the “terrorist house” line, Grunshaw said. The concerns were “reported through the appropriate channels”.
“This was not responded to as a terror incident and the reporter was fully aware of this before she wrote her story,” he said. “In the event there was no further action needed, but if the school and police had not acted then they would have been failing in their duty to respond to concerns.”
Condemning the reporting and the level of debate it sparked, he said: “The media needs to take more responsibility when sensationalising issues to make stories much bigger than they are and to realise the impact they can have on local communities
A statement from the police and local council echoed the commissioner’s comments. It read that it was “untrue to suggest that this situation was brought about by a simple spelling mistake. The school and the police have acted responsibly and proportionately in looking into a number of potential concerns using a low-key, local approach.”
The BBC said in reply to the complaint that the reporting had been in the public interest. A spokesperson said: “The BBC has a duty to report challenging stories in a responsible way. We firmly believe this story was in the public interest and that we acted properly.
“We reported the facts in good faith and after taking appropriate steps to check them with the authorities involved. A statement from the police was included. We updated the story immediately when the authorities released more information once the story was in the public domain. We absolutely did not say the family was ‘interrogated as potential terrorists’.”
The original story was widely reported in national and international press, attributing the BBC as the source of the news, and even inspired a hashtag on social media #IGrewUpInATerroristHouse. The Guardian’s report of the the initial story has since been taken down and is under investigation by the readers’ editor.
Since July, teachers have been legally obliged to report any suspected extremist behaviour to police. In addition, teachers must report any child protection concerns through the necessary channels.
The boy’s family are demanding that both the school and police apologise for the incident, which took place on 7 December. The father, who wished only to be known as Mohammed, told local Lancashire press he wanted a written apology. He said: “The police officer took his laptop and the officer came back 45 minutes later and said everything was all right. My son is very disturbed. We all are. We are a very peaceful family with no links to politics. He had never written anything like this before.”
The father demanded that an explanation of the incident be given to the whole school at morning assembly to stop his youngest child being bullied.
A spokesperson for Lancashire police said the force had not received a formal complaint and would not be further investigating the case, adding that officers had acted proportionately. “There was no further action required by any further agency,” the spokesperson said.
The BBC reporter had been given the context surrounding the incident by both Lancashire council and the police, as well as guidance to make sure that the story would not be “sensationalised or reported differently to how it was brought to us”, the spokesperson said.
Appeal court says detention of Miranda was lawful but clause under which he was held is incompatible with European human rights convention
The court of appeal rules in the David Miranda case – video
A key clause in the Terrorism Act 2000 is incompatible with the European convention on human rights, the master of the rolls, Lord Dyson, has declared as part of a court of appeal judgment.
The decision came in the case of David Miranda, who was detained at Heathrow airport in 2013 for carrying files related to information obtained by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The court of appeal’s judgment on Tuesday will force government ministers to re-examine the act.
Dyson, who made the ruling along with Lord Justice Richards and Lord Justice Floyd, said the powers contained in schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 were flawed. Schedule 7 allows travellers to be questioned to find out whether they appear to be terrorists. They have no right to remain silent or receive legal advice and they may be detained for up to nine hours.
“The stop power, if used in respect of journalistic information or material is incompatible with article 10 [freedom of expression] of the [European convention on human rights] because it is not ‘prescribed by law’,” said Dyson, the most senior civil judge in England and Wales.
The judgment continued: “If journalists and their sources can have no expectation of confidentiality, they may decide against providing information on sensitive matters of public interest.
“The court of appeal ruling rejects the broad definition of terrorism advanced by government lawyers. The correct legal definition of terrorism, the court of appeal has now ruled, requires some intention to cause a serious threat to public safety such as endangering life.”
Welcoming the decision, Kate Goold, representing Miranda, said: “The notion of a journalist becoming an accidental terrorist has been wholeheartedly rejected. We welcome this court’s principled and decisive ruling that schedule 7 [of the Terrorism Act] needs to come in line with other legislation to ensure that the seizure of journalistic material is protected by judicial safeguards.”
However, the judges concluded that the police decision to detain Miranda, the partner of the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, at Heathrow was lawful.
Dyson said the police power to stop at airports and ports was not subject to “sufficient legal safeguards to avoid the risk that it will be exercised arbitrarily. The court therefore grants a certificate of incompatibility”.
“It will be a matter for parliament to decide how to provide such a safeguard,” he added. “The most obvious safeguard would be some form of judicial or other independent and impartial scrutiny in such a way as to protect the confidentiality in the material.”
Issuing a certificate of incompatibility is highly unusual but open to judges when they conclude that UK law is inconsistent with the country’s international human rights obligations.
