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Legal Services (Royal Commission's Report)

Volume 972: debated on Tuesday 30 October 1979

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With the permission of the House, I should like to make a brief statement on the report of the Royal Commission on legal services. That report, which was the result of over three and a half years of studied labour by the Royal Commission, was published on 3 October. It consists of two volumes, the first of which—the main body of the report—runs to over 800 pages and contains 369 recommendations. The second volume gives the results of the surveys and studies on which those recommendations were based, and itself also runs to close on 800 pages.

The recommendations of the Royal Commission call for action by a large number of Departments and agencies, both inside the Government and outside. Some of these would entail increased expenditure from public funds and almost all of them would require, if they were to be implemented, a process of prior consultation with, and the co-operation of, a variety of interested bodies, including the different branches of the legal profession.

The House will understand, therefore, that before the Government can commit themselves to any decisions arising out of the report there must be a period of consultation and reflection and, at the same time, a lengthy and careful process of consultation with all interested bodies and sections of opinion. After that, and when the Government have had the opportunity of reaching considered views, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster would no doubt be prepared to consider requests for a debate on the report, or on any particular aspects of it, if that is what right hon. and hon. Members desire.

In the meantime, I take this opportunity of expressing our warmest thanks to Sir Henry Benson and his fellow commissioners for their industry and zeal, and for the comprehensive and illuminating report that they have produced. I should also like to express the debt that we all owe to the many bodies and private persons who gave evidence to the Royal Commission or otherwise facilitated the productioun of the report.

May I, also, Mr. Speaker, express my warmest thanks to Sir Henry Benson and his fellow commissioners? Knowing the enormous amount of time the members of the Commission have given, I hope that the Government will give consideration to the problems of the manning of future commissions generally.

Is the Attorney-General aware that, nevertheless, many criticisms will be made of the report, particularly that it is rather pragmatic in its approach and has not tackled the role of the lawyer of the future in society?

Will the Attorney-General accept that we agree that a period of digestion and reflection is necessary, but assure us that it will not be lengthy, and that the House will have an opportunity of giving its views in the early part of the new year?

Will the Government consider the minority views as well as the majority views, as great concern has been expressed about the problem of conveyancing and there will be pressure to consider any further action to reduce the cost of house transfer?

We welcome the praise for the law centres, but will the Attorney-General give consideration to their extension, so that the availability of legal services is widened to cater for the needier members of the community?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It is a huge report, with many recommendations. I suspect that it will take a very long time to carry out consultations with the various Departments, the Bar Council, the Law Society, and the rest. When those considerations are completed, I should like the House to have an opportunity as soon as possible to consider this very important contribution.

Is it not a fact that after this very careful and lengthy scrutiny of the legal profession the criticisms of it can be seen to have been unfounded and that the legal profession is working well and in the public interest?

I agree with much of what my right hon. Friend said. There are some very constructive suggestions in the report and we must all look at them. I welcome the support that I know I shall gather from my right hon. Friend when we consider the report. I hope very much that we can discuss it in the meantime.

What has been the point of three and a half years of effort and a great deal of money if, at the end of the day, there is not a single positive proposal emanating from the Government's statement?

Does the Attorney-General agree that the weakness of the Royal Commission's report is its failure to find ways of giving the citizen better access to the law without massively increasing the cost of the whole process? Would it not be a good thing for the Government now to try to take a lead in suggesting ways in which that might be done?

When I hear the lion. Member say that there is no positive support by the Government today for any part of the report, I wonder whether he has read it. Bearing in mind the short time since its publication, and with the necessary consultation that every one would agree must be carried out, it would be quite impossible for any Government to make firm proposals today.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman realise that by introducing this statement he has precluded every Select Committee of the House from discussing the Royal Commission's report? Does he not remember that the subjects that come within the purview of his Department were excluded from the Home Affairs Committee by order of Her Majesty's Government? If he wishes to indulge in controversy—and obviously a Royal Commission's proposal must be controversial—he must keep silent, otherwise he must be willing to answer questions before a Committee of this House.

I think that there has been a total misunderstanding by the hon. Gentleman as to the consequences of the procedural rules. The purpose of my statement was mainly to thank Sir Henry Benson and the rest of the Royal Commission for the work that they have done, and to say that if the House wants it there will be a debate. I do not see how any statement that I have made today can possibly preclude any further consideration.

In view of the importance of the report, and the size of it, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider issuing a simplified version, so that it can be discussed generally by the public? Secondly, will he bear in mind that the debate on the report should not be delayed for too long? It is certain that the House of Lords will have one before we do.

I commend to my hon. Friend "Legal services and lawyers", which is a summary published by the Stationery Office shortly after the publication of the report. It is the best potted version that we could possibly have.

