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Civil Legal Aid

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

3. When he last met representatives of the legal profession to discuss the future of civil legal aid. (202045)

My noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath has regular meetings with representative bodies and individual providers, including the Law Society, with whom my Department and the Legal Services Commission have recently reached an agreement over legal aid contracts. That agreement will give stability and certainty for civil legal aid providers, and heralds a strong commitment to a new collaborative working approach.

I am grateful for that answer. The Minister will know that the Ministry, along with the Legal Services Commission, has just settled a damaging dispute with the legal profession about civil legal aid contracts. Can she confirm that as a result of settling that dispute there will be sufficient numbers of lawyers taking up civil law contracts for legal aid and there will be sufficient money to pay them for the contracts, and that we will not have more court disputes between the sides over the adequacy of the scheme for the future?

I am happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that I think I can with confidence state that those things will happen. As he will know, increasing provision is going into legal aid. The reaching of an agreement on these contracts has, obviously, been difficult at times, but it is very important that we have done so. That shows that we can work together and achieve an agreement that makes sure that the most vulnerable will receive the access to justice that they deserve.

What steps can the Minister take to ensure that legal aid and other legal costs that will come about as a result of public inquiries that are currently under way in Northern Ireland do not spiral out of control as they have done in the Saville inquiry?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and we are very conscious of the effect that some past inquiries have had on the whole system. We monitor this very carefully, and we will ensure that we get proper value for money in every aspect of our legal aid budget.

I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the agreement that has been reached. However, will she agree to monitor the provision of legal advice, particularly on immigration and family law issues, under the new financial arrangements, because there is a fear in my constituency that there will be an increasing shortage of that provision?

My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point. Expertise and sensitivity are required in the two areas he mentions, and it is important that we make sure they are properly covered by legal aid provision. I welcome the support we get, particularly from the not-for-profit sector, in dealing with many such cases, and I will ensure that my noble Friend Lord Hunt monitors provision in those areas.

May I put it to the Minister that her replies so far have been incredibly complacent? Is she aware that law firms up and down the country are giving up legal aid work on housing, immigration, mental health and family law cases? All of that was predicted in a Select Committee report of last year, which the Government completely ignored. Does she agree that the end result will be legal aid deserts and some of the most vulnerable people in society being denied justice?

No, I do not agree at all with the hon. Gentleman, and I am disappointed that he felt he had to ask that question in the way he did. He will know that the increase in spend from the Legal Services Commission has gone up by 73 per cent. in the six years to 2006-07. We have looked into legal aid deserts in the past, and the new way of commissioning and the new contracts are in place particularly to make sure that legal aid deserts do not occur.

The third thing to mention is that we want to ensure that legal aid gets to those most in need—those who are dealing with mental health or housing issues, or with the immigration or family law matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) mentioned. This Government’s approach to this series of reforms has aimed to protect those most in need.

Will a young person who is seeking an injunction against family members under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 be able to access aid from September when the Act comes into force?

Again, my hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I want to be able to tell her and the House that yes, young people will be able to access legal aid in those circumstances. It is vital that we ensure that everyone is aware of the provisions of the 2007 Act, that people feel able to access aid, whether through the not-for-profit sector or through women’s or youth organisations, and that, come September, young people will be able to get the protection that they deserve and need.