Controversial Tax Credit Change Passed With “Underhand” Methods

A controversial change to the new reforms and restrictions affecting tax credit claimants has been passed without parliament having the chance to either debate or vote on the matter. This particular reform, which has become known as the “rape clause,” is proving highly controversial with many opponents being especially critical of the way the government virtually bypassed parliament in approving the law.

As of 6th April this year, significant changes to how new claimants are assessed for tax credit eligibility will come into effect. Under the new system, parents will usually only be entitled to claim tax credits for up to two children. Two exceptions will be made; multiple births, and cases where a mother who already has two or more children falls pregnant again as a result of rape.

The “rape clause” refers to this latter exemption, under which the mother will have to prove to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that she was raped in order to claim the full financial support to which she is entitled.

Opponents have a number of concerns about the way the exemption for rape victims is set up. The fact that the people in question have experienced rape, and especially the fact that this was the circumstance of their child’s conception, is naturally very sensitive information. In many cases, it is something the child may not themselves find out about until later in life, so there are concerns about how appropriate it is to require victims to have this fact registered with the DWP in order to claim the financial support they are eligible for.

There are particular concerns about the need for victims to prove that the child was conceived as a result of rape in order to make their claim. Not only could this could be a potentially difficult and distressing process for somebody who is already dealing with a difficult time, but many critics have pointed out that the process that will be used for verifying conception through sexual assault is currently not well defined. Although the changes are weeks from coming into effect, there have been no details released about how a person might make a claim, how they could prove their entitlement, and whether anybody has been traind to make the assessment properly.

From a legal standpoint, the key source of controversy is the way that there was no parliamentary debate and no vote by parliament to decide whether these changes should be passed into law. The comprehensive reforms were instead passed through a channel known as a statutory instruments, which allows amendments to be made to existing laws without the approval of parliament.

One opponent of the law, SNP MP Alsion Thewliss, has accused the government of using an “underhand parliamentary tactic” to push the reforms through without subjecting them to proper debate and scrutiny. The lack of clarity on the process of claiming under the “rape clause” or proving eligibility, she said, was “frankly astonishing” when the reforms are so close to taking effect. Thewliss has tabled a motion that could potentially see the moves overturned.

Employee Rights: Only A Valid Concept If Enforced

Employees today have greater rights and protections than ever before. Thanks to human rights legislation, subtle changes to employment law over the decades, stronger regulations protecting against discrimination, and ever increasing health and safety legislation, British employees today have greater legal protection than ever before.

Despite that, exploitation of workers still happens, due to the ever growing gig economy, zero hours contracts, self employment, and other non – traditional working arrangements. Despite such protections, employers are still under great scrutiny over employment rights. To start with, an ever growing number define themselves as self employed. Equally, research from Citizens Advice Bureaux suggests that up to one in ten people are falsely defined as self-employed. This means that they lose out on statutory holiday and sick pay, and the right to earn the National Living Wage (NLW). This also means loses of up to £314 million a year for the Treasury, and places this many responsible businesses at a competitive disadvantage to those unscrupulous employers willing to bend or break the rules.

A comparable exploitation was illustrated by a recent National Audit Office (NAO) review into adult social care. The NAO found that up to 220,000 adult care workers were receiving less than the NLW. The Living Wage is £7.20 for workers aged 25 or over, with the old National Minimum Wage rules applying for workers 24 or younger. Indeed, HMRC discovered that 50% of care sector providers received less than the statutory minimum for providing often extensive care to the long term ill or elderly. Despite such damning evidence, a mere six care providers have been identified and forced to provide back pay to 202 care workers.

Attempting to tackle that and other examples of employee exploitation, the Government recently launched a £1.7 million advertising campaign encouraging employees to check that they are being paid at least the statutory minimum. However, that only addresses half the problem. The other part of the equation is less simple.

