Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Scotland Office
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, with his niche points. I keep finding myself in debates with lawyers. I must say, they have some very interesting anecdotes that we all listen to with great interest.

It is fair to say that I am deeply suspicious of everything that this Government bring to your Lordships’ House. All the legislation seems to me to be based on some at times quite cruel intentions. I am actually a little bit more suspicious of short Bills, especially those that come so quickly to this House. At first glance, the Bill does seem fairly simple. It restores the law to what it was less than a year ago and so is quite sensible, but the more one looks at it, the more it appears to be designed to protect the profits of hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, banks and other backers of these litigation funding agreements, without any consideration of the impact that it will have on the claimants being funded.

One illustration of this is 555 sub-postmasters who were awarded compensation of £57 million against the Post Office for the Horizon scandal. It is reported that £46 million of that money was immediately payable to litigation funders. That seems an extraordinary amount: 80% of the damages awarded. I accept that it was a probably a very difficult case, but at the same time, the sub-postmasters were left with only £20,000 each, when their damages were estimated to be well over £100,000 each. In essence, they got 20% of the £100,000 they were really owed.

It makes you ask why any claimant would agree to put up so much of their compensation. The truth is that normal people cannot afford to take a case to court without such litigation funders. I have heard that we are stuck with this system and that legal aid is not likely to come back, but it seems that we have a particular lack. The noble Lord, Mendelsohn, put it quite well. If he was the amuse-bouche before the meal, perhaps I can be the mid-meal sorbet. Legal aid at least had the benefit of enabling everyone to get justice or to try to get justice. This system means that that is not true for everybody.

There is an inequality of arms in negotiations between a potential claimant and a litigation funder. Without robust regulation and protection for claimants, a litigation funder can reap huge profits by doing nothing other than provide funding for the claimant to take their case to court. One might say that there are dangers in that: of course there are, but this is a business and there are always dangers in business. This, to me, is a failure of successive Governments—just the current Government, which fail in so many ways, but also previous Labour and Liberal Democrat Governments, eroding legal aid and the state’s role in ensuring access to justice.

This litigation-funding business is now worth tens of billions of pounds, and it is a highly lucrative industry for those engaging in it. Legal aid and access to justice have been, essentially, privatised and turned into yet another arena for exploitation by hedge funds and financiers.

This Bill is also extremely lazy, because what the Government have done is choose between two options: do nothing or reverse the PACCAR judgment. They did not put any energy into thinking about a better solution: something that would help the majority of people, not just the few who get taken up by litigation funders. So I would say, “All right, it’s not awful, as some of the legislation is, but really it’s not very good”.

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Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all those noble Lords who participated in this debate. I am grateful in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, from their Benches, for the broad support they are giving. But if a financial metaphor is not inappropriate in the circumstances, I do not take either of them to have issued the Government with a blank cheque as far as this legislation goes. If your Lordships are minded that a Committee of the whole House should be established to consider this Bill, as I will move, I look forward to your contributions, and those of the whole House, in giving the Bill the scrutiny it deserves.

The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, opened the responses and in many ways set the parameters for the interesting debate that followed, setting up the question of access to justice and stressing from a historical perspective the medical legal cases arising out of the condition known as vibration white finger. That prompted me to recollect the importance of associations such as trade unions and others in providing legal assistance for their members when entering into costly litigation relating to the safety of the workplace.

It is quite correct that funding litigation is frightening for individuals and smaller companies who are contemplating it in defence of their right. It is for that reason that the Government have put forward this Bill to address the consequences of the PACCAR ruling. Legal Members of your Lordships’ House touched on that question, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, and my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, referred to the surprising character of the judgment. Certainly, it took lots of people in the profession by surprise. It is to deal with the consequences of that decision that the Government tabled the Bill. I respectfully endorse the characterisation of the dissenting judgment by Lady Rose, which was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, as a powerful one.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, in a characteristically thoughtful analysis of the position, set forth what is accepted across the House with one exception—that there is no real alternative to funding of this sort in the litigation landscape as we currently find it. I do not wish to depress the House by saying that legal aid is dead. On civil cases in England and Wales, legal aid can be provided as an exceptional case funding measure, for matters out of scope where the failure to provide legal services would breach or likely breach a person’s ECHR rights. Where a matter is within legal scope or could be caught by exceptional case funding, the applicant must also pass a means and merits test.

The Ministry of Justice published the Government’s response to the means test review consultation exercise on 25 May 2023. That set out the detailed policy decisions underpinning the means test arrangement. The Government assess that their changes will increase the number of people eligible for civil legal aid in England and Wales by 2.5 million. Therefore, although there are concerns from Members across the House—particularly the noble Lords, Lord Mendelsohn, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, Lord Meston and Lord Carlile of Berriew, and my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, and while legal aid will remain an important feature of how access to justice is delivered, it is the view of the Government and I think of the debate overall that we must take steps to address the necessity of third-party funding to permit access to justice for the sorts of persons, organisations and corporations which I have described.

