Committee (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 21st Report from the Constitution Committee, 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 21st and 22nd Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Clause 1 : Lord Chancellor's functions
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“( ) The Lord Chancellor must secure (within the resources made available and in accordance with this Part) that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs.”
My Lords, the amendment is in my name and those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Hart of Chilton. It is an appropriate amendment with which to begin the Committee stage of this important Bill.
As the debate at Second Reading indicated, there is considerable concern about the contents of Part 1. There is widespread acceptance that in tough financial times legal aid must bear its share of the cuts in public expenditure and that the Government have to make difficult choices. However, there is widespread concern about the wisdom of the choices that are being made in Part 1 and whether it is appropriate to limit legal aid so extensively for those sections of the community that are most in need of advice and assistance to obtain the legal rights and benefits to which they are entitled.
The amendment seeks to focus this Committee’s debate on the contents of Part 1, and seeks to remedy a considerable defect in Clause 1. The defect is that the clause fails to mention that the objective of Part 1 must be to secure access to justice, to protect the needs of individuals and to do so in an effective manner. Clause 1 fails to recognise that our debates about the content of Part 1 should take place in the context that legal aid is a vital element in securing access to justice, and that without access to justice, the rights and duties which we spend time creating in this Parliament by legislation are reduced in value and effect.
The drafting of Amendment 1 is closely based on Section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which imposes duties on the Legal Services Commission. When the Bill transfers those responsibilities into the Lord Chancellor's Department, the primary objective of securing access to justice by effective means to meet needs must be retained in the Bill. That point was made in the report of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, of which I am a member.
I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell the Committee that he can accept the amendment. It is carefully drafted to recognise, as does Section 4(1) of the 1999 Act, that the duty to provide access to services in order to meet needs is not absolute. It is a duty defined by reference to the resources available. The drafting does not impose an independent duty which trumps the specific contents of Part 1. On the contrary, it says expressly,
“in accordance with this Part”.
I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment as doing no damage whatever to the specific clauses which we shall be debating later in Committee. At the same time, the amendment ensures that the Bill recognises the vital principle which always has been and which should remain at the heart of our legal aid provisions: a commitment to providing access to justice. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, explained, the current drafting is a change from the wording of the Access to Justice Act 1999 and the amendment makes it clear that the Lord Chancellor has an obligation to secure the access to legal services that meet the needs of the individual. That was recommended by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, although the amendment contains an important modification in that there is a qualification that the provision of legal aid must be on the basis of resources,
“made available in accordance with this Part”—
Part 1. In other words, there is no absolute requirement on the part of the Secretary of State to make legal aid available regardless of the financial situation.
I understand the purpose behind the Bill, which is, first, to save approximately £350 million as a contribution to reduction in expenditure generally and, secondly, to make some important changes to the litigation system as a whole. Although legal aid and the amendment are concerned with Part 1, it cannot be viewed in isolation, particularly not from Part 2, which brings about changes in current conditional fee arrangements. The need for those changes is clear. As recently as yesterday, a Court of Appeal judge observed at the end of the case that it was another case in which,
“the existence of a conditional fee agreement has made it practically impossible to obtain a settlement”.
He went on to observe that, ultimately, it is the public who pay for these things, either through higher premiums, or through the unwarranted expenditure of public resources.
Access to justice means satisfactory access not just for claimants but also for defendants. My reading of the purpose of some of the amendments put forward by the Front Bench of the party opposite is that they are intended substantially to maintain the status quo. This is somewhat surprising in view of the widespread acceptance of the undesirable effects of the current system, not least by Mr Jack Straw, former Secretary of State for Justice, in debates in the other place. I suggest that some of these amendments will actually impede access to justice.
There is an additional benefit from this amendment, apart from the clarity that I hope it provides. Our law is generally subject to the Human Rights Act—in particular, Article 6 of the convention, which provides for the right to a fair trial. How an individual state decides to reflect this principle in its provision of legal aid or some other form of assistance is, I suggest, very much for that state to decide, and it should be well within the so-called margin of appreciation—theoretically, at least—permitted by the courts in Strasbourg. There have been cases where in one context or another the lack of legal aid has been found to violate Article 6, although it might be said that the jurisprudence in this area lacks some coherence. However, this amendment should make such challenges far less likely to succeed in that there is a clear statement of the Lord Chancellor’s obligation and, contained within it, a sensible acknowledgement of the limits provided by available resources.
The Lord Chancellor said in an interview with the Guardian, published yesterday, that the Bill was concerned with,
“protection of fundamental rights of access to justice for critical issues that no civilised society can do without”.
I suspect that all in your Lordships’ House would agree with that aim. It is an aspiration that should inform our debates on the Bill in Committee in the weeks to come, and I suggest that this amendment is a good beginning.
My Lords, the Constitution Committee did us, as it always does, a good service in reminding us and stating emphatically that access to justice is a constitutional principle. The amendment that it proposed to Clause 1, which would say that the Lord Chancellor must secure that legal aid is made available in order to ensure effective access to justice, would be a humdinger of an amendment. It would reassert absolutely and emphatically the fundamental constitutional principle of equal access to justice for all our people. The amendment that the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Faulks, and others have tabled and placed before us is not the same as that amendment. They have chosen to qualify the requirement on the Lord Chancellor by including language about his obligation being only within the resources made available for the purpose. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, also said that in his view the duty was not absolute, although a little later in his remarks he said that access to justice was a vital principle. I am not clear exactly what the degree of obligation on the Lord Chancellor would be.
It certainly seems to me that if the legal aid budget is to be cut by £350 million, it may not be possible within the resources available to secure access to justice. I am beginning to wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and his very distinguished co-signatories, all of them lawyers, may find themselves in somewhat the same position as the revolutionary students in Paris in 1968, whose motto was “Demand the impossible”. It is very exciting to demand the impossible but the prospects for your proposition are not necessarily very good. At all events, I am a little confused about exactly what their amendment would require of the system, and I wonder whether there is not some sort of internal conflict within the amendment.