Will the Attorney-General agree that by far the most important part of the report is the very great encouragement that it gives to the development of the law centre principle? Will he further agree that that will necessarily cost the public a great deal of money, and that that is something that we have to recognise? Will he use on his colleagues in the Government all the pressure at his command to ensure that those sums are provided?

This is one of the methods of providing legal services more generally. I was very impressed by the argument put forward on that aspect by the Law Commission. I shall be making certain that my colleagues appreciate the importance of law centres.

As the Royal Commission presumably considered the services in the United Kingdom generally, can we assume that any policies arising from the recommendations will be implemented nationwide?

I regret that the hon. Member obviously has not bothered to read the whole report, because part V specifically deals with Northern Ireland and makes various recommendations in respect of the Province, which are specifically designed to deal with the problems there.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the reasons why the Royal Commission's report has been criticised is that the Commission carefully avoided accepting some of the intemperate recommendations made to it by certain Left-wing pressure groups about lawyers and their position in society?

On the subject of legal aid, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that while public expenditure commitments do not allow any extension of the system at present, it is time that there was a real commitment from the Government to allow legal aid for industrial tribunals, and so on, as soon as funds permit?

This is one of the ideals that all lawyers would like to achieve. However, it must be considered in the general climate of public expenditure. Certainly it is something that I want to see achieved eventually.

Does the Attorney-General accept that there is an urgent need to give greater help to the ordinary citizen who wants legal advice? Will he consider the possibility of developing citizens' law centres? In areas where such centres cannot be developed will he ensure that specialists from citizens' law centres can be deputed to citizens' advice bureaux, as suggested in the report, in order to provide this service everywhere? Also, will he give sympathetic consideration to the setting-up of a council for legal services so that there can be a watchdog at the top level as well as at the grass roots?

These matters will all be considered. Recently I have learned a great deal about citizens' advice bureaux and I should like to pay particular tribute to them, because in the areas where there are no law centres they have been very good at filling the gaps. One must remember that more than 90 per cent. of their work is voluntary, and that they have plugged the gap extremely well for the past 20 or 30 years.

In making any recommendations arising from this or any other report in respect of those who are practising lawyers but who refuse to join the various legal professions, will the Attorney-General recommend punitive damages on that account?

I am sorry, I simply do not understand the hon. Member's question.

Is not much of the disappointment about the Commission's report due to the fact that the origin of the appointment of the Commission arose from a number of false and biased notions about our existing legal system, which the report has refuted?

I think that is right. Speaking entirely for myself, I very much welcome the fact that the report was unanimous.

Is the Attorney-General aware that lawyers in this House and elsewhere suffer a certain degree of unpopularity? Is he aware that much of that is caused by a feeling among so many people that the law and those who are involved in the legal profession are out of touch with the needs of ordinary folk? Some of us have an uneasy feeling that this report does nothing to meet those fears and that that feeling has not been eased by the Government putting off decisions on the report. Can the Attorney-General give an assurance that the Government will take special care to try to increase the availability of legal services to ordinary people by whatever possible means?

I shall ensure that the hon. and learned Member's views are made clear to my colleagues when we consider the report.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for telling us that the report is long, contains a lot of recommendations, and cannot be dealt with before consultation, but may I ask him why he made the statement if he was not prepared to indicate to us in any way the Government's attitude to any of the recommendations? Will he also confirm that one of the recommendations that Sir Henry did not make is that we would help the public greatly if we passed fewer laws and if those that we did pass were simpler and more comprehensive?

The last part of my hon. Friend's question was not within the terms of reference of Sir Henry and his Commission, but I am sure that we would all agree with it, if circumstances allowed. As for the purpose of the statement, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and I took the view that after the enormous amount of work done by Sir Henry Benson and his colleagues it was right that Parliament should express its gratitude to them.

Everyone must appreciate that when a formidable work of this kind is produced, the recommendations —more than 300 of them—cannot be implemented immediately. However, is it not important that those recommendations that can give immediate aid without additional cost to the public purse should be implemented without delay? I am thinking particularly of those that impinge on the issue of conveyancing—the issue that acted almost as the dynamic to establish this Royal Commission. Would the Attorney-General immediately, with the stroke of a pen, put into effect, for example, the recommendation that solicitors can act for both sides in conveyancing? In this way one could rationalise costs—something that would be acceptable to the community in general and the solicitors' profession and would certainly demonstrate that we are moving towards the rationalisation of conveyancing, which is so necessary.

