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Legal Aid

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2014

We are implementing the reforms of litigation procurement and Crown court advocacy fees that we announced last month. Although making fee reductions is unavoidable, we have listened to the professions wherever we can and taken concrete steps to ease the impact of the changes. Moreover, the Justice Secretary has given a personal commitment that this Government will not seek further savings from criminal legal aid.

The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency keep the operation of both the criminal and civil legal aid schemes under continual review. The Government plan to undertake a post-implementation review of the legal aid provisions within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within three to five years of implementation. That review will include an assessment of the impact of the reforms implemented during that period.

The cost of legal aid came in at £56 million less than was budgeted last year, and research commissioned by the Law Society from Oxford Economics argues that falling crime will reduce the legal aid bill by £80 million by 2018-19. What assessment has the Minister made of the argument that the spending cuts will be delivered without the scale of service reductions he is currently proposing?

We need to look at the bigger picture and recognise that legal aid expenditure in this country—for England and Wales—is some £2 billion, which makes our system one of the most expensive in the world. Even after the reductions have gone through, the bill will still be one of the most generous in the world. We have to ensure that these reductions go through so that the legal aid budget remains sustainable.

After a legal aid-funded judicial review of a negative reasonable grounds decision, the Home Office agreed that a Sheffield resident was a victim of trafficking. Under the new regime she would not pass the residence test for legal aid. The Government have been making much recently of their commitment to tackle human trafficking, so will they now reconsider their decision to reject the recommendation by the Joint Committee on Human Rights to exempt from the residence test all cases where the status of a trafficking victim is contested?

We have made it absolutely clear that for the residence test it is important that they are our people—that they have some link to this country. We have set out where there are exceptions, and that has been made abundantly clear.

Is the Secretary of State worried by the increasing number of defendants in serious cases who cannot access legal advice following the 30% cut in advocates’ fees?

It is important to put things into perspective. The 30% reduction applies to only a tiny number of criminal cases—they are called “very high cost cases” and constitute less than 1% of Crown court cases. The reductions we are making will ensure that the barristers who do that sort of work are still receiving good fee income.

It is generally recognised that the criminal legal aid provider market is fragmented, underinvested and unsustainable, so has my hon. Friend yet been able to assess whether his reforms will lead to the necessary market consolidation?

My hon. Friend makes a good point: it is important to recognise that the legal market has changed and we need to change with it. We very much hope that our proposals will ensure that we have a sustainable legal aid budget which ensures that those who need legal aid assistance will be able to get it, from both solicitors and advocates.

Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of how much of the criminal legal aid budget is spent on cases where the defendant maintains they are innocent only to plead guilty at the last minute before the trial?

I confess that off the top of my head I do not know what the figures are, but I will try to find out the relevant information and I will happily write to my hon. Friend.

In their response to the JCHR report on legal aid reform, the Government agreed to exempt sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989 from the residence test. However, that exemption will not include judicial review, despite the fact that it is often the only remedy available, thereby apparently undermining the exemption that has been made. Will the Minister look closely at expanding the exemption to include judicial review?

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is in Committee, will look at judicial review in considerable detail.

20. On how many occasions has the Attorney-General had to appoint an amicus curiae as a result of the Government’s legal aid cuts? (903113)

Statistics show that the number of non-molestation orders issued by the English courts has recently increased, and there is some suggestion that they may be used as an additional route to obtaining legal aid. Will my hon. Friend undertake to investigate that further?

Does the Minister agree with his colleague the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), that the Government’s cuts to legal aid are “unarguably harsh”? Will the Minister correct his own overestimate of the earnings of legal aid lawyers, which the UK Statistics Authority yesterday called “potentially misleading”? Is it not time that the Ministry of Justice ministerial team put themselves in order?

It is rather rich of the hon. Gentleman to speak about legal aid. The Opposition’s manifesto made it abundantly clear that they would cut legal aid. He and his colleagues lack any credibility unless they put on the record what cuts they would make and, more importantly, whether they would reverse the cuts that we are making.

Will my hon. Friend look at the workings of the Legal Aid Board, so that we never again see a case such as the one in which the board in Essex awarded legal aid to a violent husband to employ a private detective to pursue a battered wife to my constituency?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, but I will be more than happy to ensure that everything is done properly in his case or, indeed, others.