For my part, I believe that the duty on the Lord Chancellor and the Government should be absolute. If equal access to justice is a fundamental constitutional principle, then I believe that we, as citizens and taxpayers, should pay whatever it reasonably takes to secure it. The legal aid budget, running at some £2.2 billion, is a lot of money. On the other hand, as I mentioned at Second Reading, £2.2 billion is only around 1 per cent of the social security budget and the £350 million cut to the legal aid budget that is being proposed by the Government would, I think, be 0.2 per cent of the deficit, about which all of us are very properly exercised.
I think it is disputable whether the existing legal aid budget is unaffordable. If we believe that it is a fundamental constitutional principle, we could afford to pay what it costs. Of course, costs must be disciplined and the previous Labour Government were severe on that matter. I was not entirely happy when the former Prime Minister, Mr Blair, spoke of his intention to,
“derail the gravy train of legal aid”,
because I believe that a great many legal aid lawyers are working for pretty small remuneration and are not riding on any kind of a gravy train. Nor was I entirely in agreement with the tone and the sentiment of my right honourable friend Jack Straw when he spoke of,
“BMW-driving civil liberties lawyers”.
Of course, it must be right—this is very much the intention that the Lord Chancellor declares in his article in the Guardian today—to attack lawyers who are drawing entirely excessive remuneration out of work that may be funded by legal aid.
My noble and learned friend Lord Irvine of Lairg, when Lord Chancellor, mounted a vigorous attack on the cost of the legal aid system. He attacked the costs but he did not attack the principle. The Government are right, of course, to examine the costs. If it costs £120 million to run the Legal Services Commission, then that commission must be a candidate for economy. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree here, as elsewhere, that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We are speaking of a fundamental constitutional principle, of a fundamental entitlement for our citizens. Can we speak of a fundamental constitutional principle in the context of an unwritten constitution? I believe that we can, and so I think does the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House because it quoted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, and Lord Bingham speaking very eloquently about the right to equal access to justice.
Noble Lords will be very well aware of the Sir Henry Hodge Memorial Lecture, given by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, in June. I had the privilege and pleasure to listen to that lecture, in which she told us that the principle of equal access to justice is to be found in the Magna Carta:
“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”.
That is a principle that has been established cumulatively through our history. She told us that a statute of 1494, in the reign of Henry VII, provided for actions to be brought in forma pauperis, relieved from court fees and provided with lawyers acting pro bono. Then later in our history, there was the famous case of Ashby v White, the Aylesbury election case in 1703, when Lord Chief Justice Holt, in his judgment said:
“If the plaintiff has a right, he must of necessity have a means to vindicate and maintain it, and a remedy if he is injured in the exercise or enjoyment of it; and indeed it is a vain thing to imagine a right without a remedy; for want of a right and want of a remedy are reciprocal”.
Some noble Lords may have read an excellent and informative article in the London Review of Books, on 20 October, by Joanna Biggs, who traced some of the history of the establishment of the right of equal access to justice. She describes how, in 1944, Henry Betterton, who, like the right honourable Kenneth Clarke, the Lord Chancellor, was a barrister and indeed a Conservative Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe, was appointed to chair a special committee on legal aid and legal advice. In his report in 1945 he said:
“The great increase in legislation and the growing complexity of modern life have created a situation in which increasing numbers of people must have recourse to professional legal assistance”.
The free legal aid that was at that stage available was, he said, at best somewhat patchy and totally inadequate. He recommended that in the future legal aid should be available not just for the poor but for people of small or moderate means. People who could afford to do so should contribute to their legal costs. Barristers and solicitors were to be paid adequately. There should be legal aid centres across the country. That was the vision that underlay the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949. That legislation was widely recognised as being part of the structure of the new welfare state that was being created by that Labour Government.
The case was made that to provide legal aid was a particular and inescapable responsibility of the state. In the construction of the welfare state, the Government sought to construct defences and remedies against the five giants—want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness —but it was recognised that Governments had only some limited responsibility for the depredations of those five giants. On the other hand, it is Governments who make the law and, correspondingly, Governments inescapably should have responsibility for ensuring that there is legal remedy.
That, I believe, became orthodoxy. By 1979, 79 per cent of the population qualified for legal aid. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, reminded us, there was at the same time Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which stated:
“In the determination of his civil rights and liabilities or of any criminal charge against him, everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an impartial tribunal established by law”.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, points out that access to a court is not much use without access to lawyers. Therefore, it seems to me that the provision of legal aid is implicit in Article 6(1) of the ECHR.
Our constitution is uncodified but the evolution of our political and legislative history has brought us to a point where equal access to the law is deeply entrenched in the national sense that our citizens have of constitutional entitlement and political propriety. This Bill is, I am afraid to say, one more instance of the coalition Government playing fast and lose with our constitution and with cherished constitutional principles.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, told those who were listening to her that the text of Magna Carta is engraved on the glass doors of the library of the Supreme Court. She said that that library contains a collection of statutes, of decided cases and legal writings from which the judges discover the law. In her words,
“Our library shows the world that we are not making it up as we go along”.
Equally, I would maintain that politicians are not entitled to make up the law as they go along. That, I believe, is the Diceyan heresy. The sovereignty of Parliament, the omnicompetence of statute, should not be a charter for legislative caprice, for ethical anarchy. It is not for politicians to make up statute as they go along or to jettison principles of law as they go along. Governments and Parliament should respect the widely accepted, cherished principles of our constitution, felt and known to be such by our citizens even if they do not articulate them to themselves in clear words. They are an inherited and shared concept of just institutions, reflecting the British sense of fairness. We should not casually throw over the heritage of legal principles to which the judges have such necessary and profound regard.
I am struck that the Conservative Party demands insistently that the European Union should respect our national identity. Intrinsic to our national identity is the common law and access to justice with support through legal aid. And yet the Conservative Party seems willing to disrespect that national identity in the measures that it brings forward for us at home.
