Skip to main content

Legal Aid: Criteria

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 5 March 1996

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.1 p.m.

When they expect to announce the change in the criteria for claiming legal aid.

My Lords, on 28th February, I asked the Legal Aid Board to establish a special investigations unit as soon as possible to handle legal aid means assessments where the applicant's financial circumstances are exceptionally complex. On 1st June this year two new regulations will come into force. The first will allow the assets of friends and relatives of the applicant to be included in the financial assessment. The second will introduce into legal aid assessments a limit of £100,000 on the equity allowable in the applicant's home, the amount of mortgage that can be offset against the equity and the amount of repayable mortgage allowable against income.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his detailed reply to my Question. I also thank him for the reports that he sent me, although as a lay person I have not yet been able fully to digest them. Have the criteria altered or do we still have the criteria used in cases such as Maxwell, Barlow Clowes and Roger Levitt? If deemed to have submitted the correct detail, could future cases be funded at the level of those recent ones? If so, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor must be made aware that there is a groundswell of feeling among ordinary people about those involved in crime which has driven tens of thousands of pensioners into penury being financed at such a level in order to get themselves off the hook. Does the noble and learned Lord consider that it is time to have a full review by a Royal Commission or some such body, which will come up with proposals to ensure that members of the family do not continue to live off the ill-gotten gains of those who perpetrated the crime?

My Lords, the purpose of establishing the special investigations unit and of the first of the regulations to which I referred is to apply the general system in a new way so far as particular people with complicated financial situations may require. The feeling in some quarters—for obvious reasons, I do not make reference to any particular case—is that some people have been able to obtain legal aid because technically they qualify themselves at the same time as they seem to enjoy a lifestyle somewhat better than many of us enjoy. The question is how to attack that. The first of the regulations is intended to do that by enabling the legal aid authorities to take account of the assets of friends or relatives who may be in fact helping to support that lifestyle. This is a way of addressing the problem that the noble Lord raised.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend's Answer mean that it is the policy of the Government not to allow the grant of legal aid to people of ample wealth but to restrict it to those who need legal aid if they are to be legally represented?

My Lords, that is the policy and that is the way in which the regulations are framed. The regulations apply to everyone. Faced with an expensive criminal trial, it may be that a person who might enjoy some financial resources will not have sufficient to deal with the case, and the legal aid arrangements take that into account. The important point is that the regulations are the same for everyone but there are situations whereby, because of apparent support from friends and relatives, people seem to enjoy a better lifestyle than their position would suggest under the exact terms of the regulations. That is why I propose to change the regulations, as I said. I believe that that will address this problem in a fairly fundamental way and will be in pursuance of the objective that my noble friend has just enunciated.

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the regulations need drastic amendment so far as concerns the Legal Aid Board? Can he confirm that under no circumstances should an illegal immigrant obtain legal aid which is funded by the taxpayer? Does he further agree that it is a complete and utter waste of taxpayers' money given to illegal immigrants?

My Lords, the circumstances in which legal aid is available are set out in regulations which, on the whole, are fair and reasonable in application. But one must take account of the possibility that I mentioned earlier of people being supported outside the scope of the present regulations. Perhaps I should mention in fairness to the Legal Aid Board that, where it is a matter of legal aid in criminal proceedings, generally speaking the legal aid authority is the court rather the Legal Aid Board. But the court applies the regulations under which legal aid is available.

My Lords, there is a certain amount of public disquiet about very substantial sums disbursed in legal aid for criminal trials. Over what period of time following the conclusion of a trial is the remit of the investigations unit intended to extend? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that circumstances may differ quite substantially at the time legal aid is granted before a criminal trial and after the conclusion of some trials?

My Lords, the principal objective of the unit is to investigate the situation at the time the question arises of whether or not legal aid should be granted and the conditions under which it should be granted. Those can be reviewed, as the noble Lord will know, in the light of changes of circumstances, when they come to the notice of the legal aid authorities. But the primary purpose of the unit is to deal with people whose finances appear complicated at the stage at which legal aid is being considered.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord must be aware of the recent case of a person who was shot by the police during an armed hold-up being granted legal aid. If my information is correct, certain other information was then discovered and the legal aid was withdrawn. I put quite a pointed question. It would appear that the amount of legal aid depends on the amount of information submitted by lawyers on behalf of the claimant. If a lawyer acting on behalf of an accused person deliberately or knowingly withholds information or perjures himself by giving wrong information to the board or court, can he be brought before the court for perjury?

My Lords, if a lawyer is party to any kind of fraud on the legal aid authorities, consequences will follow. But in relation to the specific case to which the noble Lord refers, it is worth pointing out that the legal aid granted was only at stages; it was not full legal aid to pursue the whole matter.

The Legal Aid Board is dependent on the information submitted to it. It is not a court of trial. It must proceed on the basis of the information supplied to it, and that information may develop as the case develops. It is therefore right that it should review the matter. As the noble Lord, Lord Dean, said, that is what happened in the case to which he referred; further information came to the knowledge of the Legal Aid Board after the initial information had been given which led it to initiate the proceedings to discharge the certificate in question.