Skip to main content

Legal Aid

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2013

15. What recent representations he has received on the reform of legal aid; and if he will make a statement. (156188)

My ministerial team and I have met with a number of stakeholders since the launch of our consultation on legal aid reform. Among others, I have met the chair of the Bar Council, the president of the Law Society, members of the senior judiciary, the circuit leaders and a number of solicitors representing Law Society members.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have heard the same concerns that I have about restricted access to justice. Having started out as a young advocate a number of years ago, may I say that there is real concern that there will be less access to the profession, particularly for young barristers, with lower fees while they are trying to pay off their student loans?

We have taken care with these proposals to put together a package based on our statistical analysis which we think will protect incomes at the lower end of the Bar particularly. It is my intention that where we have to impose changes on the profession, they come through either the reorganisation of businesses or income changes at the top end of the income scale.

The Justice Secretary knows full well that his plans for price competitive tendering in criminal legal aid are completely opposed by the profession. They are unworkable. Will he now sit down with the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association and discuss a way forward out of this mess?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the principle of price competitive tendering was first proposed in a report commissioned by the last Government eight years ago. We have looked carefully at the best way in which we can deliver better value in our legal aid system, which we have to do to meet financial targets. We will do so in a way that protects the interests of the justice system, but no change is simply not an option.

I understand the drive to try to save money in this area, but the Justice Secretary will be aware of many of the concerns. Will he look carefully at ideas that have been raised with him such as making more use of frozen assets to pay for cases or dealing with fraud cases more efficiently, to try to reduce the legal aid bill in that way?

I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says on frozen assets. Of course, they are already used to fund police, the Crown Prosecution Service and victims’ services, so this is not an untouched resource. In the Crime and Courts Act 2013, we have taken powers to extend the use of frozen assets, but I do not believe that the amounts of money available are sufficient to make a material difference to our proposals.

What recent representations has the Secretary of State had from the Department and Minister of Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly concerning the reform of legal aid?

I am not aware that I have received a letter concerning that. I obviously have regular meetings and exchanges with the Northern Ireland Minister. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman if I have received such a representation; I am not aware of having seen it.

Is not a defendant’s freedom and ability to instruct a solicitor of their own choosing the fundamental basis of our criminal justice system? Will not these proposals restrict the numbers of corporate entities, with vested interests and conflicts of interests, running prisons, probation services and representing defendants? And if Eddie Stobart gets a contract, why do not the Government go the whole hog, put the magistrates court in the back of the wagon and be done with it?

I am afraid that that contribution is what I would expect from the Labour party. This is not about creating an opportunity for giant firms. It is about saying to small and medium-sized firms, “You will need to change the way you do things to bring down costs, to share back offices, in a way that enables us to get better value for money for the taxpayer.” If Opposition Members really want me to place financial constraints elsewhere in the system, to close courts and to have fewer probation officers, rather than having a more efficient criminal justice system in the legal aid arena, that is their choice. I know which route I am taking.