Justice and fairness are elusive concepts that are difficult to articulate. For that very reason it is all the more necessary not to introduce radical change to the justice system without national debate and national consensus. The Government may reply that there is a national debate and that they produced a consultative Green Paper to which there were 5,000 responses. I would reply—
I do not mean to prolong the noble Lord’s speech by my interruption, but perhaps I could suggest that it is not helpful to his case if he becomes narrowly partisan. This is not an area where any one party can claim a monopoly of virtue or vice. It is much better to focus on what unites the House rather than what divides it.
I hope to be able to do that. I hope that I have not been unduly partisan, but we all feel strongly on this issue and I very much hope that noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, who I understand feel strongly on the issue, will explain their case to us and, when it comes to voting in the Division Lobby, will act according to their professions. Perhaps in that remark I am becoming a little too party political—for which I apologise to the Committee.
If the Government say that a national debate is taking place, I would reply that the 5,000 responses to the Green Paper demonstrate that there is a very strong consensus against what they propose and that they would be wrong to defy that consensus.
Perhaps I could ask the noble Lord a question. I listened with great care to what he said. It would be extremely helpful to know where his argument is directed. Is it intended to support or oppose Amendment 1?
I will come to that in a second. The noble and learned Baroness will be pleased to know that I am about to wind up. We should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for tabling an amendment that challenges us to debate the principles against which the detailed amendments should be judged.
I conclude by saying that I believe that the Government have no mandate for what they seek to do. They have no political or moral authority and no permission from the people to take away their right of access to justice and to dismantle that part of the justice system. It would be a dereliction of our constitution if the Government and Parliament were not to resolve to spend the money that is genuinely necessary to secure access to justice for all. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will press his amendment to a vote. If he does I will certainly support it. If he does not, I hope that when we come back to the issue on Report, he or others will table an amendment that fairly and squarely insists on the fundamental principle. If they were to table the amendment proposed by the Constitution Committee in all its principled directness and simplicity, that would be preferable.
My Lords, speaking as a liberal from the Liberal Democrat Benches, it is with regret that I say that I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I support it with regret because I had hoped that we would not be in this position by the time we started Committee. Noble Lords will recall the Second Reading debate at which unfortunately I was not able to be present because I was out of the country. Since that debate there has been private and public negotiation, lobbying, a great deal of journalism and an expectation that we would move from the position that was expressed from the government Front Bench at Second Reading. However, I detect absolutely no hint that any concessions will be made. Indeed, I detect an air of irritated intransigence coming from the Ministry of Justice in relation to the Bill.
I would not feel driven to vote for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and to take the same position as my noble friend Lord Faulks from the Conservative Benches on the coalition side, if I felt that there was some movement in the direction of the general principle set out in the amendment. Furthermore, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, explained, this is not an expression of a new principle, nor is it an expression of a principle that is to be applied outside the context of this very Bill. It seeks merely to set out a principle that I believe every person in this House should embrace within the Bill’s in effect financial constraints, which are expressed in the amendment.
I, as a liberal and a Member of the Liberal Democrats, have understandably—like, I am sure, my noble friend Lord Faulks—been encouraged not to cause difficulties, not to intervene too much and not to obstruct the Government in getting their Bill through; in other words, I have been encouraged to support this coalition Government, which I would very much like to do. However, I have detected an assumption that Liberal Democrat Peers are to support the Government’s approach to this Bill, and I say to my noble friend Lord McNally that it is not sufficient to make us wait to find out later what concessions are to be made on the many representations that have been made.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Government that a great deal of legal aid money is being wasted at present. I believe that fervently, and I could identify, and indeed have identified when asked, areas in the legal aid system where savings could be made. However, arguments have been made for concessions in areas where access to legal services is required as the only way, in effect, to meet the needs of people whose rights have been adversely affected. If my noble friend wishes us not to support this amendment, I invite him to tell us when he replies to this debate the areas in which concessions are to be made and the general nature of those concessions, not the particulars. In other words, I am asking my noble friend not merely to assume our support from these Benches but to earn our support from these Benches. Without that, I am afraid that I shall remain dissatisfied and will feel free to intervene during these debates on the merits of these amendments.
My Lords, I briefly support the amendment by echoing the words that have already been quoted—those of the Lord Chancellor, who said:
“access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society”,—[Official Report, Commons, 15/11/10; col. 659.]
and those of my noble friend Lord Pannick, who has said repeatedly that access to justice is a vital constitutional principle.
At Second Reading, I regretted that the word “rehabilitation” had been replaced by the word “punishment” in the title of this Bill, and I fear that the proposed denial of legal aid to some for whom its provision is a vital part of their rehabilitation suggests that there are some in government who are allowing an uncivilised concentration on punishment to supersede their duty to protect the public. I know that this is a hybrid Bill and that Part 3 will concentrate on rehabilitation, but I wish I felt the same of Part 1.
My Lords, I wonder whether others felt, as I did, that what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, just said was music to the ears.
Of the amendments currently tabled to this Bill, I regard this amendment as by far and away the most important, and it is one that I strongly support. It provides the litmus test of what the Government are really trying to achieve with legal aid. This part of the Bill has been presented to us as a cost-saving measure that, in today’s climate, is hard to oppose, but as it stands it is far more than that. As others have said, Schedule 5 to the Bill repeals the fundamental principles of legal aid, which appear at present in the Access to Justice Act 1999. By removing them under Schedule 5, the Government have removed their obligation to supply legal services, to make sure that they are available and to make sure that the means of accessing them are available to those in need. They are, in effect, casting away two of the most vital parts of our constitution and essential ingredients of a just society. They are, first, equality before the law and, secondly, the principle that no one should be denied access to justice through lack of means. The omission of an overarching statement of principle at the start of this Bill signals that the Government no longer wish to honour that obligation. If the obligation does not rest on the Government, it does not in reality rest, or exist, at all.
