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Legal Aid Budget

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2015

In 2009-10, as this Government took office, £2.2 billion was spent on legal aid. Following our two major reform programmes, spend has fallen to £1.7 billion in 2013-14 and is expected to fall to about £1.5 billion once the reforms have fully worked through the system.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A month ago in the High Court, Lord Justice Laws described the Government’s proposal to have two-tier contracting as reasonable, “proportionate” and a “proper way” to proceed. The case has now gone to the Court of Appeal and a decision is expected imminently. Can the Minister confirm that, subject to that decision, he will be proceeding in this Parliament with a tendering process and not be constrained by what appears to be legal time wasting?

Having successfully defended a challenge in the High Court, we robustly defended our position in the Court of Appeal and are awaiting judgment. If the appeal is dismissed, it is our intention to continue the tender that is currently subject to an injunction as soon as possible.

Access to justice is one of the cornerstones of our democracy. Given the reductions in legal aid, can the Minister say whether there has been a rise or a fall in the number of litigants in person?

I believe there has been a rise in litigants in person, but the Government have also made a huge amount of provision to cater for that. I also say to the hon. Lady and Opposition Front Benchers, who have never said that they are going to reverse the cuts that we have made, that we need a legal aid system that is sustainable, for the people who need it, for the legal providers and for the taxpayers who pay for it.

Has the Minister noted the Justice Committee’s conclusion that although the Government had achieved the cost reduction, there was some transfer of cost to other budgets and far too little availability of the exceptional cases fund, and that mediation, far from increasing, had actually dropped?

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question? As far as exceptional funding is concerned, the giveaway is in the title. The fund is meant to be exceptional, but some people have seen it as a discretionary fund. Not surprisingly, therefore, the numbers involved in it have been few.

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is retiring at the end of this Parliament. Let me say what a pleasure it has been to work with him. I may not always have agreed with him, but working with him has always been a pleasure, and I wish him well for the future.

Perhaps the Minister should listen to the Chair of the Justice Committee and read his report that found that the Government had failed in three of their four objectives for legal aid: they have not discouraged unnecessary litigation; they have not targeted legal aid to those who need it the most; and they have not delivered better value for money for the taxpayer. That is what the report says. Does the Minister agree that that abject failure is a fitting epitaph for the least competent Lord Chancellor since the Reformation?

It is always helpful if shadow Ministers do their homework. The proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers were achieved by the previous Lord Chancellor. As far as his comment on the Justice Committee’s report is concerned, I do not hear him or his boss saying that they will be reversing any of the cuts that we have made. If they want to do that, the shadow Chancellor will have plenty of opportunity so to do in due course.