A great many workers have little, if any, knowledge of their rights, and of the statutory obligations of employers. Even those that know something about employee rights still would feel uncomfortable in tackling any infringements, with many more not knowing how to go about challenging their employer for such breaches. If an employee feels able to do so, they have to start an unknown legal process with an unknown outcome. This also runs a very real (and illegal) risk of being blacklisted, denied promotions, or other employee benefits, or similar reprisals from management. In that context, it is of little surprise that in many cases, workplace exploitation – sometimes significant – goes unreported and unchallenged.

Sometimes employee exploitation or simple carelessness happens regarding employee rights. When that does happen, it is important for employees to enforce their rights, otherwise all the workplace reform will be meaningless. Employees not being prepared to enforce their legal rights makes a mockery of the legal sector, and employee rights. Although a daunting prospect, employees should remember that they have certain rights in the workplace – and further, it is their right to challenge their employees if those rights are infringed.

The allegations levelled against ‎Sports Direct regarding a culture of ignoring workplace legislation highlighted this – as does the never ending legal row over the exact employment status of Uber drivers as contractors or employees. At least those cases are receiving attention due to the sheer level of media, political and legal scrutiny. Many other similar cases go unreported and unchallenged. It is up employees to be vocal about, and challenge, working practices that are either illegal or exploitation.

Despite great advances in the workplace, and in employee rights – there is still much to be done.

Every Single Day Banks Reject 1,500 Valid PPI Claims

Millions of customers are impatiently waiting to be compensated for PPI claims they have taken out. Many customers have already successfully filed claims against many of the banks, but have been waiting for their money for months. Other customers have had claims wrongly rejected by the banks. A recent study from the Financial Ombudsman Service found that more than 1,500 legitimate PPI claims are rejected every day.

FOS Burdened by Poor Claims Management

The banks are under a lot of pressure to reform their claims handling process. Customers must appeal to the Financial Ombudsman Service if they feel they have been wrongly rejected. The FOS has been receiving over 10,000 claims every week.

They reported that most of those claims were filed by people who had already had claims denied by the banks.  The FOS has upheld approximately 78% of the claims that have been filed in recent months. The FOS said that the banks’ failed claims management practices are creating a huge workload for it. It has been forced to double its staff to handle all the mis sold PPI claims that customers are appealing.

Reasons Claims Are Denied

The FOS has grown increasingly frustrated with the way the banks have managed their claims. They are working with the FCA and other financial regulators to understand the problems so that they can come up with a solution. Why has the claims management process atrophied so much in the last couple of years.

Lack of Training

One of the problems they face is that many of the claims handlers don’t appear to be well trained. The Financial Conduct Authority said that the banks will need to train their employees how to handle claims better in the future. They need to understand how to use a PPI calculator and know which claims need to be upheld.

Third Party Contractors

Many banks have outsourced their claims handling process to other companies. Many of the contractors they hired were intentionally denying claims that they should have upheld. The biggest case came to light when a Times reporter revealed a scandal involving Deloitte and Barclays.

Corruption

Some experts allege that many banks have intentionally denied claims to save money. They are facing £25 billion in losses due to claims that have been filed in the past few years. They appear to deny many claims hoping that customers won’t appeal to the FOS.

Banks Pressured to Reform Claims Handling

The banks are under increased pressure to reform their claims management practices. The FOS and financial regulators said that there are several reasons the banks have done such a poor job managing claims over the last couple of years.

MPs Criticise Reduced Access To Justice As Court Fees Rise

There are increasing fears in the legal sector surrounding rising court fees and costs. Such rises are seen as detrimental to justice, as it reduces access to justice. Recent years have seen such measures criticised by many in the legal sector. The matter recently came into the spotlight recently, as rising court fees were again condemned – this time, by MPs themselves. 

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) departmental budget was not ring fenced like some key government departments. Some court and related fees have risen in recent years – and will only rise further. This comes not only as no surprise, but at a time when many courts and tribunals are set to close.

This means that the average citizen had had increasingly less access to justice, in what will be an ever increasing trend. The cuts and closures gave been roundly criticised in all circles, from judges, legal reporters, civil rights activists, lawyers themselves and other concerned parties. Now a Parliamentary committee has been the latest in condemning such enforced cuts.