The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is a highly experienced politician. For many years, he was a distinguished Labour Member of Parliament. Then he was a much respected Social Democrat. Now he is, of course, a Liberal member of the Conservative coalition Government. It is inconceivable that the Government’s obligations have been omitted from this Bill by accident or by his inadvertence. The core values that he embraced as a Labour MP, a Liberal Democrat and a liberal are surely those that are embraced by the two basic principles that I have just outlined.
There is no reason to suspect that the noble Lord has changed his personal views or has abandoned that liberalism, except for one thing. It is a remarkable coincidence that many, but not quite all—I cannot resist this—Home Office Ministers in recent years underwent an extraordinary change in their attitudes on assuming office. Indeed, some say that there is a small room in the Home Office to which new Ministers are taken and where, probably at dead of night, a small chip is inserted in the back of the neck, after which, for the duration of their time in office, they become automatons doing the bidding of Home Office officials and the Treasury, and abandoning all shred of earlier stated principles of liberty and justice. Whether the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has been on the receiving end of this treatment is something that we will shortly discover, but I very much hope that he has not.
I hope that in his dealings with this Bill, the noble Lord will stand by those principles, which I believe he held earlier and which his party claims to hold to this day. If he cannot accept this amendment today, at the very least I hope that he will go back to his department and to those who are less liberally minded in his office and put his foot down. If he does not, our constitution is in danger, under his watch, of changing very much for the worse as a result of this Bill.
My Lords, 43 years ago, I was a Home Office Minister but I doubt very much whether the procedures that have been so dramatically described by the noble Baroness were current in those days.
I rise to support wholeheartedly this amendment and to salute the courageous and most splendid speech of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. This amendment goes fundamentally to the heart, core and kernel of what we mean by justice, the rule of law and the fundamental constitutional principles that govern Parliament. If one looks at that splendid book, The Rule of Law, by the late Lord Bingham, which was published last year, the right to justice where a person has a reasonable cause is utterly fundamental. In the immortal words that he used, one of the ingredients of the rule of law itself was that,
“means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive cost or inordinate delay, bona fide disputes which the parties are unable themselves to resolve”.
He went on to say that,
“denial of legal protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one enemy of the rule of law”.
No one could put it more splendidly than that. Indeed, it is on that basis that the Constitution Committee has attacked the elements which seek to undermine legal aid. The clear recommendation made by the committee on this clause was that:
“Clause 1 should be amended to read: ‘The Lord Chancellor must secure that legal aid is made available in order to ensure effective access to justice’”.
I consider those words in the light of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Pannick.
On the one hand, one can see that a distinction can be drawn between the two. One is in absolutist terms while the other is in qualified terms. But I do not think that the Committee need worry a great deal about that. The words chosen by my noble friend have already been enshrined in statute in the Access to Justice Act 1999, and all that we are doing is saying that we wish to take the House and the British community back to the mentality which supported the Access to Justice Act. In doing that, I wholeheartedly respect and support this amendment.
The idea that access to justice is a constitutional right has been spelt out in the courts. In 1994, in the matter of R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Leech, Lord Justice Steyn ruled in the Court of Appeal that the,
“principle of our law that every citizen has a right of unimpeded access to a court … even in our unwritten constitution …must rank as a constitutional right”.
No one could put it clearer than that. It means, therefore, that any substantial impediment to the reasonable exercise of that right is something that undermines the very concept of our constitution, unwritten though it be. I can well imagine that the Deputy Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will say, “Well, these are difficult times. Everyone has to react to the crisis and to accept responsibility which is joint and several in respect of all of us”. I can understand that, but I would say in reply to such a submission that, first, no credible and enlightened Government in our day and age can ever stand before the world and say, “We are too poor to be able to afford justice”. Secondly, it is almost certain that the net saving in respect of the £350 million which the Government claim will be slashed from the legal aid bill will either be a very small saving or no saving at all. We will debate these matters in the months to come and there is ample evidence in support of that proposition.
Lastly, let us remember what the situation was in 1949 when the Legal Aid and Advice Act was passed. Britain had emerged from a terrible war bloodied, weakened and practically insolvent. John Maynard Keynes was sent to the United States to negotiate on the best terms possible a loan that it took many decades to repay. The Americans absolutely screwed us and, as we know, it was only a few years ago that that loan was repaid. The Government of the day in 1949 could have said, “We are so impoverished and reduced in our strength that we cannot conceive of such a luxury as legal aid”, but they did not.
I rise to support this amendment for reasons which I will explain—
My Lords, it is the turn of this side, but I wait with pleasure to hear what the noble and learned Lord has to say.
When I started my career as a barrister in the late 1950s, we had started with legal aid for only a few years. Up until then, aid from lawyers to poor people who were prosecuted for criminal offences mostly came from a group of barristers of poor quality who spent their time sitting in the court in the hope of being chosen by the defendant to defend them. Legal aid replaced all that, for civil cases as well as criminal, and we must never get anywhere near the previous situation.
This amendment is one of the most important in the Bill; indeed, it is in many ways the most important. The right of access to justice is a central feature of British justice, as it has been for centuries. We are rightly proud of that. We have over the years achieved the right of access to law. Now that right is under threat. Clause 1(1) is not adequate. This is made clear by the 21st report of the Select Committee of your Lordships' House on the Constitution, published on 17 November. That is a very distinguished committee. The four Members who have put their names to Amendment 1 include two members of that committee, the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Hart. They also include the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice and an outstanding judge of recent times, and, finally, my noble friend Lord Faulks, who is a relatively new Member of your Lordships' House but who has proved his high quality as a lawyer and a politician.
I am aware that in recent years the costs of legal aid have risen too far. This was recognised by Lord Bingham in chapter 8 of his book, The Rule of Law, which has already been mentioned. Steps are being taken by the Government to reduce costs in a justifiable way, but we must make it clear that access to justice is essential and that we cannot set up in this country a legal system which does not provide access to justice to those who cannot afford it out of their own pockets.
