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Legal Aid Reform

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 17 May 2011

A host of organisations, including Citizens Advice, the Law Society and the Select Committee on Justice, have criticised the lack of an evidential basis for the proposed legal aid changes and have asked the Government to slow down and think again. Will the Minister be willing to act on their advice?

The hon. Lady’s question implies that the Government have not been listening. I would say that that is not the case. The consultation elicited some 5,000 responses, we have now had three Adjournment debates on legal aid reform, hundreds of questions have been tabled and I have been engaging in debates, sometimes with shadow Ministers, outside this place. I would say that the Government have been doing a lot of listening on the issue and we will be ready for legislation shortly.

Solicitors have complained to me that the proposals could turn Islwyn into a legal aid desert. What estimate has been made of the number of practitioners who would stop legal aid work if the reforms were made?

The Government’s position is not to start off with the number of legal aid practitioners. Our starting point is the sort of legal aid system that we should have in this country, which will support vulnerable people. The number of practitioners to service that will follow.

Does the Minister believe that there is anything to learn from the Secretaries of State who have been dealing with forestry and health when it comes to rushing through proposals that have been rejected by professionals, the public and coalition Members of both Houses?

I think that I answered that question previously. I certainly believe that we have listened and engaged fully.

The Minister has just said that he wants his plans to protect the most vulnerable, but his own impact assessment says that low-income families, women and minority ethnic groups will be disproportionately affected. Can he explain how that is fair?

Legal aid per se involves poor people, so if we are going to reduce costs it will impact on poor people. It is true that individuals with protected equality characteristics are over-represented within the current client base of civil and family legal aid when compared with the population as a whole, although the extent of that varies by category of law.

Will the Minister be taking the advice of the Select Committee on Justice, which recommended that the Government should assess the

“merits of the cost-saving proposals put forward by the Law Society”,

namely the alternative savings of £384 million—£34 million more than the Government’s proposals would save—while protecting all civil and family legal representation?

Various alternatives have been suggested by the institution that the hon. Lady mentions and by many others during the consultation. The question is whether they would work and whether they would deliver the required savings within the spending review period. The main proposal of the Law Society, which she mentioned, is an alcohol levy—a penny on your pint to pay for lawyers.

I am glad that the Minister is actively listening on this issue—[Interruption.] We will see, won’t we? Under his proposals, someone with a debt case who faces homelessness will be eligible for legal aid, so why should someone facing homelessness in a case of unlawful eviction not also be eligible?

Those are the sorts of issues that we have been considering very carefully through the consultation process. It is very important to realise that even after our reforms we will still be spending £40 million on housing legal aid, for example, and £6 million with debt, so it would be wrong to say that we are abolishing those areas of law. We are looking to get better value and to make sure that the money goes towards helping the vulnerable.

The Minister will have noted a great degree of consistency in the submissions on the proposed changes to legal aid, with concerns expressed about family law, debt and housing law, medical negligence and cost-shunting on to other Departments. He has confirmed that the consultation on legal aid has been a genuine listening exercise. Can he confirm that many of the points expressed by organisations such as the Law Society and the CAB have been heard and, critically, will be acted on?

All of the submissions have been heard and are being considered very carefully—I can assure my hon. Friend of that. As for whether we put them all into place—that is unlikely, but we will consider them all and where we need to change our proposals, changes will be made.

I recently met Langleys Solicitors, a firm based in my constituency, which feels that the recommendations about reductions in the provision of legal aid combined with the recommendations from Lord Jackson’s report on civil court reforms will seriously undermine access to justice and the rule of law. What assurances can my hon. Friend give to Langleys, my constituents and me that the Government’s reforms will not make it more difficult for ordinary people to have recourse to the courts to right wrongs?

I have to be up front with my hon. Friend and say that less money will be spent on legal aid, which means that fewer people will have access to legal aid. The important issue is that we direct scarce resources to the most vulnerable, and that is exactly what we will be doing by prioritising those whose security and liberty is at risk and those whose homes are at risk of immediate repossession.

I was fortunate to secure a debate on legal aid last week in which I and others had the opportunity to go through some detailed concerns. Sadly, the Minister ran out of time in which to respond; I trust that he will respond to us all in writing. He implied then that there would be changes to the original proposals. Can he confirm that now, and what will they be?

I can confirm that a letter has been sent to my hon. Friend, so he should get it shortly. As I said in the Adjournment debate, which helpfully enabled hon. Members to put their points across, issues that were raised then are being looked at carefully by the Government. We will assess those and some of them may have implications for our legislation in due course.

The Secretary of State has accepted Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations on civil litigation reform. He said they were “very attractive” and he was “impressed” by them, so why is the Minister ignoring the report’s recommendation that the Government make

“no further cutbacks in legal aid availability or eligibility”

because

“The legal aid system plays a crucial role in promoting access to justice at proportionate costs”?

Legal aid does play a very important part in access to justice, which the Government support. Lord Justice Jackson was looking at civil costs, and in that context he looked at legal aid. On that point, as in various other instances, we did not agree with his recommendations. What we will put forward in legislation is a total all-encompassing package. The shadow Minister will appreciate that we consulted on public and private funding at the same time so that those who wanted to respond could do so in the context of both.