The MoJ had long defended the raises in fees and the court closures. Repeatedly, the Ministry has cited desires to “streamline” the justice system, encourage people to arbitration or out of court settlements, and the regrettable need for cutbacks in an era if austerity. Further, by reducing the number of cases brought to courts and tribunals with the “enhanced” fees, the argument is that more people in the judicial system will be able to get their case before a judge or magistrate. As such, the rising fees only serve, ironically, to increase access to justice at a time when some cases (such as in the Family Division) can wait up to a year before coming to court.

Some (but not all) of the key fee changes are that court fees for financial claims for sums in excess of £300,000 rose last year from £1,920 to £10,000. Plans to double that level to £20,000 have (temporarily) been halted. The cost if getting a contested divorce also rose, from £410 to £550. An uncontested divorce remains comparatively cheap at a mere £270. Employment Tribunals saw fees of up to £1,200 introduced in 2013. This led to employment hearings falling by 70%.

Amidst an ongoing refugee and asylum crisis, with asylum becoming ever more sensitive politically and socially, of mist controversy are MoJ plans to increase immigration and asylum tribunal fees by a massive 600%. Under the proposals, applications for decisions on papers will rise to £490 from £80, with similar fees for a full oral hearing being £800, up from £140.

A Justice Select Committee recently examined these and other related issues. Chaired by former barrister Bob Neill MP (Con- Bromley & Chislehurst), the Committee was most scathing in its assessment of the fee increases, and has called upon the Ministry to rescind some of the fees.

Whilst acknowledging the financial difficulties faced by a non – ring fenced governmental department at a time of fiscal austerity, the Committee is unhappy with how those cuts have to all intents and purpose been passed onto citizens seeking justice. Access to justice for all, according to the Justice Select Committee, must prevail over “cost recovery,” it stated in its report, as it dismissed “superficial” government excuses for a failure to provide adequate evidence to justify such successive steep rises.

The report, which has yet to be published, makes painful reading for the government. For example, the MPs state that the latest increase in divorce fees are “approximately double the cost to the courts of providing the service, is unjustified… It cannot be right that a person bringing a divorce petition, in most cases a woman, is subject to what has been characterised in evidence to us as effectively a divorce tax. We recommend that the increase in the divorce petition fee to £550 be rescinded.”

Turning to Employment Tribunals, the MPs describe Justice Minister Shailesh Vara’s (Con – North West Cambridgeshire) “heavy reliance on the figure of 83,000 cases dealt with at Acas early conciliation to support his contention that access to justice has not been adversely affected by employment tribunal fees [as], even on the most favourable construction, superficial… It is difficult to see how a Minister can urge his officials to progress a review which they apparently submitted to him four months or more previously.”

The MPs are equally scathing if the rise in immigration fees, stating that “there is a danger that they will deny vulnerable people the means to challenge the lawfulness of decisions taken by the state about their … status” if the fee rise goes ahead.

The Select Committee MPs, however, do not object to the fees in principle, since “some degree of financial risk is an important discipline for those considering legal action.” It is overly high court fees, which act as a barrier to those seeking justice, that concerns them. In some instances, the overly high fees might be considered as a “tax” on justice – which is absolutely against the key democratic principle that justice should be available for all citizens, regardless of wealth or status.

The Justice Select Committee (predominantly consisting of Conservative MPs) is but the latest voice to to question or condemn the changes in the legal sector in recent years. Many of those changes, such as legal aid cuts, court closures, and the fees, have ultimately reduced access to justice. It is necessary for citizens to have the knowledge that they can seek justice at at time if needs be, and take their grievance to court. All and every step should be made to to make that so; rising court fees has the opposite effect, and is contrary to democratic and legal principles.

Quoting again from the Justice Select Committee report, “the introduction of fees set at a level to recover or exceed the full cost of operation of the court requires particular care and strong justification. Where there is conflict between the objectives of achieving cost recovery and preserving access to justice, the latter objective must prevail.”