My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, went before me, because I can wholeheartedly agree with the last sentiment that he has expressed—I am not surprised that we share that view.
Before I speak about my hesitation in respect of the amendment, I should declare, because I was unable to take part at Second Reading, that I am a practising lawyer, though not a publicly funded lawyer for a long time. I am also chairman of the Access to Justice Foundation and president of the Bar Pro Bono Unit, two organisations which try to help people who have legal need through the generosity of lawyers who are prepared to do that for free.
My reason for being hesitant about the amendment is that it does not go as far as the Constitution Committee, of which I am proud to be a member, said it should. There is a qualification of importance in the amendment, which is the reference to available resources. I was concerned that allowing that qualification might allow the damage to be done to the legal aid system and the access to justice that so many people need that we are fighting for.
I recognise the constraints. I also recognise that this was a formulation which the Government of whom I was a part put forward—I was not that happy about it then either, as it happens. However, there is a reason why I shall support the amendment: it is a way of testing what the Government actually believe in. It is a way of testing whether this Government are prepared to sign up, on the basis that there is not a blank cheque, to the principle that the Lord Chancellor has an obligation to secure justice for those who need it and to make sure that it is secured effectively. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has a computer chip in his neck—I hope that I have known him long enough to know that that is not the way he operates—but I shall look forward with interest to two things during this debate. The first is what he says about this amendment. It will be telling in the extreme if he is not able to accept that, even though there will not be a blank cheque and even though it depends on the resources being available, his department should acknowledge a duty to secure that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs. That is a constitutional principle that the Government should at least support.
Secondly, I will look to see the answers to individual amendments and the issues that arise in relation to particular aspects of the Bill. For example, I am very concerned about welfare, where so much of the resource at the moment is provided not to well paid lawyers, barristers in Chambers or City firms of solicitors, but to legal advice centres. They are agencies that work on a shoestring and depend on legal aid, so much of which will be cut to them. The Government should be judged on the attitude that they take to that—not more fat for the fat cats, but helping the poor people of the country, the vulnerable and the less privileged, and ensuring the rights that it is one of the jobs of this House to provide.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, was born in inner-city Liverpool. I had the privilege of representing part of that city for 25 years, first as a city councillor and later, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, knows, as a Member of the House of Commons. Liverpool is one of the more deprived and economically disadvantaged parts of this country. Therefore, not as a lawyer but as someone who knows communities that have been socially disadvantaged and where access to law and justice is crucial, I spoke at Second Reading strongly against the proposals in the Bill.
I want today to support my noble friend's amendment because, like the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I believe that it goes to the very heart of what the Bill is about. It demands the perfectly possible. It is perfectly possible because it is what we do already. Unlike the noble and learned Lord who has just spoken, I turn the attention of Members of the Committee not to the word “resources” but to what the amendment says at the end. It says,
“that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”.
To oppose the amendment and vote it down would be for us to say that people should not have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs. Do we really want to turn the clock back to those pre-1949 days that my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan spoke about a few moments ago? We are all aware of the five giant evils that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned in his remarks that were identified by Lord Beveridge. It was Hartley Shawcross who, from the Labour Benches in 1949, introduced the legal aid provisions. Hartley Shawcross was the Member of Parliament for another Merseyside seat, St Helens.
By way of illustration, the Liverpool Law Society wrote to me recently about what would happen if the provisions in the Bill were to be enacted, and one of the examples comes from St Helens. It involves a long-distance lorry driver who died of lung cancer after a mistake was made in his diagnosis. The settlement was made with his widow after commissioning significant experts’ fees. Under the new regime, the Liverpool Law Society said that the client,
“would not have been in a position to fund any disbursements to enable an investigation to be taken forward”.
That is only one example of many that I have been given of people who for one reason or another, particularly because of changes to legal aid, would no longer be able to get that crucial access to justice that is available in this country at present.
The Bar Council says that it is,
“profoundly concerned about the impact that the Bill's proposals could have on access to justice, particularly for some of the most vulnerable members of society”.
The point is underlined by the Law Society, which said that,
“the Bill ensures that serious injustice will be done … Clients with physical or mental health deficiencies, or low levels of education, may be unable to resolve their problems in the absence of support through legal aid”.
It is worth reminding the Committee what Lord Justice Jackson said when he examined the proposals and came out very strongly against any cuts in legal aid. He said:
“I … stress the vital necessity of making no further cutbacks in legal aid availability or eligibility … the maintenance of legal aid at no less than present levels makes sound economic sense and is in the public interest … On the assumption that it is decided not to maintain civil legal aid at present levels, the question may possibly arise as to whether any particular area of civil legal aid is particularly important and should be salvaged from the present cuts. My answer to that question is that of all the proposed cutbacks in legal aid, the removal of legal aid from clinical negligence is the most unfortunate”.
We have heard several references to the Committee of your Lordships’ House. The House of Commons Justice Committee stated that the Government are in error in failing to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the knock-on costs arising from the cuts to legal aid. In other words, this is penny-wise but pound-foolish. This is a point borne out by Action Against Medical Accidents. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, who spoke so eloquently earlier on, chaired a meeting at which I and other Members of your Lordships’ House, including the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, were present, where Action Against Medical Accidents said that in order to save the Ministry of Justice just £11 million it will cost the NHS at least £14 million and possibly as much as £21 million.
This is what the House of Commons Committee said:
“We are surprised that the Government is proposing to make such changes without assessing their likely impact on spending from the public purse and we call on them to do so before taking a final decision on implementation”.
We still have a chance between now and Report to do that. As the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said he would be, I will be looking for a signal from the government Front Bench today of reasonableness: a willingness to re-examine whether or not the propositions that have been put to us by the Bar Council, the Law Society, practising lawyers and people who have represented disadvantaged communities hold up and are up to scrutiny. It is in that context that we should return our sights to the amendment before your Lordships today, proposing that,
“individuals should have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”.
