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Legal Aid

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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22.

What recent representations the Department has received in favour of increasing legal aid payment rates for criminal law practitioners. [121035]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
(Mr. David Lammy)

My Department receives representations from a variety of sources. The most recent was from the Legal Aid Practitioners Group in March.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the rest of the ministerial team on their appointments and wish them and the Department a very successful future.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a growing number of criminal legal aid practitioners are giving up legal aid work because they cannot make it pay? More generally, is he aware of research by the Legal Services Commission showing that in as many as 2 million cases a year people with legal problems cannot find legal help? Does he share my concern that unless there is further reform and investment in the legal aid system its very viability is at stake, with the consequence for the criminal legal system that we would not have the bright, talented lawyers of the future for defence and prosecution work? If he shares that concern, what is he going to do about it?

I agree that criminal legal practitioners do a wonderful job in representing people from some of the most disadvantaged and socially excluded communities. Of course, they have raised, and continue to raise, concerns about their remuneration. My hon. Friend will understand that criminal practitioners, like many people who dedicate their lives to public service, will not receive the same amount as they would receive if they were in private practice. That is the decision that they make. He is wrong to suggest that there is a difficulty in the recruitment and retention of criminal legal practitioners. In fact, over the past few years there has been a loss of only 17 offices out of the 2,900 offices with criminal defence contracts. We continue to monitor the situation, and we are undertaking a widespread consultation on and review of legal aid to ensure that we have the best provision for the future.

Before the Minister authorises an increase in criminal law legal aid rates, will he make a real mark for himself in his new Department by organising a thorough review of the Legal Aid Board and its practices? When we live in a society in which someone who chooses to break into a house with the intention of stealing gets legal aid to bring an action for damages against the householder, has not the world gone barking mad; and is it any wonder that the general public are losing confidence in the Legal Aid Board?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the former Lord Chancellor agreed to a consultation on the supply, demand and purchase of legal aid, which began on 5 June. It will continue for some months; let us see what the outcome is.