 

Personal Injury Claims and the Courts

Making a personal injury claim is your legal right if you have suffered an injury as a result of another party’s negligence. However, many people are reluctant to make their claim because there are a number of things about the idea of claiming that they find intimidating. One of these is the possibility of a court hearing.

Do I Need to go to Court for my Personal Injury Claim?

The short answer is that you probably don’t. In the majority of cases, a settlement is reached before things reach a stage where the claimant has to appear in person before the courts for a hearing. Indeed, you may not even need to meet with your solicitor in person, let alone attend a court hearing, as most personal injury solicitors are perfectly able and willing to handle a case effectively using only written correspondence and the phone to communicate with you.

Nonetheless, it is not guaranteed that any given accident compensation claim will be settled without the need for a court hearing. It is therefore best to keep in mind that a court hearing is a possibility when beginning a claim, though the possibility is small in many cases. Ultimately, the question of how likely a case is to reach the courts depends heavily on the individual circumstances. When establishing the facts of the case and whether the other party was truly negligent proves especially difficult, then a court hearing is more likely to be required before an appropriate settlement can be reached.

Going to Court

If your personal injury claim does reach the stage of a court hearing, there is no need to be intimidated or nervous. A court hearing is just another way for evidence to be gathered in order to assess your case. You will be informed in advance of the date and time of your hearing, and your solicitor will be able to help you with whatever preparation is necessary. It is also important to remember that, by the time things progress as far as a court hearing, your personal injury solicitor will have already assembled the facts and evidence of your case in great detail, so you will be in a strong position to make your case for the compensation you believe you are due.

Once the hearing is done, it is just a matter of waiting to be informed of the court’s judgement. When you are informed of the decision, you will be told not just whether your claim has been successful but also the amount you have been awarded if your claim has been upheld.

86 of UK’s Threatened Courts Will Close

It has now been confirmed that the vast majority of the courts named previously by the government on a list of those under threat will, in fact, be closed. Of the 91 courts on the list, the Ministry of Justice announced this month, only five will remain open.

The remaining 86 courts are to face closure. Of these, 64 are to undergo closure through the exact process outlined in last year’s consultation document, in which the list of threatened courts was first published. The remaining 22 are still to face closure, but with changes to the processes and schedules originally outlined in the consultation document.

One of the five courts to remain open will still be subject to a partial closure. The magistrates’ court at St Helens County Court will be closed, while the rest of the court will not. The courts in Bath, Carmarthen, Stockport, and West Cumbria, on the other hand, will remain fully open despite being named as candidates for closure in the original consultation.

The 86 courts will be closed at various times, with all of them ceasing to operate within the next two years. The government has published the schedule for all courts facing closure online.

The courts that have now been confirmed for closure represent around a fifth of all courts in England and Wales. The list includes various kinds of court including magistrates courts, county courts, tribunal centres and family courts, and covers locations around the country.

Shailesh Vara, the Justice Minister, maintains that the closure of these courts will not seriously hamper the UK justice system’s ability to provide “high-quality service” and “effective access to justice” to the public.

According to Vara, after the closures 97% of the UK public, when required to attend court, will be able to get there by car within one hour. 83% will be able to reach a tribunal within the same time frame. While he expressed sympathy for local communities with “strong allegiances to their local courts,” he said that the closures represented an important step towards the modernisation of the current justice system, which he said, “everybody accepts is unwieldy, inefficient, slow, expensive to maintain and unduly bureaucratic.”

Nonetheless, some are disappointed with the news that as few as five of the 91 threatened courts are to remain open. Previously, the Law Society made a case for keeping a significantly larger number of the courts in operation, saying that there was good cause to retain 59 of those on the list.

Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society said: “The majority of these closures will make it more difficult for a significant number of people to get to court, disproportionately affecting people living in rural areas, those with disabilities and lower income families.”

New Digital Court Concept Gets Further Backing

Fresh calls have been made for the introduction of a new, digital court to the UK. The Civil Justice Council has repeated calls for a purely online court to be introduced, able to handle claims with a value of up to £25,000.

