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Legal Aid

Volume 632: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2017

The Government have published a post-legislative memorandum on the legal aid reforms introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. We have launched a review of the operation of that Act, which will be thorough and will report by the summer recess.

I recently visited Hull chamber of commerce, where a solicitor explained to me that the cuts in legal aid are actually costing the courts so much more money, because so many people in Hull are trying to represent themselves, and the President of the Supreme Court has said that the legal aid reforms are actually a false economy. Does the Minister agree that restoring early legal advice would not only help solve some legal problems, but save taxpayers’ money?

I understand the point that the hon. Lady is trying to make, and she has done so in a constructive way, but I am not sure that the evidence is there to back up her assertion. We provide a wide range of legal help, for example in civil and family cases. Last year we spent £100 million on legal help, including practical support and telephone helplines that provided advice on 20,000 occasions last year. There are also online tools to make it clear to people when legal aid is available, but other sources of legal advice are also available.

When changes were made to legal aid in family matters, it was anticipated that there would be considerable growth in the use of mediation. In fact, the numbers using mediation have dropped massively, and all the evidence indicates that that is because early legal advice is a gateway to mediation for assisted parties and reduces the burden of litigants in person in the courts. Is it not time that the Minister looked again at the issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to be encouraging more alternative dispute resolution, and I think that there is agreement on both sides of the House that we should incentivise cases being settled and not going through the courts, because of the cost and the trauma for those involved. The LASPO review provides an opportunity to look at all of this in the round, but I do not think that the answer will be exclusively about money; it will also be about the positive incentives that we put in place.

It is estimated that providing early legal help in family court cases would cost less than £14 million because, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has just said, many cases would be resolved before getting to court. Why does the Minister continue to insist that this is not a cost-effective way of dealing with cases? Does he actually know how many cases are proceeding with litigants in person, and how much that is costing the courts system?

There is a range of support for early legal help, as I have already detailed—£100 million of support—and that can be online or telephone support, but also representation. Since 2015 we have invested £5 million in the litigants in person strategy. There is a range of support available, but of course we can review this in the round through the review.

We are a nation of laws, but we must be one nation too, with access to justice for people from all backgrounds. Does my hon. Friend agree that, post the LASPO review, the most careful thought should be given to bolstering legal aid resources so that we can have early advice and assistance for all?

My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a powerful point. We will be able to look at this in the round, but we do still spend £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is a quarter of my Department’s budget. If we want to put more resources in, the money has to be found elsewhere. We will also be looking carefully at making sure we have the right allocation to support those in the greatest need.

Was not the founding principle of legal aid full and free access to justice regardless of ability to pay? Has not that principle been eviscerated and ripped up by the Government, with the able assistance of Nick Clegg and his little Liberals?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his usual punchy way, but I have already detailed the support for early legal help and set out some of the support for litigants in person. The fact is that we provide £1.6 billion in legal aid. If we look at Council of Europe comparisons—I know that we cannot compare like with like exactly—we see that we are providing more legal aid per capita than any other Council of Europe country.

We have heard from the Law Society and the president of the Supreme Court on early legal help, which Labour’s manifesto also backs. My hon. Friends have asked questions about this and the Minister has said that the evidence is not there. I want to help the Minister, so will he show today that he is not driven purely by ideology and agree to a simple thing: to commission independent research into the savings that can come from early legal help to inform the Government’s legal aid review before it reports back next summer? Will he do it?

We have got the review in place. We will take a wide range of advice and set up expert panels to ensure that we get the proper and best advice. The hon. Gentleman should feel free to contribute. However, his proposals would add £400 million to the cost, and he needs to explain where the money would come from because it does not just grow on trees.