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Legal Aid (Barristers)

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013

Our analysis, based on applying our proposals to the cases handled by the Legal Aid Agency last year, suggests that overall the majority of criminal advocates would either be better off or see their income unchanged as a result of the fee proposals, while civil barristers affected, who generally receive higher fees than other civil advocates, could see their income reduced.

Could the proposals not have been centred around a fixed-fee per case, salami-slicing budget cuts across the board or restructuring? Will not this arrangement protect the incomes of lower paid barristers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That was part of our objective. Some people argued that we should go for one case, one fee, but that would in my view do deep long-term—if not total—damage to the Bar. We chose not to go down that route. We have put together a package of proposals that, on the basis of the case mix carried out last year by junior barristers, should leave a substantial proportion of them either with an unchanged income or a slightly increased income.

19. If legal aid cannot be paid unless permission is granted for a judicial review, does the Justice Secretary accept that lawyers will be unable to take on some of the strongest cases such as when local authorities might refuse to recognise their duty to house a homeless family? Those are exactly the kind of cases where they will offer an early settlement or a no-cost settlement. (162402)

I am afraid that I think the current situation is unacceptable, whereby we are obliged to provide legal aid to anyone who starts a judicial review regardless of the strength of their case. If an individual has a strong case with their lawyer against a local authority, they should seek to recover their costs from that local authority. It is not the job of the taxpayer to bank-roll all cases.

Has the Lord Chancellor heard from the Bar Council since the Law Society sent me a letter yesterday describing the constructive progress that had been made in discussions? Does he recognise the genuine concern that when a fundamental change is made in the relationship between the two sides of the profession, it has to be after very careful consideration?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Over the past few weeks, I have had very constructive engagement with the Law Society and I welcome the counter-proposals it has put to us. We have recognised many shared objectives in that and it has behaved with professionalism over this matter. I was very disappointed that when the Bar Council submitted its report and recommendations to us in response to our consultation it did not contain the same degree of constructive engagement. I am due to meet the Bar Council later today and I hope we will see that change.

Now that the Lord Chancellor concedes that client choice is integral to the criminal justice system, when will he announce that price-competitive tendering has been dumped once and for all?

The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that the concept of competitive tendering in criminal legal aid was originated by his own party. Now we are hearing the Labour party oppose the things for which it argued for years, and it is typical of this Opposition that they will say one thing when in government, and when in opposition will say something completely different. I am proud to be part of a party that is defending health budgets and taking tough decisions in other areas; the hon. Gentleman is part of a party doing the opposite.

Although legal aid is no longer available for most family litigation, it is still available for family mediation, yet many mediation services have seen their inquiries halve since April because clients are under the mistaken belief that it is caught up in the changes. Given that mediation is often better than litigation, what can the Secretary of State do to advertise the fact?

I am very concerned to pursue that. I am aware of the issues that my hon. Friend mentions. It may well be down to the fact that there was a surge in cases prior to the legal aid changes that came into effect in April, but I can give him an assurance that this is very much on my radar, and I intend to pursue it.

Last week, the Lord Chancellor was telling some of the 16,000 respondents to his legal aid consultation that their responses had been automatically deleted, but he must have read some of them, as they provoked his embarrassing U-turn on choice of solicitor yesterday. Will he now also U-turn on forcing small firms out of business and on giving cash incentives for guilty pleas, and will he abandon the further cuts in civil legal aid that will, according to the Parole Board among others, cost several times the £6 million he claims they will save?

Labour Members really do not get it, do they? Government Minister consults on proposals, listens, makes some modifications, and gives an early decision to help people, so they are not attacking proposals that have changed. Labour Members never listened to anybody when they were in government; they just ploughed ahead regardless.

The hon. Gentleman is the person who said, in 2011, that the Government should look for

“efficiencies in the criminal legal aid system,”


“save…money”.—[Official Report, 2 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 958-9.]

We are now doing that; they have changed their minds. It is shambolic.