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Legal Aid

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007

I have received oral and written representations from rural law firms and their representatives as part of the ongoing consultation into the implementation of our legal aid changes. I have personally been to more than 25 meetings with 1,000 practitioners, including many rural providers, and we took their concerns heavily into account when we revised our proposals and published them earlier last year.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I assume that, having listened to those representations, she will be fully aware of the concerns such as those expressed by the solicitors in my constituency that the few who still provide legal aid services in rural areas are actively contemplating withdrawing from those services as a result of the Government’s proposals. What will then happen to vulnerable people in rural areas who cannot get representation under legal aid?

We have just been through an exercise in renewing a contract for legal aid in almost identical terms to the one that prevailed before. A number of firms said that they would not sign because they did not intend to carry on, but I am pleased to say that, in the end, all of them did. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular difficulties in this regard, I would ask him please to come and see me about them, but we are confident that rural providers will do well out of our proposals.

I asked the Minister a similar question to this on 6 March, and I then discussed her answer with representatives of a local firm in which I have great confidence. They said that the new contract proposals for family and criminal work amounted to financial suicide, that they had been signed under duress and that many firms would indeed back out in an orderly fashion later this year. Is there not a real risk that we are creating a national chain of “Advocacy Is Us”, which will be based in cities, providing a service that is down to a price rather than up to a standard, and which will denude rural areas?

No, there is not the slightest likelihood of that happening. I am anxious to encourage smaller firms to stay in business. The family fees do not represent financial suicide; they have been put together with a lot of input from the profession, for which we are very grateful. Nor do the criminal fees, which have also been put together with the greatest possible care. They are based on the average claims in the areas of the police station duty rotas. All of this involves the same budget as before. Everyone should have the confidence to go through the transition, as the signatures on the contracts now suggest is happening. They must get over the transition—it is not a simple one; I accept that—and then look forward to a very good future in legal aid.

To be fair, the Minister has engaged with people who are complaining about services in rural areas. However, I have a letter here from a specialist in mental health law, Julie Burton, which is addressed to the Lord Chancellor. In it, she says that publicly funded legal advice lawyers are leaving the service “in droves”. She is the only mental health lawyer in the whole of north and mid-Wales, but she, too, is going to give up. She has dedicated her life to this work but, after 25 years, she can see no alternative.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he is not correct to say that firms are leaving in droves. Of the solicitors who had signed up to the last contract, 94 per cent. have signed up to the new one. That does not suggest that they are leaving in droves; it represents a pretty average fall-away. I am sorry to hear about the lady in Wales. We will have to look for someone else who can provide that service to the vulnerable population that she serves, but I hope that she will reconsider.