Skip to main content

Legal Aid

Volume 722: debated on Monday 29 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the future of legal aid in the area of social welfare law.

My Lords, on 15 November 2010 the Government published proposals for reform of legal aid, including social welfare law. We propose that legal aid be retained in the highest priority cases—in debt and housing when someone’s home is at immediate risk, for homelessness, and in cases involving serious disrepair. We will retain legal aid in community care cases. Under these proposals legal aid would no longer be routinely available in other social welfare law matters.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. I accept that savings have to be made in the legal aid budget, but why, in the Green Paper, are the Government so ruthlessly targeting social welfare law, particularly during a recession? There is to be no legal aid for welfare benefit advice, none for education advice, none for employment advice, and precious little for housing and debt advice. Sixty-eight per cent of the legal help scheme is to be cut. Does the Minister not understand that appropriate legal advice, given early, can and does help solve multiple problems, changes lives, and prevents huge social costs later on? If the noble Lord’s party were in opposition today, it would, and he knows it, oppose these proposals with all its might. Why will it not do the same today?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord gives the clue to his question. As he said very honestly in his response to the original Statement a couple of weeks ago, when in government, the Opposition were planning cuts in legal aid. Whenever one makes cuts, one has to draw the line somewhere, and the Opposition are rightly leaping to the defence of people on the wrong side of that line. We have made a decision in terms of making savings in the legal aid budget and we have done so in a way that we believe targets help to the most vulnerable.

My Lords, over the past year, more than 300 specialist citizens advice bureaux caseworkers have dealt with 40,000 welfare benefit cases, 60,000 debt cases, 9,000 housing cases and 3,000 employment cases. These specialist CAB caseworkers have been paid for using legal aid funding. Will this continue?

No, my Lords, but what is clear is that the citizens advice bureaux provide advice. The problem that we faced—and the previous Administration faced it too—is that legal aid is being used to cover a wider range of advice and help which can be better funded and supported in other ways. My honourable friend Jonathan Djanogly is having meetings with representatives of Citizens Advice in the next week. We will be looking at ways of helping citizens advice bureaux and other non-legal providers of advice.

My Lords, will the Minister face the stark reality of the situation; namely, that there is little point in citizens’ fundamental rights being enshrined in statute if those rights cannot be upheld, where appropriate, in the courts of law? Does he recollect the studiedly sarcastic words of a High Court judge spoken 80 years ago? “The courts of this land are open to all, exactly the same as the Ritz hotel”.

Yes, I am familiar with the quotation. The problem is that, in the 60 years since legal aid was introduced, its scope has increased considerably. Like the previous Government, we were convinced that as a contribution to cutting government spending we had to find ways of reducing the legal aid bill. I do not pretend that these are easy decisions, but as I said before, the difference between being in opposition and being in government is that you have to take those decisions. We have done so.

My Lords, has an estimate been made of the increasing number of people who will be compelled to seek support from advice agencies, including citizens advice bureaux but many others as well, as the result of the withdrawal of legal aid and advice for such a wide range of significant topics? Will the noble Lord indicate whether any estimate has been made of the increased funding that will be required to support those agencies? Will the Government be making provision for that extra funding?

My Lords, we estimate that the proposals on civil and family legal aid might affect between 460,000 and 512,000 people.

My Lords, I welcome the early intervention fund set up by the coalition Government. Will the noble Lord consult his colleagues to see whether more can be done to intervene and assist families earlier so that fewer children are taken into local authority care? Does he agree that that would be an important way of saving money in this area of social welfare law?

I will come to the second half of the earlier question, and I apologise for not answering it. This is precisely the thinking behind our proposals. Under what I will call the old regime of legal aid, far too many cases, particularly in the area of family law, were taken down the legal route. We believe that mediation and other forms of settlement would be far more effective. On the question of the not-for-profit organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and others that are going to be hit by the cut in legal aid, the Government are setting up a transition fund, the announcement of which will be made tomorrow. Affected bodies can apply to this fund. Moreover, as I have said, my honourable friend Jonathan Djanogly is having direct talks with representatives of Citizens Advice to see whether there are ways and means of helping them.