The judgment in effect says the police acted within the existing law but the law itself was illegal.
“The exercise of the schedule 7 stop power in relation to Mr Miranda on 18 August 2013 was lawful…” the judges concluded. “But the stop power conferred by paragraph 2(1) of schedule 7 [of the Terrorism Act] is incompatible with article 10 of the convention [on human rights] in relation to journalistic material in that it was not subject to adequate safeguards against its arbitrary exercise.”
The judgment said: “The central concern is that disclosure of journalistic material [whether or not it involves the identification of a journalist’s sources] undermines the confidentiality that is inherent in such material and which is necessary to avoid the chilling effect of disclosure and to protect article 10 [freedom of expression] rights.”
The challenge brought by Miranda questioned the legality of his nine-hour detention under counter-terrorism powers.
The hearing at the court of appeal in London in December followed an earlier decision by a lower court that holding him was lawful.
Approximately 60,000 people a year are held in such controversial port stops. The Home Office has argued that border controls exist to check on travellers where there is insufficient information to justify an arrest.
David Miranda and his partner, former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Photograph: Janine Gibson for the Guardian
Liberty, The human rights campaign group, welcomed what it described as a “landmark judgment”. Rosie Brighouse, its legal officer, said: “This judgment is a major victory for the free press. Schedule 7 has been a blot on our legal landscape for years – breathtakingly broad and intrusive, ripe for discrimination, routinely misused. Its repeal is long overdue.
“It is also a timely reminder of how crucial the Human Rights Act is for protecting journalists’ rights. Once again it has come to the rescue of press freedom in the face of arbitrary abuse of power by the state.”
Miranda’s first legal challenge was supported by the Guardian. The court of appeal challenge was funded by First Look Media, which publishes the online magazine the Intercept. The organisation said the appeal had been brought to defend freedom of expression and journalists’ rights.
When Miranda was stopped, he was carrying encrypted files containing journalistic material derived from Snowden, the US National Security Agency whistleblower. His counsel, Matthew Ryder QC, told the court: “Snowden, whatever you may think of him, provided information which has been of immense public importance. In this case we are talking about journalism of unusually high quality.”
The previous court had erred in its decision, Ryder said, because it had misinterpreted the law on proportionality and the detention was incompatible with Miranda’s rights to privacy and freedom of expression under the European convention on human rights.
In 2014, three high court judges dismissed the initial challenge, accepting that Miranda’s detention and the seizure of computer material was “an indirect interference with press freedom” but said this was justified by legitimate and “very pressing” interests of national security.
Miranda was stopped in transit between Berlin and Rio de Janeiro after meeting the film-maker Laura Poitras, who had been involved in making disclosures based on documents leaked by Snowden.
Miranda was carrying encrypted files, including an external hard drive containing 58,000 highly classified UK intelligence documents, “in order to assist the journalistic activity of Greenwald”.
The Guardian made his travel reservations and paid for the trip. The high court judgment said the seized material included personal information that would allow security staff to be identified, including those deployed overseas.
In the court of appeal hearing, Ryder told the judges: “Wanting to get material off somebody and no more is not a [legitimate] schedule 7 purpose.”
The focus of a schedule 7 port stop, he maintained, should be whether or not the person targeted is preparing acts of terrorism. If the law was interpreted as the high court decided, Ryder said it “would mean that terrorism could be committed by acts that do not intend to incite violence or endanger life”.
He added: “It would mean that terrorism can be committed by acts that are themselves entirely lawful and … can be entirely lawful.”
Fewer witnesses in criminal cases are turning up at court, a watchdog has warned.
Fewer witnesses in criminal cases are turning up at court, a watchdog has warned.
Attendance is falling despite an increase in the number of witness summonses issued, HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate (HMCPSI) said.
Chief inspector Kevin McGinty said: “Fewer and fewer witnesses are attending court.
“Witnesses not attending court can mean that a trial has to be rescheduled, and can even result in the defendant being acquitted.”
He added: “The CPS rightly wants to reduce the number of times that trials have to be rescheduled or defendants walking free but there’s little evidence that use of the summons is making a difference.”
A report by the inspectorate cited figures indicating that a rising proportion of prosecutions are “cracked” – the official term used for a case that concludes unexpectedly – on the day of trial due to a witness being absent or withdrawing their evidence.
It said 2.1% of trials in the crown court and 6.8% of trials in the magistrates court were cracked for this reason in 2014/15, compared with 1.8% and 6.3% respectively in the previous year.
The report also said that more than one in 10 witnesses in domestic abuse cases are being inappropriately summoned to court.
Inspectors thought applying for a witness summons was not the most appropriate course of action in 14 out of 110 cases in a sample.
