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Legal Aid

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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To ask the Attorney-General what estimate he has made of legal aid payments in the current financial year; and how much was paid (a) five and (b) 10 years ago.

The provision for all legal aid expenditure in the current Supply Estimates is £557 million. Five years ago expenditure was £273 million and 10 years ago it was £99 million.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend and his Department on that substantial increase. Can he confirm that many more poor people are covered in legal cases by that increased expenditure, and can he explain why solicitors' and lawyers' charges are so high? Why did the cost of the Aldington case come to £1 million?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his recognition, which deserved to be more widely understood, of the large increases in the money made available for legal aid in the past 10 years. Referring to the costs in legal aid cases, the fees paid to solicitors and lawyers vary on a scale appropriate to the weight and experience necessary for the lawyer or lawyers dealing with the case in question. The Aldington case, which was an unusual case, was a libel case and legal aid is not available for libel. However, the number of people receiving help from legal aid in the past 10 years, judged by the number of legal aid applications granted, has risen from fewer than 200,000 in 1979–80 to some 259,000 this year.

Notwithstanding the figures that the Solicitor-General has just given, compared with 10 years ago legal aid is now available to 14 million fewer people. Poor people have been discriminated against. The less money they have the less chance they have of obtaining justice. That is the situation we are facing in 1990.

No. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's assumptions are correct, although I know where they come from. He will also have recognised and no doubt welcomed the announcement by my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor providing extra availability of legal aid, particularly in personal injury cases and cases involving children and pensioners which are likely to increase the numbers by up to 10 million people.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is also considerable disquiet about the working of the scheme among the legal profession—in which of course I declare an interest—particularly about the rate of remuneration for legal aid? The delays in payment and the circumstances in which it is granted are resulting in a reduction in the number of solicitors who are willing to carry out legal aid work. Will he consider what effect that is likely to have on the Government's commitment to improved access to the legal system for poorer people in society?

Over the past year and a half, I have been made well aware of the concerns about the matters that my hon. and learned Friend raised. He will recognise that considerable advances have been made in improving rates of remuneration. The Legal Aid Board is urgently tackling the question of promptness of payment and the other administrative matters which are important if legal aid is to be given effectively.