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Legal Aid (Vulnerable People)

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

One of the key objectives of the reform of legal aid is to improve its sustainability to make sure it remains available to protect vulnerable people. Legal aid continues to be available in cases where people’s life or liberty are at stake; where they are at risk of serious physical harm, or immediate loss of home; or where their children may be removed.

The pursuit of justice can be an extremely expensive matter. Everyone understands that the economic times we live in mean that there have to be constraints on legal aid, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is engaging with the legal profession on the implementation of the reforms?

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. We shall continue to look at the impact of the changes we have put in place. It is not our intention to disadvantage the most vulnerable in our society. We have taken a number of steps in the reforms to protect them and we will continue to review the changes we have made to understand their impact.

Now that a Cameron appears to have woken up to the impact of legal aid cuts and refused to take part in a trial last week because of a lack of defence, will the Secretary of State review that case and that judgment and tell the House how many cases he expects to be stayed as a result of legal aid cuts? What conditions does he have in place to ensure that those whose cases are stayed have a proper trial?

I fear this may be a repeat performance. That case is now subject to appeal, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment before the appeal hearing is held.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent case of a triple murderer who sued the Ministry of Justice for more than £800 because of alleged damage to his personal effects, including a nose hair clipper that went missing. Was legal aid allowed for the prisoner to bring that case? If so, was it a good use of taxpayers’ money?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that while I share his revulsion, the availability of legal aid was not a part of that case. The reforms we have put in place mean that prisoners cannot access legal aid for such cases, or indeed for a wide range of cases relating to conditions in the prisons they are kept in. I do not believe the taxpayer should be funding such court cases.

In Northern Ireland, leading lawyers and the Law Society have stated that the cuts handed down by Westminster and implemented by the Justice Minister will severely hinder the public’s ability to access the justice system. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his ministerial counterpart in Northern Ireland on the impact of this policy?

I have indeed discussed legal aid funding pressures with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, who said to me that he faces similar challenges in balancing a tough budget. The reality is that we all face difficult financial challenges and we sometimes have to take difficult decisions to meet them.

The Secretary of State is taking legal aid from vulnerable people and imposing a residence test that would not have been met by the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre sexually assaulted by guards, the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Gurkhas refused entry to the UK, or care home residents such as those in Winterbourne View or on the recent “Panorama” programme. Which of those would he be most proud to leave without help or representation?

Of course, these changes do not affect the support we provide at inquests. My challenge to the Opposition is this: they have yet to give us any clear answers on how they would bring down the cost of legal aid. They campaigned at the previous general election for reductions in legal aid costs. They continue to oppose the difficult changes we have made, but offer no alternative suggestions.