When we come to vote we will be voting on that proposition. Unless I hear from the Front Bench that it is prepared to look at this again between now and Report, I will join my noble friend in the Lobby.
My Lords, it is probably my turn, if my noble former constituent will allow me. I have been stimulated, not for the first time and I hope not for the last, by some of the speeches in this debate. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, reminded me of how grateful I was that, in 18 years as a Minister, nobody ever sent me anywhere near the Home Office. I do not know whether or not I would have withstood it, but I am glad that I did not have to be tested.
Secondly, the speech of my noble friend Lord Carlile was absolutely spot on. I have not had the same experience as he has of being pressurised by the Whips: they have given up on me. I am glad to support him, because we need some signs of movement in the speech that will be made at the end of this debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that I would much prefer it if this amendment were treated as putting down a marker to see what response we get and that we should judge things in the light of what may happen later on with the Bill as well as what is said tonight. In that respect, I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said. But we need something less than irritated intransigence, as my noble friend Lord Carlile put it, from the Ministry of Justice in the way that it responds to the concerns in the Committee. We should make that very clear tonight. In other words, if we do not get some sense of willingness to move then we should return to this on Report. Meanwhile, I look forward very much to a constructive response from my noble friend.
My Lords, I—
My Lords, may I? That side has just been speaking.
My Lords, let us hear first from the noble Lord and then from my noble friend.
My Lords, I would like to ask the Government a simple question. What do the Bar Council, the Law Society and the organisations concerned with poverty with regard to legal services have to say? Have the Government taken the trouble to consult these organisations? The noble Lord says that they have. So what is their reply? They remain obdurately opposed to the principles that the Government are putting forward today. I unhesitatingly support the amendment. Pretty well all the speeches in the Committee—whether from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat or these Benches, and on the Cross Benches—have expressed opposition to what the Government are trying to do and support for what the amendment stands for.
I also unhesitatingly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. He has spoken very bravely, and has been supported by several noble Lords who share his profession. A bevy of Silks have announced support for the proposition advanced by the amendment. I got involved with legal aid from pretty well the very beginning, because of a very simple notion—I thought it was imperative that ordinary people should be able to advance their cause and, where they are impaired from doing so, they should be supported by the state. That was my view then. The amendment sets out very clearly, within the constraints that are necessarily imposed upon us, the basic principles that we should preserve.
It is vital that individuals should have access to legal services, where their rights are being seriously impaired or are not being properly advanced—subject always to the provisions of the 1999 Act. There is a serious risk that both of these will occur, separately, under the changes to legal aid provision now being contemplated. I am surprised that any person of any sensitivity—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would fall into that category—would support such changes. I have always had great admiration for the noble Lord—I do not know why, as he has done his best to impair that decision on my part. It is not a question of party prejudice at all; it is a question of downright decency and that is what I support today.
My Lords, one could be in danger of being slightly sentimental about the Access to Justice Act. Some in this Chamber will remember it very well and opposed it very strongly. I called it the “Exit from Justice Act”. However, I recognise that legal aid is a sort of Cinderella of the welfare state and is a very difficult service to defend in terms of public opinion, for reasons that I advanced at Second Reading and which I do not propose to repeat. However, I will just say that I am, always have been and always will be, passionately committed to the legal aid scheme. Without an effective legal aid scheme the legislation we produce in this place can be viewed as cynical. To legislate rights knowing that a large number of those for whom they are intended do not have access to them must be a form of cynicism. Having said which, the Government are placed in an extremely difficult position, and there is no jibbing the fact that all departments of state have to bear some part of the cuts which the Government have determined are essential for our economic well-being. I am one who concurs with that judgment.
I will say this only: I am anxious about the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has drafted his amendment. I think it was in the 1970s that I first instructed the noble Lord, when he was a junior at the Bar. He will know from times past that I have always valued his advice since, and my firm continues to do so. However, on this one I am not at all sure that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, has not touched upon a flaw, and a rather serious one, in this qualification that the Lord Chancellor has to secure these services,
“within the resources made available”.
That seems to let any Government completely off the hook. If they make fewer resources available, that is it—finito. In fact, this is a rather dangerous amendment because, with that qualification in it, it seems to weaken perilously the clear obligation that would otherwise exist under the Bill to meet at least those services that are in the schedule, which by the end of this process we will have preserved.
To put it more plainly, if these scheduled legal aid services which are in future to receive the aid of the state are made subject to the availability of resources, they cease to be absolute entitlements. I am extremely anxious about this formulation and would not personally support it.
There must be some restriction. I unhesitatingly support the legal aid system but there has always been an understanding, has there not, that the amount of resources which are available must be consonant with what we can afford?
The noble Lord has just made the case for the Government rather succinctly. That is the argument; what I am saying is that if you put the qualifying phrase,
“within the resources made available”,
into Clause 1, then everything is subservient to it. At the moment, the legal aid cost rises and falls—it usually rises but occasionally falls—according to the demands of the citizen upon it within the scope of legal aid availability. As I say, with this phrase in it the Government could say at the start of the year, “We are not paying out more than blank pounds for legal aid”, and that would be that.
Perhaps I might say to the noble Lord that I was concerned about precisely that point. I look to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and indeed to the Government, but I hope that the answer is in the requirement that it should be secured,
“in accordance with this Part”,
and that that therefore means that those things which I, too, hope will be in the Act at the end of this Bill’s passage will have to be secured, and will not be subject to any monetary qualification. I hope that that is the answer as it was part of my reason for taking the view, after my hesitation, that I would support the amendment.
I refer the noble and learned Lord to the fact that the sentence within the brackets which qualifies the obligation of the Lord Chancellor to secure includes the words,
“within the resources made available and in accordance with this Part”.
If they are in conflict—namely, that the resources made available are insufficient to meet the demands of this part of the Bill—then we are in a bit of a muddle, are we not?