Courts can issue a summons to require a witness to attend court to give evidence or produce a document or other item. Failure to appear can result in a warrant for the witness’s arrest.
The decision to apply for a witness summons “should not be taken lightly”, HMCPSI said.
It said: “A witness summons is the last resort for those who disengage from a prosecution and should only be considered when all other avenues have been exhausted. Ultimately it can result in the deprivation of liberty of the victim – often impacting on those who may be the most vulnerable.”
A CPS spokeswoman said: “We agree that applying for a summons should be the last resort and that all other avenues must be explored to secure the witness’s attendance at court before doing so.
“The final decision on whether a summons is issued rests with the court.”
She added: “In 2014/15 a small number of cases listed for trial were ineffective due to prosecution reasons, only 5.2% of total cases listed for trial at the Crown Court and 4.8% at Magistrates’ Courts.
“Of these ineffective trials, only a very small proportion were due to non-attendance of victims or witnesses.
“The CPS and police are conducting a joint review of the provision of support to victims and witnesses. This review, which aims to improve levels of service, will be an opportunity to explore the reasons for the drop in witness attendance.
“We will look at ways to ensure that key messaging around witness summonses, and in particular with regard to domestic abuse cases, is reinforced within CPS areas.
“We will be updating our training on domestic abuse over 2016/17 and will consider including training on witness summonses within this.”
The Law Society Gazette
Motor insurers would net an annual windfall exceeding £1bn from fresh curbs on the rights of injury victims – if the industry booked as profit the savings it says it will make from reform. Industry data shows that the £50 per premium saving promised by the government could yield a massive boost to insurers’ bottom lines.
In his autumn statement, chancellor George Osborne pledged to end the right to cash compensation for minor whiplash injuries and raise the upper limit for personal injury claims in the small claims track from £1,000 to £5,000.
Over Christmas the Ministry of Justice announced that leading motor insurers had promised to pass on to customers 100% of the savings they make from curbs on whiplash claims – estimated at up to £50 per motor premium.
Last week, however, both the government and trade body the Association of British Insurers admitted there will be no industry audit to confirm that insurers keep that promise. This has inevitably led to concerns that there is nothing to stop insurers simply booking the ‘savings’ as extra profit – at a time when the average motor premium is soaring once again.
The ABI’s own statistics show that in 2012, the latest year for which data are available, 19.6m UK households had motor insurance. Multiplied by £50, and assuming that each household has just one premium, that would mean a potential boost to profits totalling £980m.
In fact the average household in Britain has two cars – suggesting the windfall could be hundreds of millions of pounds higher.
The Law Gazette
Health ministers intend to introduce fixed fees for clinical negligence cases by 1 October – despite not yet releasing a promised consultation on the issue.
Responding to a written parliamentary question, health minister Ben Gummer (pictured) confirmed the intended start date for fixed recoverable costs for claims, following the outcome of the public consultation.
The consultation will include consideration on the maximum value of claims – likely to be £25,000 – that would be covered by the new regime and whether there should be any exemptions.
With the consultation likely to last at least six weeks, the starting date leaves ministers with a tight schedule to make changes.
In response to a separate question, Gummer said respondents to a pre-consultation exercise in August confirmed ‘no exact correlation’ between the value and complexity of clinical negligence claims.
The consultation, he said, will look at how behaviours can change to streamline and speed up the way in which clinical negligence claims can be processed. Gummer insisted the new regime will focus on the conduct of both claimants and defendants for a process that is ‘more resource-efficient and that incentivises the right behaviours by all parties’.
He added: ‘One objective of the proposed fixed recoverable cost regime is to improve the relationship between recoverable costs and damages paid, he said.
‘Looking at cases settled post Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 we have not noticed a significant impact on this relationship.’
Meanwhile, the Medical Defence Union, which defends doctors against clinical negligence claims, has insisted that GPs are not to blame for increasing numbers and costs of claims against them.
In written evidence about indemnity for the parliamentary health committee inquiry into primary care, the MDU admitted claims had risen by 20% following the introduction of LASPO.
Dr Michael Devlin, head of professional standards and liaison at the MDU, said the rise is a result of factors beyond GPs’ control.
‘The main reason is the legal changes to “no win no fee” arrangements which led to a surge in cases,’ he said.
‘Other factors include the worsening economic climate and a general environment that promotes litigation over resolving concerns through alternative routes.’
Devlin said the proof that more unmeritorious claims were being lodged was that the number of claims defended without settlement rose from 70% to 80% in 2015.
