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Legal Aid

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

6. What his policy is on ensuring that legal aid is targeted at people with a strong connection to the UK. (903844)

10. What his policy is on ensuring that legal aid is targeted at people with a strong connection to the UK. (903848)

The Government believe that individuals should have a strong connection with the UK in order to benefit from the civil legal aid scheme, and we consider the residence test that we propose to be a fair and appropriate way in which to demonstrate that connection.

Will my right hon. Friend put an end to the availability of legal aid in relation to cases brought in the United Kingdom irrespective of any connection with this country, which encourages people to bring their disputes here?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, although I do not think that Labour Members do, judging by the noises that they have been making. I think that the position is very simple. Our taxpayers pay the costs of civil legal aid, and I do not believe that people should be able to come to this country and have immediate access to our civil legal aid system. The test that we propose is designed to change that. I find it interesting that it is being challenged in court, but I am determined that British taxpayers should not be required to pay for legal aid for people who have no right to it because they have not earned it.

According to a written answer that I was given recently, two firms of lawyers that specialise in suing active servicemen, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, have received £10 million in legal aid in the last three years, and the Ministry of Defence has subsequently spent many more millions on defending those cases. No other country in the world would pay lawyers to sue its own army. When we will stop doing so?

My proposed residence test would mean that such cases were no longer possible. I think it important for there to be restraints on our legal aid system. I personally find some of the things that we have read about the inquiry into the cases brought as a result of action in Iraq extremely disturbing. I have asked my officials to examine in great detail what has happened, and to consider whether there are appropriate actions for us to take.

Will the Lord Chancellor think for a moment about the logic of his case? Surely all those who come before the courts have a right of representation, a right of access, and a right to have their cases heard. If the Lord Chancellor’s logic had been applied in the past, the Mau Mau people, who suffered the most grievous maltreatment by British armed forces in the 1950s, would never have had a chance to bring their case before the courts in this country, and would never have had any hope of securing justice.

The hon. Gentleman and I have always differed on these matters. It is important to deal with historical wrongs, but I do not believe that we should encourage British law firms to deal with cases from other parts of the world, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, when in the end—as in the case of the Iraqi situation—there are serious question marks over those cases. I think we need a system that makes our legal aid available to British people, but not to people in the rest of the world.

Many people with a strong connection to the UK face homelessness which is prevented only by the threat of launching judicial review proceedings. Does the Secretary of State accept that, as Shelter and other housing groups say, his changes to legal aid will make that much more difficult? Will he publish data to show the impact of the changes?

I guess it comes down to whether we believe that somebody should come to this country and make a contribution first. Our proposals exclude those who are refugees who are seeking refuge in this country, but they are set out in that way because, I think, people who come to this country should make a contribution before they can start taking money out of the state system for other means of support.

18. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as targeting legal aid on those with a strong tie to the UK, we should not make it available to those fighting weak cases that they would not pursue if they were spending their own money but will pursue if they are spending taxpayers’ money? (903860)

That issue applies particularly to judicial review. The proposals set out in the Bill currently before the House would set an appropriately high bar that will do precisely what my hon. Friend says. There must be a bona fide strong case that goes forward to the courts before the taxpayer will pay the bill.

I welcome the Justice Secretary’s reassurance, in answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), that families like those of Jean Charles de Menezes and Jimmy Mubenga would get legal aid at inquests even though they are not British citizens. But can he explain to the House how it is in the public interest, and somehow good, for the women at Yarl’s Wood detention centre who were sexually assaulted by guards, for the Gurkhas refused entry to the UK or for care home residents like those at Winterbourne View to be denied legal aid?

What divides us is the fact that the Government must take hard decisions. The Labour party has argued for reductions in legal aid; it had plans for reductions in legal aid in its manifesto but now, in opposition, it is trying to prevent reductions in legal aid. That is, I am afraid, another example of the Labour party saying one thing and doing another.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Select Committee report on the impact on our armed forces of this deluge of cases? May I urge him to look again at the £10 million that went to those law firms who deliberately suppressed evidence that their clients were part of a terrorist organisation?

Let us be absolutely clear: in relation to the inquiry to which my hon. Friend refers, what has happened in those cases appears to have been untoward to say the least. If the taxpayer has ended up paying a large amount of money for a case brought on a false premise, I will want to take the strongest possible action, including looking at taking financial measures against the firms involved.