I beg to move,
The Bill would inform and improve legal services by introducing more competition. It is based on the view that the law is failing society, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most need its protection and support. It is doing that because it is pricing itself out through the endless escalation of fees. The legal aid system is inadequate and at the point of breaking down. It cannot provide equal contest by strengthening the weak against the strong; it cannot provide those who receive legal aid with an adequate service. All too often they get the service which fell off the back of the practice or the chambers. The limits for that legal aid system are too narrow and some vulnerable people cannot use it. Rather than being a service industry for the people, the law is becoming a self-service industry. It is serving itself and has a vested interest which is protected by restrictive practices. It is in danger of becoming a conspiracy to serve the purposes of wealth instead of people. Indeed, it has become incapable of reforming itself because the power in the two professions is in the hands of those who are doing very well out of the status quo and do not want reform. My modest little measure proposes to deal with that by taking all legal powers, except for those of a judge and the functions of the House of Lords, away from the Lord Chancellor and setting up a Ministry of Justice such as exists in most civilised countries. That could become the dynamic for reform, to establish family courts, to end delays, to see that judges are properly trainedl—perhaps by sending them on an MSC scheme or to a judges' college so that they get some training—and drawn from a wider range than their present restricted backgrounds. It would be a ministry answerable to the House of Commons—to us. Secondly, the Bill provides competition, which is in an appropriate dynamic for change because it compels service to the people. The biggest barrier to competition has been the conspiracy to protect fees and to ensure their continuous escalation by restrictive practices. Therefore, I propose, first, that we should abolish the rank of QC, which is largely a self-appointed clique of those already earning more than £100,000 a year and dedicated to pushing the fees even higher. Let the market decide on grounds of excellence rather than this artificial appointment. If we do that, we can get rid of the two-counsel convention—which is no longer a rule but it is still a convention—which requires people to pay fees of up to £1,000 a day for a QC and £500 a day for a junior, in addition to the fees to the solicitor, as the third in the party. Let us liberate the spontaneous feelings of the two legal professions for each other, which is otherwise described as mutual loathing, by allowing solicitors rights of audience in all courts, so that the customer can decide who shall represent him in the court he chooses, and by allowing barristers to set up anywhere without those monopoly managers—the barristers' clerks—manipulating them to push up their own earnings. Let us make it possible for young barristers to break into the profession by setting up anywhere, and doing what might be described as pricing themselves into jobs by setting themselves up in practice to serve wherever and in any way they want. Let us also allow barristers to advertise and to take customers without the intermediary of a solicitor, just as they do overseas, and to sue solicitors for fees. Finally, the Bill will improve competition and break the stranglehold of private practice by setting up a paid legal service to compete—just as there is competition within the NHS—with private practice. The customer will be able to choose to whom he should turn for service. We can thereby cut out much of the waste which is at present endemic in the legal-aid system. Solicitors are being paid £40 an hour, which is a premium for them to prevaricate and extend cases by dragging out the argument, thereby creating a bottomless pit into which money has to be thrown. We can get round that problem by a salaried service with an independent legal services commission to ensure that services are properly available to the people. First, there should be a public defender service, as in the United States—for example, in Orange county, California—which would cut out all the petty corruption and touting for business which goes on in criminal legal-aid cases in the bigger cities. Secondly, law shops should be set up in town centres, not where the housing market is lushest, to ensure that people get the best service and advice. Law shops would deal with the types of cases that affect people in their everyday lives, such as employment, social security and one individual's rights—those areas where the legal profession is failing them at present. Law shops will be able to employ barristers and solicitors to provide that service. I would have hoped that a Government who proclaim their attachment to competition would tackle such restrictive practices without having to be pushed into it, as they were, first, by the legislation which took away the monopoly on conveyancing, for which the Conservative party claimed credit in its manifesto, but into which it had to be pushed, and, secondly, by a measure such as this. It seems illogical to refer television practices to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but not to refer the far greater range of restrictive practices carried on by the legal profession. I had also hoped that the law would reform itself, but people who are doing well out of the present situation have a vested interest in not reforming it and that reform has not come. Therefore, it falls to Parliament to act to ensure that people receive the proper and efficient legal service that is their due. The law is there to serve them in all their problems and in all those areas where their rights have to be defended, rather than simply to serve its own interests for its own enrichment, as it does at present.That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a Ministry of Justice and provide for a more competitive legal service by abolishing the status and title of Queen's Counsel, by allowing barristers to set up chambers anywhere without clerks, to advertise and to take clients without the mediation of solicitors, by allowing solicitors rights of audience in all courts, and by establishing a salaried solicitor service through a Public Defender Service and Law Shops, and for connected purposes.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Tim Janman, Mr. Charles Kennedy, Mr. Alun Michael and Mr. Rhodri Morgan.
Legal Profession (Abolition Of Restrictive Practices)
Mr. Austin Mitchell accordingly presented a Bill to establish a Ministry of Justice and provide for a more competitive legal service by abolishing the status and title of Queen's Counsel, by allowing barristers to set up chambers anywhere without clerks, to advertise and to take clients without the mediation of solicitors, by allowing solicitors rights of audience in all courts, and by establishing a salaried solicitor service through a Public Defender Service and Law Shops, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 8 July and to be printed. [Bill 155.]