The hon. Member's question demonstrates the problems that we are facing. He said that this recommendation was acceptable to the solicitors' profession, but one would need to consult the Law Society and the profession to ensure that they were satisfied before we put this recommendation into effect. It would be quite wrong to take various items and recommendations and immediately implement them, without prior consultation. Those items which do not involve public expenditure, about which there is no controversy, and which are accepted by everybody involved, can be acted upon quickly. I welcome the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman made.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend introduce measures to ensure that the interest accruing on a client's account becomes the property of the client rather than the solicitor who has put it in the account? At present, at the very least there is a strong incentive to delay payment to clients because of the vast amount of money that solicitors earn in interest on clients' accounts.

I do not accept that that is the inevitable occurrence. There are various differences about this matter, but it is certainly an issue that we shall consider as a matter of urgency.

Does the Attorney-General not agree that the issue of conveyancing is one around which there is still a great deal of controversy? Is it not a fact that throughout the country a considerable volume of dissatisfaction exists about the high cost of conveyancing? Is it not also a fact that the recommendation to tighten the solicitors' closed shop still further was nothing short of a disgrace? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that far from tightening this restrictive practice this is the very area, consistent with the Tory Party manifesto, in which there should be more freedom of choice and greater competition?

I know the hon. Member's particular interest in this subject. On the other hand, the advantage of a Royal Commission of this kind is that one can have the pros and cons argued and debated and set out in a report. The recommendations in the report are set out with fairness and a great deal of skill. However, this again is a matter that we must consider. The fact that the report has been made and I have said that it will be considered does not mean that any recommendation will be either accepted or rejected.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's views or the need to extend the work of law centres in order to make the law more acceptable to ordinary people, but does he agree that many of the polemics surrounding law centres would be removed if they confined themselves more to the work of giving advice and less to controversial matters of development?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This matter has been well set out in the report. The suggestion of the change of name and the various recommendations about the way in which law centres should operate in the future may remove some of the political aspects that should not exist in them. This occurs only in a very few cases.

I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been rising throughout the period of questions on this statement.

Do the Attorney-General and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that to have a debate that tried to encompass the whole range of topics that have been discussed by the Royal Commission would be fruitless? Therefore, would it not be better to split up the subjects into sections and ensure that there is an early debate about conveyancing and the solicitors' monopoly in conveyancing?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend, who is sitting beside me, has heard that suggestion.

Does the Attorney-General accept that the disadvantaged people in our society look to law centres and citizens' advice bureaux for the little help they can receive on relatively simple matters of law? Those people will be looking to the Government and will doubtless be anxious about the enormous amount of public discussion that has been centred around local authorities cutting back on expenditure for citizens' advice bureaux and other voluntary organisations. The Attorney-General referred to the citizens' advice bureaux as having "plugged the gap" for a long time. Surely the time has arrived when funds should be made available for those organisations and the others who carry out a similar sort of work in order to protect the interests of the disadvantaged.

The public funding aspect is not great, because over 90 per cent. of the organisations are voluntary. I visited my local CAB last week and found that not only are there lawyers to advise on problems of law but there are people to advise on housing and other problems. Those persons are prepared to give up much of their time to be there by appointment. The CABs become more important as the degree of legislation increases.

We should always provide, as far as is possible, a comprehensive service to those who are unable to deal with form filling and the other problems that bureaucracy presents. The CABs have done a marvellous job. I encourage them and I should like to see them improved —not the reverse.

How rapidly does the Minister anticipate producing action on the recommendations, particularly the note of dissent in the final report? That report suggests that solicitors should be able to appear for clients in Crown courts and that there should be a simpler and better system of conveyancing for property under the Office of Fair Trading. Does the Minister accept that if nothing is done about the arguments that lawyers represent a tiny elitist closed shop, while legislation is brought forward that attacks the ordinary trade unions, the Government will be accused of double standards?

I do not believe that to be the case. The existence of a minority report—on some subjects a substantial minority report—makes it all the more important to carry out the widest possible consultations. The fact that a report is a minority one does not mean that it should be acted upon, but it makes it that much more important that we consult as widely as we can to find where the consensus lies. I agree that there are problems, particularly with appearances in Crown courts. A great deal of research has been done by the Royal Commission and a huge amount of evidence has been published. Much more evidence was not published because it involved personal details from people who did not want them to be published. That gives some idea of the magnitude of the task facing the Government in trying to reach a conclusion.

Will the Government repudiate the Commission's recommendation that the more complicated legal aid means test should be extended to the green forms area, the low income and capital limits should be raised substantially, and the upper limits should be abolished? That proposal will provide the rich with State-subsidised legal aid for tax avoidance, for example, while deterring the poor because of the more complicated form-filling process. Does the Attorney-General accept that law centres for the poor should not, as the Commission recommends, be subject to means-tested legal aid but should be run locally and not under a new centralised quango?