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Legal Aid

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2008

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as an advocate in criminal courts.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following their consultation on an amendment to the Criminal Defence Service (Funding) Order 2007, what steps they will take to reform criminal legal aid.

My Lords, the recent consultation with the General Council of the Bar and the Law Society on a proposed amendment to the Criminal Defence Service (Funding) Order 2007 closed yesterday. The proposed amendment would allow solicitors to instruct non-contracted advocates in very high-cost criminal cases, in certain circumstances. We are currently considering the responses to that consultation and will make our views known soon.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that on 18 January last, the Legal Services Commission offered contracts to barristers at hourly and daily rates which would barely pay chambers expenses and which would also demand access by LSC officials to the working diaries of practitioners who signed the contracts in order to monitor their entire professional practice. Does he not realise that those terms are completely unacceptable to any experienced barrister; that the paying of peanuts by the hour or by the day perversely encourages utter inefficiency in the preparation and conduct of cases, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, recognised in his report; and that the amendments that he proposes in the order are bound to lead to a third-class system of legal aid for people who need first-class legal advice?

No, my Lords, I do not accept that. I certainly do not accept that they will lead to third-class legal advice. There is no reason why the new system will not continue to ensure that barristers of quality take part in the very high-cost cases involved. The new scheme that will be introduced is designed to give greater control over costs and greater monitoring of what goes on, which is entirely appropriate. Essentially, we are talking about public sector procurement. Given the huge amount of money that this country spends on legal aid, it is essential to ensure that it is spent as wisely as possible.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that he wrote an article on 10 January in the Guardian, stating:

“We are moving away from paying legal aid practitioners by the hour—which has contributed to escalating costs and encouraged inefficiency—and towards paying by the job done”?

If that is the case, and if that principle is good enough for civil cases, how can he justify taking the position that he takes for criminal cases, where one would have thought that defendants would need better advice rather than worse?

My Lords, I do not accept that under the new system defendants will get worse advice. That does not follow at all. I point out to noble Lords that this country spends £2 billion on legal aid—far more than almost any other country in the world. On the rate per hour, the noble Baroness is right that in much of the changes that are taking place in legal aid funding there is a move away from paying by the hour. However, for the very high-cost cases, we are bringing in much more of a case management system which allows representatives of the Legal Services Commission to meet defence teams on a regular basis in advance so that there is a clear understanding of the likely work to be undertaken and the costs. That is effective case management.

My Lords, if the advice is to be offered by unqualified people who, according to the report in today’s Times, have admitted they are unqualified for half the work they will be asked to do, how will they offer a better service to their clients?

My Lords, there are two different issues here. The case cited in the main by the Times article this morning is about a provision in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which is currently—not speedily—making its way through your Lordships’ House. That applies to criminal proceedings in the magistrates’ courts. It is rather different from the high-cost cases to which the Legal Services Commission is determined that quality barristers will be appointed.

My Lords, how many of these quality barristers have signed the contract that the Legal Services Commission is putting forward? The Minister must know that it is just uneconomical for any barrister with any practice to sign the contracts at the rates now being proffered.

My Lords, I am tempted to cite the top 10 barristers’ earnings from legal aid last year, ranging from £663,000 to £957,000 per year. I know that that is not always typical of all barristers. The fact is that there has been a huge increase in the number of lawyers practising at the Bar and a big increase in the amount of money going to legal aid. The reduction in fees of about 10 per cent will save about £5 million. That is not a huge amount. At the same time, there was an agreement with the Bar Council that led to an extra £29 million being put into a graduated fee structure going to members of the Bar. The noble Lord is not representing the effective position.

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the quality of legal advice provided on legal aid for those who need it?

My Lords, I cannot comment on the advice given by every lawyer to every client. I am satisfied that the structure in place is the best one to ensure that the huge amount of money put into legal aid is spent wisely, and that the other changes that have been made ensure that, overall, people get a good service from the legal profession in this country; I pay tribute to the Bar Council, the Law Society and the regulatory bodies. The excellent overall quality of the legal profession is one reason why this country can export so many of those services.