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Legal Aid Funding

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2015

1. Whether he plans to make further changes in the level of funding for legal aid; and if he will make a statement. (907362)

Legal aid is a fundamental part of our justice system, but resources are not limitless. When reform began, we had one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, at about £2 billion a year. Even after our reforms are complete, our legal aid system will still be one of the most generous, at about £1.5 billion a year. The Transforming Legal Aid programme that is currently being implemented is designed to save an extra £215 million per year. There are no current plans for further changes to funding levels beyond this programme, but the financial pressure to balance the books remains.

Research by Rights of Women has revealed that six out of 10 women who suffered domestic violence and were then refused legal aid took no further action through the courts, and many, as a result, ended up staying in violent and abusive relationships. Will the Lord Chancellor look again at the barriers to access to justice that his legislation has created?

There are two issues involved. Clearly, domestic violence is a criminal offence and it should be dealt with properly by the police. Although we made a number of difficult changes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, one of the groups we protected was women who needed to go to court after an incident of domestic violence, and that is the way it should be.

I would be grateful if the Secretary of State updated the House on what representations about current levels of legal aid he has received from the Bar Council and other organisations representing barristers.

Not surprisingly, the Bar Council has argued very strongly for the status quo on legal aid. We have worked with it closely over the past 12 months, particularly in the work done by Sir Bill Jeffrey and, most recently, Lord Justice Leveson on how we can improve the process to reduce work load, at a time when we face big financial pressures, and create a system that is more efficient.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that reductions in funding for this service could prevent those within the sphere of family law from accessing justice, thus reducing the ability to challenge unreasonableness?

As a Government, we have had to take some difficult decisions about legal aid. It is certainly the case that there is less legal aid money available for family law cases than there was. I am afraid that is a natural consequence of the financial challenges that we have faced. It is interesting that no party in this House has pledged to reverse these changes.

What has been the cost in wasted court time, particularly in family proceedings where people have not been properly prepared for their proceedings, as a result of cuts to legal aid?

So far, there has been an increase in the number of litigants in person. Of course, we have always had litigants in person in our courts. We continue to monitor the situation closely. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is working hard to look at additional ways of smoothing the processes that people have available to represent themselves. None the less, progress in our courts has so far continued pretty well.

The Secretary of State’s third attempt to introduce a new contract for criminal legal aid is now stalled in the High Court and looks dead. Will he join the shadow Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), in burying it? Will he work with the legal profession to devise a model that does not put hundreds of high street solicitors’ firms out of business and lead to more miscarriages of justice? Or is this just like prisons, probation and the Courts Service—another of the policy car crashes he is leaving to an incoming Labour Government to sort out?

The one thing we can always guarantee at these sessions is to hear a load of nonsense from the hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to Labour Members’ arguments over the past few months. They oppose when it is politically convenient to do so, but they have absolutely no idea what they would do in our place—and that is why the electorate are not going to give them the chance.