Popular internet auction site eBay has been named as a role model of sorts for the new court. Whilst this suggestion may seem surprising on the face of it, eBay operates by providing a platform for independent sellers and private buyers to interact, and disputes between buyers and sellers which are, in a sense, independent from eBay as an entity are not uncommon. The company has implemented a quite rigorous multi-levelled dispute resolution process to help ensure such cases are resolved fairly. It is this aspect of eBay which has been suggested as a useful source of inspiration for a purely digital court.

This is the latest in a series of occasions on which the development of a digital court has been suggested or actively called for. However, the latest calls for the introduction of an online dispute resolution platform are particularly pertinent as they follow the confirmation that around a fifth of all the courts in England and Wales – 86 in total – are to be closed down over the next two years. This has led to concerns about public access to justice, and fears that many people – especially those who are disabled, on low incomes, or living in rural areas – will find it harder to reach physical courts. A digital court to handle financial claims with a value of under £25,000, it has been suggested, could be a way to bypass such problems in many cases and make it easier and more convenient for both individuals and businesses to access justice and uphold their rights through the courts.

The proposed online court would also, in most cases, allow proceedings to be effectively carried out without lawyers. This, it is argued, could also help make justice more accessible again in a post-legal-aid-cuts landscape. The Civil Justice Council has issued a set of proposals which could see such a system implemented within a two-year timeframe.

Under the latest proposals, the online court would offer a three-tiered dispute resolution process. Firstly, there would be an interactive information-gathering and evaluation process. Unless an agreement were quickly reached, this would be followed by communication, interaction, and negotiation – carried out wholly online – with the help of “facilitators.” If the matter can still not be settled, then a qualified judge would make a ruling, based entirely on submissions made electronically.

Watchdog Assesses CPS Efforts to Improve Magistrates Courts

Findings have been announced following a watchdog review of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and its role in improving the justice system through the transforming summary justice initiative. The Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate gave mixed opinions on the CPS’ contribution to the improvement of magistrates’ court operations, with the most significant criticism being that prosecutors were failing to properly review the cases and relevant case files ahead of many cases’ first court hearing.

The Inspectorate reached this conclusion following a review of the Crown Prosecution Service’s recent work to make changes to magistrates’ courts. Through the work in question, the CPS has been aiming to make significant improvements to the system of magistrates courts in England and Wales. This includes efforts to minimise wait times by reducing delays, and also to reduce the number of hearings that each individual case requires. Furthermore, there has also been a new requirement introduced, making it necessary for the CPS to review every case before it progresses to the courtroom for its first hearing.

In order to review these efforts, the CPS Inspectorate reviewed 271 files relating to relevant cases, as well as attending 19 sittings in magistrates courts for direct observation. There were many positives identified in the subsequent report, with the inspectorate judging that the CPS was making a positive contribution to efforts to improve the UK justice system and stating that the charging decisions made by the service were sound.

However, there are also criticisms made of the CPS, and the key one was prosecutors’ “failure to review cases for the first hearing in too many instances.” Overall, the watchdog found that over a third of all cases – 37.7% in total – showed no evidence that any review had been carried out ahead of the beginning of court hearings. “Both the quality and the timeliness of the initial review by the CPS needs to be improved,” the Inspectorate concluded.

This was not the only aspect of preparation for the first court hearing that the Inspectorate judged the CPS to be failing on. Following the review, the CPS was also criticised for not managing to “engage effectively” with legal professionals acting for the defence ahead of court hearings in a great many cases.

A spokesperson for he CPS welcomed the report’s recognition that the service was “making a positive early contribution” to efforts to reform the operation of magistrates courts, and said that steps were being taken to ensure that cases were properly reviewed before reaching the courtroom.

The spokesperson said: “We are putting in place measures to ensure we always record the review of our files.” She went on to explain that the service had “introduced an app for prosecutors which assists and prompts them to record a review electronically” and that sample checks of cases were also being carried out to ensure records are being properly made.