The very interesting contribution by the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, anticipated me in referring to the decision of the American judge who said that the alternative to class actions funded by funders of this sort was not 17 million individual actions but no actions at all because, as the noble Lord quoted, and as I am happy to repeat, only a lunatic or a fanatic would litigate over $30. The noble Lord also, along with my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, put before the House a quote from “The Italian Job”. I wonder whether that is the first occasion when that particular work has been referred to in your Lordships’ counsels.

Both noble Lords—and my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot spoke with the immense moral authority that he carries with him as a result of his selfless and tireless work on behalf of the sub-postmasters—made important points about access to funding for litigation. As I quoted in opening the debate, the eponymous Mr Bates has referred to the importance of third-party litigation funding in enabling the process by which justice is arrived at to commence.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, referred to the manner in which, as all of us common lawyers know, definitions or concepts of enormous importance across the whole mighty edifice of the common law world can emerge from the least important-sounding or most apparently trivial causes, whether it be snails emerging from bottles of ginger beer in cafés in Paisley or other areas in which matters of huge import for the civil common law have arisen from small-scale disputes between parties.

All the noble Lords were united in their concern about the sums ultimately received by litigants and the potential sums realised by litigation funders. The best vehicle for discussion of this point will be the review by the Civil Justice Council to which reference has been made, but it is a problem of which the Government are acutely conscious.

I am grateful too for the contribution to the debate made by my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and for his informed engagement with me at an earlier stage, to which he was good enough to refer your Lordships—an earlier stage before I rose to address the House this afternoon. I am grateful to him for his analysis of the concept of retrospection in legislation, as I am for his endorsement of the constitutional position in relation to Parliament being responsible for making law.

My noble friend Lord Sandhurst referred to the importance of maintaining a situation where defenders are not unduly harassed by litigations funded by third-party funders, and he was quite correct to make that point. I am sure that this is something that the review being carried out under the chairmanship of the Master of the Rolls will consider.

A number of specialist points were made during the debate. In relation to a series of questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, I look forward to engaging with the points that he made. In the first instance, I will write to him in relation to those specific points with which he concluded his submission, and I would like to do so against the basis of an understanding of the terms of reference of the forthcoming review. In relation to him and to the point echoed from the Opposition Front Bench by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, as your Lordships heard from me in opening, an interim report is expected in the summer; the terms of reference under which that report will be carried out will be published in due course.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, expressed herself as suspicious of everything that comes out of the Government. I have to echo that by saying I am suspicious of everything that comes out of the Green Party. After all, I have to live in Scotland where we see the effects of government by the Green Party, and they are absurd where not actively malign.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (GP)
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I am sorry for intervening. It is a separate Green Party. It actually disaffiliated itself because of me, and I feel strongly about it.

Lord Stewart of Dirleton Portrait Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con)
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As always, the noble Baroness has fulfilled a valuable public service.

On the question from the noble Lord, Lord Meston, on the scope of the Bill, the view of the Public Bill Office confirms that this is a one-purpose Bill. Its scope is closely connected to the enforceability of litigation funding agreements and the Public Bill Office does not think that amendments relating to the wider category of damages-based agreements would be in scope, nor would more general issues relating to litigation funding. Again, I would be happy to revert to the noble Lord with further details on those points, as I learn them.

The noble Lord, Lord Meston, along with my noble friend Lord Sandhurst and the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, also posed a question on the revision of the current DBA regulations. The Government will consider the timetable to make improvements to the DBA regulations without encouraging unnecessary litigation. Any revisions to the current regulations will be subject to a statutory consultation, which is set out in Section 58AA of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, and to an affirmative resolution, which is set out in Section 120 of the 1990 Act.

I apologise to any noble Lords whose valuable contributions to this interesting debate I may have overlooked. To sum up, I gauge the mood of your Lordships’ House as one of concern that access to the courts, the reputation of which the House is jealous of and grateful for, should not be artificially constrained. I also recognise noble Lords’ concerns that access to justice on behalf of a less well-funded party or individual should not come at the expense of excessive profits for those responsible for funding. In my own jurisdiction of Scotland, it is a matter of daily encouragement and inspiration to enter Parliament Hall in Edinburgh and pass the portrait of a notable lawyer, of whom it was said after his death that, while he lived, no poor man in Scotland wanted for a good lawyer. It is the aspiration of the whole House that that should apply today as much as it did in previous centuries. I hope that, ultimately, the Bill passes and that the House, as a whole, accepts that it is done with the intention of furthering that aspiration.