My Lords, my starting point was the same as that of my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith, in that I, too, felt very alarmed that this amendment seems to be too concessionary because it was acknowledging too much on the resource front. However, I acknowledge now that it pins down the question of whether there is a constitutional issue here. If there is, it has to cut across all the areas of law.
I was always battling the previous Government over their cuts to legal aid because of what they meant to quality. What concerns me about the Bill is that it takes whole sections of law out of the purview of legal aid so that medical negligence is not included, and nor are family matters unless there is domestic violence. It is the business of creating whole areas that are not covered by legal aid that is a source of alarm to me, and that is met by the amendment. If you are committed constitutionally to access to justice, you cannot create whole areas that are excised from legal aid. That is how I would read it now.
There are two things I want to say pre-emptively before the Minister stands up to reply. First, one of the things that is always said by the Minister responding on issues like this about legal aid is, “Look how many lawyers have spoken”, as though somehow or other we are the beneficiaries, we are all in this great trade union and we are basically protecting a closed shop. I say to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, known to us all as a decent and fair man, that it is not surprising that lawyers will by and large be the people who speak on this. We know from our work in the courts that it is the poor who will be disadvantaged. It has been my experience while acting in the courts that the disadvantaged will always be those with few resources. We have to make provision for them. That is what access to justice is all about; we know that from our experience. This is nothing to do with protecting the interests of lawyers.
Secondly, on looking for cuts, I have always said to the Government, and I said it to the previous one, that there are other areas where we can make savings. It has always been a source of amazement to me that when the Government need lawyers—for example, when Treasury Counsel sought representation for different government departments—they are not paid at legal aid rates; they are paid at commercial rates. They are paid the sort of money that the corporate sector pays its lawyers. If we want to save money, we should be making serious savings in what government departments pay lawyers for representation. It was always a source of amusement to me that when the Hutton inquiry took place and the Prime Minister at the time, Mr Blair, needed representation, it was to Mr Sumption that he turned—one of the most expensive barristers around. I do not think that it was Mr Blair’s own purse that paid the bill; it was the taxpayer. I would like to see the Government making cuts with regard to the lawyers that they choose to represent them and that pocket of money distributed to those who really need representation—the poorest in our society.
We are concerned that there is a constitutional issue here. Whole areas of law should not be taken out of the purview of legal aid.
My Lords, I wonder whether I might make some brief comments, bearing in mind the time. I would like to add to what has been said. It has largely been lawyers who have spoken, and I very much hope that noble Lords will not give less weight to the names on this first amendment or to the lawyers who have supported it. That is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, has just said, inevitable because we know what goes on on the ground. As a former judge, hearing mostly legal aid cases, I have clear knowledge of what happens on the ground.
The lawyers who have spoken are all very distinguished. They have done a great deal in the past and indeed are still doing it. What they have to say should resonate with all Members of this House because these are not party political issues. I very much hope that no noble Lord will make them party political issues. Seeing as people have spoken from all sides of the House, it would be good if no one spoke any longer in a party political way. This issue is too important for us to do so.
To recognise and accept the amendment would not drive a coach and horses through the Bill. On the contrary, it recognises financial restraints and in my view is very shrewdly phrased. I do not believe that it has the effect that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, was suggesting. There is nothing to stop us dealing with other areas where we would say it is necessary to have legal aid and it would not be possible for the Government to say that such legal aid should not be forthcoming. However, one has to recognise reality. We have to recognise that not every aspect of the current legal aid bill can continue to be paid. There are areas highlighted by amendments—some of them my own and some from other noble Lords—which we have to look at and say that there should not be cuts. One example of that is private law.
This amendment sets out in simple language the right of citizens to have access to justice in general terms. It is an amendment that would be extremely difficult to oppose and I strongly support it.
My Lords, if we could hear from the Liberal Democrats, the Cross Benches and then the Labour Party.
My Lords, many years ago, when Lord Scarman was chairman of the Law Commission, I remember him saying that his cleaning lady came to him one day and asked whether he could help her with a social security problem. He described how it took him three days of combing through the social security legislation before he was able to help her. He told us this story because he was explaining how there was an enormous need for poverty lawyers—the ones who deal with the legal problems of the poor—to be empowered to provide those services. If a Law Lord such as Lord Scarman took three days to do what a law centre could do more quickly, it illustrated the point.
The great virtue of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is its conspicuous moderation and realism. I cannot understand those noble Lords who criticise him for being so moderate and realistic. The real value of his amendment is that it strengthens the hand of the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary in his dealings with the Treasury. Many years ago when I was Roy Jenkins’s special adviser, I remember that Barbara Castle, a Minister in the then Government, explained why she supported cuts in civil legal aid. She wrote to her colleagues saying that if she had to choose between hospitals and legal services, she would unhesitatingly preserve hospitals. It is that notion that legal services for the poor are a soft target and matter a great deal less culturally and politically than health services which is at the bottom of the problem in my view.
Successive Governments have found it very easy to sabotage civil legal aid since the original Legal Aid and Advice Act was passed. This is not a party political problem; it has pervaded all parties. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who, unfortunately is not in his place, cut legal aid when he was Lord Chancellor, and followed a long line of Lord Chancellors in doing so. He attacked what he called fat-cat lawyers to justify some of the cuts that he made. When Lord Taylor’s memorial service was held in St Paul’s cathedral, Sir Humphrey Potts, in giving the encomium—I recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine, was at the front of the cathedral—made a joke at his expense, saying that he saw that he, in a fit of post-retirement remorse, was attacking fat-cat lawyers. It was a good joke but it illustrated a powerful point. It would be very easy for my noble friend Lord McNally when he replies to make some cynical remarks about his legal friends standing up for the closed shop. However, I am sure that he will not fall into this trap. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, has said, those of us who are here today are not in the platoons of legal services for the poor lawyers who will be most hit by these cuts, along with their clients.
