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Limited Extension Of Legal Aid To Industrial Tribunal Proceedings

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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'In schedule 2, Part I to the Legal Aid Act 1988, after paragraph 3 there shall be inserted:

"3A. Proceedings in industrial tribunals relating to the question of whether or not the tribunals jurisdiction is excluded by section 62 or 62A of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, or which are proceedings under schedule 1 of the Employment Act 1990.".'.—[Mr. Wallace.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The principle of the new clause is to extend legal aid to industrial tribunal proceedings as specified in the new clause. We believe that legal aid could be more generally applied to proceedings before industrial tribunals. After all, the issues raised are often fundamental to an individual's rights, and not least his employment. Important issues can arise and, as in the civil courts, individuals should have the right to legal aid if they meet the financial criteria. Employment rights should be of equal importance.

To get the new clause within the scope of the long title, we have had to restrict it to two particular matters. They are relevant matters in respect of which we believe that individuals should rightly receive legal aid assistance to enable them to pursue their cases. The first relates to circumstances where, under clause 7, an employee would lose the right to go to an industrial tribunal if he was dismissed while engaged in an unofficial industrial action.

During earlier debates there was considerable discussion about the circumstances in which action might or might not be considered to be industrial action. The Minister agreed that that was a matter which the industrial tribunal could determine. Having a mind as to what would come up later, I noted that he said that such matters could be complicated and technical. The fact that they might be so complicated and technical means that the individual who wishes to take such a matter to an industrial tribunal should have recourse to legal aid so that he is properly represented before the tribunal.

The new clause also applies to tribunal hearings under such schedule, which relates to the protection given to individuals—their right to belong or not to belong to a trade union. Hon. Members have asked whether that includes trade union activities. That may give rise to important litigation and the new clause would bolster up the right, which I welcome, to belong or not to belong to a trade union.

Starred new clause 14 would make the same provisions for Scotland and if, in his wisdom, the Minister is prepared to allow my new clause, he will ensure that in another place equivalent Scottish provisions will also be legislated.

The new clause caused me something of a dilemma because I could not decide whether to take the statesmanlike approach, realise that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) had to frame it in the way that he had and deal with what he would have liked it to deal with, or to take my usual approach and castigate him for deficiencies in the drafting. I decided to be magnanimous. I understand that the only way in which the hon. Gentleman could bring the new clause within the scope of the Bill was to tie it to the jurisdictional points.

It might be possible, even if ingenuity was not necessary, to consider the jurisdictional points as crucial to whether a person could get himself before a tribunal, but at the end of the day it would produce some curious anomalies. For example, if in the middle of a hearing a jurisdictional point was satisfied, the person would find that he did not have legal aid. This is all about, in intent if not in form, whether legal aid would be available for industrial tribunal hearings.

The hon. Gentleman and I share a common guilt in that we are both lawyers and that may frame our attitudes in a particular way. But putting aside the commercial possibilities, industrial tribunals are supposed to be a relatively informal mechanism, and the provision of legal aid will only encourage their formalism by bringing people like us into them more readily. Therefore, I cannot accept the spirit or the form of the new clause, but I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity.

The Minister's response comes as no surprise, and I thank him for his compliment. When the important issue of employment arises, it would not be unreasonable to have legal representation. I understand that moves are afoot to bring litigation on contracts of employment into the scope of industrial tribunals which at present qualify for legal aid in the civil courts. If that change comes about, we shall have to look afresh at having legal aid for tribunals. However, clearly, I shall not make much progress on the words on the amendment paper. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.