The MDU’s highest payment on behalf of a GP was £7.5m following missed diagnosis of a subarachnoid haemorrhage and in another case £6.5m (plus £300,000 costs) was paid for missed diagnosis of meningitis in a six-month-old infant
The Law Gazette
The Treasury has admitted that it has no intention of intervening to force insurers to pass on savings from whiplash reforms.
The government plans to increase the small-claims limit for personal injury claims to £5,000, as well as scrap general damages for RTA soft-tissue injuries.
The reforms are largely founded on the expectation – and in two insurers’ cases a public pledge – to pass on 100% of resultant savings to consumers in the form of lower car insurance premiums.
A Ministry of Justice press release last month said the move would cut annual insurance premiums by around £50.
But a written parliamentary answer to a question from shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter has revealed the government has no mechanism in place to actually enforce the promise.
Treasury minister Harriet Baldwin said the pricing of insurance products is a ‘matter for individual insurers in which the government does not seek to intervene’.
She added: ‘The motor insurance market is intensely competitive and the government therefore expects that the insurance industry will pass on savings to consumers.’
The Association of British Insurers said it has no remit to set its members’ prices, but would rely on the competitive insurance market to keep premiums down.
A spokesman said: ‘Insurers have been delivering on their promise to pass on savings made to customers following the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act reforms.’
But research released from the comparison website Confused.com said car insurance premiums saw their biggest annual rise since 2011 in the final quarter of 2015.
Motorists are now paying on average £78, or 13.2%, more than they were this time last year, leaving the average premium for a comprehensive policy now at £672.
Tom Jones, head of policy at claimant firm Thompsons Solicitors, said the government has no intention of making the insurance industry do anything, instead relying on ‘volunteers’ to pass on savings.
‘Rather like Lord Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar, the government “expects” the insurance companies to do the right thing,’ he said.
‘It’s one thing for Nelson to have expectations of those in uniform serving their country in the heat of battle but George Osborne needs to accept that it’s rather different when you are talking about insurance companies whose first master is their shareholder.’
Lord chief justice says in annual report to parliament that one result is rise in number of litigants unrepresented in court
The lord chief justice, Lord Thomas, also said judges felt under-appreciated. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA
Civil justice is unaffordable for most people, more people are being forced to represent themselves, and judges – whose pensions have been cut – feel underappreciated, according to the lord chief justice.
In his annual report to parliament, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd welcomed the government’s commitment to spending £780m on modernisation and new technology, but delivered a downbeat assessment of the courts in England and Wales.
“Our system of justice has become unaffordable to most,” Thomas said in the introduction to his report. “In consequence there has been a considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed.
“Although in common with many other European states the number of court buildings has been reduced through closure, the failure to invest has meant that many of the courtrooms have not been modernised and lack modern means of communication to provide for better access to justice.”
Steep increases in court fees, which judges formally opposed, have meant that the judiciary “whilst accepting the decisions by parliament to increase fees, remains deeply concerned about the effect on access to justice,” Thomas said.
Investment in modernising the courts and the development of online justice would improve the system’s ability to respond to the public’s need, he said.
Thomas, the head of the judiciary in England and Wales, said that judges, in common with many other people, felt their burden of work had increased. “For example, they are having to handle an ever-increasing quantity of challenging and emotionally charged cases in family and crime, as well as an increase in litigants in person,” he said.
“Although judges recognise that they are well paid in comparison to most people, static pay … and adverse alterations to pension arrangements … have had a significant impact. In addition, there has, overall, been a widespread feeling of not being valued or appreciated for their work.”
He said a recent survey had found that 77% of judges with leadership responsibilities felt their work had increased significantly in the past three years, and that they were having to deal with an increasing number of complex matters in addition to their daily court sittings.
More effort needs to be made in explaining “the importance of the judicial system in maintaining a just and fair society, accountable and democratic government and a strong economy”, he said. “No satisfactory means of funding the provision of our system of justice has yet been achieved.”
Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC, the new chair of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said: “The British justice system is the envy of the world. However, as this report [by the lord chief justice] suggests, the reputation of our courts and their ability to serve the public is under threat.
“Cuts to legal aid have resulted in the courts being flooded with people representing themselves without legal advice or representation, including those in emotionally difficult circumstances such as losing access to their children, facing the loss of their home, or fighting deportation to a country where they might be persecuted.
“The real hardship being faced in the family courts is reflected in the recent Bar pro bono unit statistics – family case applications increased by 32% in 2013 and 60% in 2014. Justice is not a luxury, and everyone should be able to defend their rights through the legal system.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “As the justice secretary [Michael Gove] has said, our courts and tribunals need urgent reform. That is why we are investing over £700m to transform and modernise the courts and tribunal service. We are determined to deliver the swift and certain justice that the public rightly expects.”