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Carter Review

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

22. What representations she has received from solicitors and barristers following publication of the conclusions of the Carter review. (112042)

The hon. Gentleman asks about responses to the Carter review published in July 2006. We had 1,595 responses from solicitors and 469 from barristers, as well as much input from the various meetings that I had around the country, which were mostly attended by practitioners.

Quite a few legal aid practitioners in my constituency have written to me saying that they are worried about the Government’s proposals, which they have called “cost-cutting and damaging”. Those are experienced people who have been doing such work for a long time. Is the Minister saying that their assessment of the likely effect of the proposals is wrong, or is she suggesting that they are merely protecting their fee income?

Clearly, the legal aid fund is not underfunded; it is the best funded in the world by a significant margin. When we move, as we will in October 2007, to fixed fees for crime—which perhaps the hon. Gentleman is talking about—we would expect efficiencies to be driven so that, ultimately, solicitors will be more profitably able than now to do their business and to serve more people. There will be challenges between then and now, and I understand that those will be seriously problematic for some solicitors. I hope that we can support them to overcome those, as there is a good future for those who can do so.

As we are discussing fee income, I should perhaps mention that I am a solicitor. If at all possible, will my hon. and learned Friend consider the question of experts’ fees? I have tabled some questions on the issue, and legal aid expenditure on experts’ fees has increased far more quickly than expenditure on solicitors’ and barristers’ fees over the past five years. Will she get a detailed breakdown of that expenditure, and take steps to restrict such expenditure?

My hon. Friend has tabled such questions, and he is right about those increases. We are considering experts’ fees. If I can supply the information that he seeks, I shall do so.

Will the Minister consider the evidence that the Constitutional Affairs Committee is hearing week by week, from not just barristers and solicitors but judges and others, including representations from the president of the family division, about the likely impact on the availability of family law practitioners? Is she ready to make alterations to the timing and content of the proposals in the light of some of that evidence?

I am, of course, taking note of the evidence, and looking forward to an opportunity to deal with it, either personally or through the Lord Chancellor, in due course. We do, of course, listen carefully to what the president of the family division says. He is talking about deferring, but there is urgency none the less to introduce such fees. It was notable that Lord Justice Thomas was strongly in favour of our proposals, so perhaps a balanced approach was taken.

Has my hon. and learned Friend specifically considered whether advice deserts might emerge following the introduction of scale fees and contracts in relation to family law? Is she reviewing that possibility as a result of the change in practice this autumn?

No, I would not expect the emergence of any advice desert; I would prefer to call them historically bare-ish patches, which are now being pretty well watered with Legal Services Commission money and are basking in the mild sunshine of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, with green shoots coming through, if not bushes and trees. But enough of that metaphor. We are re-consulting on the levels of family fees, and I hope and expect that we will publish that re-consultation soon. I hope that that will ensure that family practitioners benefit from the efficiencies that all the Carter reforms will drive, and that the service given to the public will be improved.

The expression “parallel universes” comes to mind. Is the Minister aware that in a recent survey 99 per cent. of civil legal aid solicitors said that fixed fees would make their work unviable, while a staggering 82 per cent. of family lawyers said that they might withdraw completely from legal aid work? Surely that is why dozens of charities ranging from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mind to Shelter and the Refugee Council have warned that the plans will leave vulnerable people unrepresented. When it comes to protecting such people and standing up for them, who should we listen to, Ministers who appear ever more complacent or world-class charities which spend all their lives helping the vulnerable?

There are Ministers here who spend their lifetimes helping the vulnerable in cases of all kinds.

The opportunities that the proposals offer the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors are extremely significant. I entirely accept that the transition is not easy for all people to see their way through, but I am sure that when it comes it will be advantageous and more vulnerable people will be better advised than they are now.

The effect of the Carter proposals is that there will be fewer suppliers. Whether there are patches or deserts, the fact remains that there will be less access to justice. The Law Society and the Bar Council have made representations, and hundreds of Members of Parliament have signed an early-day motion opposing this measure. Will the Minister listen to what is being said by all concerned, and delay implementation of these ridiculous reforms?

I am not sure what ridiculous reforms are being referred to, but if there are any ridiculous reforms to be deferred I will defer ridiculous reforms. What I do not accept is that fewer firms will mean less supply. On the contrary, if that is the outcome in some areas it will be because the volume of fixed-fees cases means that more people are being better represented. Fewer supplies do not necessarily mean poorer supply, although the effects will vary from area to area. As I have said repeatedly, we will consult locally in order to reach the right conclusion for the local market and—this is overwhelmingly important—for local people.

The Minister will know that since the Government announced their response to the Carter reforms and since the two debates in Westminster Hall in which the Minister spoke—after which her words were scrutinised very carefully—there has been no less concern among both the voluntary sector and the professionals that the new reforms will reduce access to justice in rural and urban Britain alike. Given the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the fact that a Select Committee is examining the evidence now, will the Minister at least do the public and their representatives the courtesy of saying that she will not implement anything until the Select Committee has reported and the House has had a chance to debate its report?

It is not the case that there is “no less concern” than there was. Universally—and that includes the early-day motion that the hon. Gentleman signed—the changes that we have made since Carter have been welcomed. The early-day motion welcomes the changes, and they are good in pace-of-change terms. We have waited to make cuts, and we are not making cuts that were expected to be made very soon under the Carter proposals. I do not know when the Constitutional Affairs Committee will report, but the first fixed fees come into force in October 2007 and I imagine that it will report before that.