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Legal Aid (Litigants in Person)

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2012

8. What discussions he has had with the Lord Chief Justice on the potential effect of his planned changes to legal aid on the number of litigants in person. (99263)

10. What discussions he has had with the Lord Chief Justice on the potential effect of his planned changes to legal aid on the number of litigants in person. (99266)

Substantial numbers of cases already involve litigants in person, so the courts already deal with this situation. The Government recognise that the changes to legal aid are likely to increase the number of litigants in person. The evidence appears to show that some cases featuring litigants in person are resolved more quickly, whereas some cases take longer.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but does he agree with the Lord Chief Justice that the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will have a negative effect on the justice system—yes or no?

Well, we have just discovered that the Labour party’s policy is to make substantial cuts in criminal legal aid. If the Government had made that proposal, that would no doubt have led to amazing attacks on our disregard for the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and to comments about the high risk of injustice in criminal trials. On the savings we are making in the cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the fact is that courts already deal with litigants in person. Any judge or tribunal knows that they have to pay particular attention to make sure that people are not disadvantaged by not having legal representation, but as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), has just explained, we have tried to identify cases in which the informality of the tribunals means that applicants should not be at any particular disadvantage if they do not have a lawyer there in any event.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the additional cost that will be incurred by the legal system overall as a result of the increased numbers of litigants in person?

We are not persuaded that that will give rise to any increase in costs. Everybody accepts that cuts need to be made to legal aid. It is just that the Labour party is against every single cut that we suggest in particular. This cut is perfectly straightforward and will not give rise to the difficulties that the hon. Lady points out—[Interruption.] I can only say to the Opposition spokesman that he is obviously so discommoded by realising that he nearly gave out a policy on the subject a moment ago that he is getting rather carried away. We have carefully selected cuts in legal aid concerning less serious cases where cuts can be made without any risk to justice whatever.

The president of the family division gave evidence to the Justice Committee and said that he did not think that when a parent was disappointed not to have got legal aid for a contact or residence case, the parent should just say, “Well, never mind. Let’s forget about the child. I’m not going forward.” That person will go to court alone, taking twice as much time as a person represented. That will waste the judge’s and everybody else’s time, it will be hurtful for all concerned and it will damage the children as well.

In family justice we are placing much more emphasis on mediation, which should be much more comfortable for all the clients and will lead to a much easier and less traumatic resolution of many disputes. We are putting more money into mediation and more money into training for mediation. We should remember that the purpose of this public service is to resolve disputes with the minimum of cost and time and to take all the emotion out, so far as is possible, of these difficult family cases. Access to justice is access to the most civilised way of resolving disputes. Access to justice does not depend only on how many lawyers the taxpayer pays for to go into adversarial litigation on every such issue.