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Legal Aid

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

We are consulting on proposed reforms of the legal aid system, as set out in our consultation document, “Transforming Legal Aid”, which was published on 9 April. We are seeking views on proposals to ensure that the criminal legal aid system in this country operates more efficiently, that we live within our means, and that we have a system in which the public can have confidence.

What steps is the Minister taking to make publicly available details of the amounts paid by the legal aid authorities to counsel and solicitors and the costs for the preparation of cases prosecuted each year?

That information is already available to a degree. It is available to hon. Members and has been published under the Freedom of Information Act. It is very important that at the same time as ensuring we have a proper legal aid system that provides access to justice to all, we ensure that the payments we make are payments we can afford.

How can Ministers be confident that under their proposals there will be a genuine market and not just a few very large businesses that would have no great incentive to maintain quality once they got a fixed proportion of the business?

That is a very important point. First, I have absolutely no intention of ending up with a legal aid market dominated by a small number of very large firms. A central part of the tendering process will involve a quality threshold that ensures that we have the quality of advocacy and litigation support in this country that we need and expect.

The Secretary of State talked about the quality threshold, but his own Department’s consultation document warns against the danger that some advice might go above the quality threshold and therefore be too expensive. What does he have to say to that and how will he ensure that criminals get a proper defence?

We must ensure that every defendant, innocent or guilty, has access to a proper defence. We also need a system that is affordable at a time of great financial stringency. Our proposals are designed to find the right balance between those two things.

The current graduated fee system is clearly broken and is costing a huge amount of money to administer. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at constructive proposals to streamline the system and improve the system of criminal fees?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have been very clear in saying to both barristers and solicitors—to the whole legal profession—that this is a consultation. I have challenges to meet financially, but I am very open to means of improving the current system in a way that makes it affordable while maintaining the quality and effectiveness of provision.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State intends to award legal aid franchises on the basis of price and not on anything else? That means that the lowest common denominator will prevail and one of the basic founding tenets of the legal aid system, equal access to justice, will be at an end.

How will the Government ensure that the proposed residence test does not leave many victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied child immigrants and victims of domestic violence with no access to justice? Is there not a real danger that our attempts to look tough on immigration will leave many vulnerable people without the justice they deserve?

Under the new systems we have put in place, the Legal Aid Agency has discretionary funding to deal with the very unexpected cases. However, I do not think that it is unreasonable to say that if someone is going to come to this country and access public support, they should have been here for a period of time and paid taxes before they do so.

More than 70% of the public, according to a poll in today’s papers, think that the Secretary of State’s cuts to criminal legal aid will lead to innocent people being convicted. Does he really think that miscarriages of justice are a price worth paying for his mismanagement of the justice budget?

I still do not think that the Opposition understand the nature of the financial mess they left behind and what we have to do to balance the books. I also think that the public would expect me to do what I can to maintain a strong prison system and a strong court system at the same time as having a legal aid system that provides justice while being affordable. That is what we are doing.