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Legal Aid Reform

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

The consultation for the reform of legal aid closed on 14 February and we have received some 5,000 responses from members of the public, lawyers and their representative bodies, advice providers, charities and many others. We are continuing to review all the representations received and we hope to publish our finalised proposals, which will include plans for implementation, after the Easter recess.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Citizens Advice has calculated that every pound cut in welfare legal aid will cost the state a further £9 in additional costs. In light of that information, will he amend his plans?

We do not accept the figures provided by Citizens Advice, but we do recognise that early advice can certainly be helpful in a range of contexts. Often, people need general advice on welfare benefits or debt rather than legal advice.

The Government are announcing a huge programme of welfare reform, which means that, at least for a time, there will inevitably be confusion and uncertainty about entitlement. Will the Minister explain how it can be right to consider removing funding for legal aid for welfare benefits and social law matters right now? What guarantees will he give about continued funding for such advice?

There is never a right time to do these things, but we feel that legal aid needs to play its part in reducing the deficit and that is what we propose to do. In terms of benefits, there could be an issue with more benefit claims coming through from the Department for Work and Pensions and we are working closely with that Department to ensure that we maintain a smooth service.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed reforms will have a disproportionate impact on women—I declare an interest as a legal aid family lawyer—especially in the categories of employment, family and housing?

Not necessarily. It is true that individuals featuring protected characteristics are over-represented in the civil legal aid client base and as such any reform to civil legal aid is likely to have a greater impact on those groups when compared with the population as a whole, but that is a function of demographics. When affected clients are compared with unaffected clients, proportions are very similar.

Will my hon. Friend take on board all the careful representations he has received about the potential problem of using domestic violence as the criterion for granting legal aid in family law cases?

The Government’s position is that domestic violence should be the gateway to receiving legal aid in relation to family law. However, my hon. Friend has asked specifically about the definition and I am pleased to tell him that many representations have come in on this issue and that we are going to consider them very carefully when we make our final report.

What the Minister told the Justice Committee is at odds with what he has said to the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) today. He said that he wanted legal aid to be directed towards the most vulnerable, but every authoritative voice the Committee heard, and even his Department’s impact assessment, said that the opposite will be the case and that the most vulnerable will be disproportionately hit by his cuts. We will see tomorrow, when the Committee publishes its report, whom it found more credible, but may I offer him the opportunity today finally to accept the overwhelming evidence that his cuts to social welfare legal aid will hit the most vulnerable the hardest?

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions social welfare and misses criminal legal aid, because when it comes to eligibility and defining who is vulnerable, it was the previous Government who decided that criminal legal aid would be means-tested. We are not addressing that, but in relation to civil legal aid, yes, we do believe that the eligibility tests need to be looked at, and that is what we are doing.