Many years ago, I gave a Fabian lecture called “Democracy and Individual Rights”. In that lecture, I made a number of presumptuous suggestions about codifying administrative law, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, and doing something about justice for all, including establishing community law centres. In that lecture, I gave more importance to civil legal aid than to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights. That is still my belief as someone who fought for 30 years to get the Human Rights Act. It is more important for the most vulnerable people in our society that there is effective access to legal services through civil legal aid than it is to have the Human Rights Act.
Some may find it astonishing that that should be my belief. That is because the Human Rights Act deals with great ethical principles, one of which relates to what we are talking about. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its report, has pointed that out as a common law and convention principle. However, if we are concerned about practical realities, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has good sense in setting out the obligation of the Lord Chancellor to secure that,
“individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”,
and recognises that that must be within allocated public expenditure. It means that if Barbara Castle, who I much admired, were still alive and were to write a similar memorandum to the one she wrote during the Wilson Government, the Lord Chancellor would be able to answer her by saying, “I have a duty to stand up for effective access to legal services to meet the needs of the people and therefore you cannot treat this simply as the Cinderella of public expenditure”.
Like my noble friend Lord Carlile of Berriew, I strongly support the Government. Like him, I very much hope that the Minister in his reply will give us some indication—not in detail but generally—of the concessions that we are likely to be given during our debates on this part of the Bill. I say that because, although I do not take political parties seriously, I believe in party discipline and in trying to support the coalition Government in what they are seeking to do. However, if we do not get those assurances, I will take the same course as my noble friend Lord Carlile and others on these Benches.
Perhaps the noble Lord could speak first, followed by the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I rise with great caution as a lay man in this very legal debate. However, I read the article in today’s Guardian by the Lord Chancellor, in which he spoke of promoting non-adversarial solutions. I therefore invite the Deputy Leader of the House, when he replies, to tell us a little about how that will work out in practice and to what extent those kinds of solutions will compensate for the very large cut that is proposed to be made to the current legal aid budget.
My Lords, I will be brief. Very much following the speech of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, I should like to add another slant to why the amendment should be supported. The trouble is that Clause 1, as it stands, does not confer access to justice. The wording does not make it clear that such a provision will meet individuals’ needs. It could be minimal, perfunctory and partial, and yet still comply.
What individuals need is the crucial element of what my noble friend Lady King of Bow called in her Second Reading speech the state’s compact with the citizen: that is, if the rule of law is unintelligible and unavailable to the citizen, their rights and responsibilities are withheld, so not only is the individual deprived of what they might be entitled to but democracy is significantly eroded. We should not allow the wording of Clause 1 to be unamended, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that.
My Lords, we have heard legal speeches from the top lawyers in this country, and no one should fail to recognise that. In particular, as my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss said, this is a very modest amendment that clearly takes account of the situation that we are all in. However, those of us—and there are many in this Chamber—who sat through Committee on the Welfare Reform Bill know very well where the needs are. There are needs other than those who are disabled or have special needs. As we heard, I think a couple of days ago, there are those who suddenly hit crises and need help.
Above all—from the way I look at these things; I wish we knew more—I support my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham’s plea for rehabilitation. One should consider the amount of money that we could save if we actually addressed the point about early intervention and all the matters that are now rising to the top of the list of things that are accepted but to which we are still not prepared to give the resources that are needed.
I also realise that there are difficult loyalties between members of the coalition. One or two of your Lordships have made their position clear, and I admire them for it. It is difficult to vote against your party. I almost beg the Minister to realise that the amendment would meet his and the coalition’s needs and should be accepted.
My Lords, I have been involved with legal aid for longer than anyone except my noble friend Lord Phillips. I started in 1958.
I can tell the noble Lord—
I can go from 1958 to last Friday on doing legal aid work. I do not know whether the noble Lord can follow me on that, so I have some experience of legal aid. I have filled in the forms and appeared in various tribunals and courts, and I have sometimes appeared pro bono with the assistance of legal aid granted by panels of solicitors who control that sort of thing. However, I am afraid that the amendment does not say anything. That is my concern. It states:
“The Lord Chancellor must secure … that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”.
That is a fine statement of principle, except that it is qualified in two ways: first, by the words,
“within the resources made available”,
and importantly by the words,
“in accordance with this Part”.
That can have meaning only if we look at what is in this part of the Bill, not just at this precise moment but by the time we have finished dealing with it.
Your Lordships have seen the Marshalled List and will appreciate the number of amendments in my name that make it clear that I am not satisfied with the settlement put forward by the Government within the resources that are made available. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked what the Bar Council, the Law Society and all the NGOs say. They speak with one voice and accept the need for reductions. They accept that case, and so do I. It is an unhappy position and I wish it were otherwise.
In my Second Reading speech, I said that I hoped that the Government would commit themselves to saying that we are not here to squeeze government expenditure for all time but that when the economy improves we can widen the use of resources that will be available at that time.
What the Government are proposing will cost much more, because of various things. What does the noble Lord have to say about that?
I will say something about that in our debate on Amendment 2. I entirely agree. I think that the Government are making a mistake in welfare law and that cutting legal advice and assistance for people at the bottom end of society will cause more problems than it solves; it will not achieve the savings that the Government think it will. That is my case. Your Lordships have only to look through the Marshalled List of amendments to see that, time and again, I seek to rejig Part 1 in a way that I think will make more sense while attempting to save the Government the money that they must save to meet the deficit in this area. That is why, to be honest, I am not concerned about this amendment. As I said, it does not say anything; it just concerns what resources will be necessary to meet what will be in this part of the Bill when we have finished with it.
Our decisions in Committee should not be about piling back in everything that has been taken out. We are living in a different world. There are different needs. Society has changed. From getting on for 60 years of experience, I think I know what those needs are. I hope, with your Lordships’ assistance, to go through it all piece by piece, detail by detail, and point out to the Government what they should rethink.
I can make a speech about principles. Good God, I have done rhetoric all my life—I am a Liberal Democrat. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, earlier. He made a fine speech, and I agree with every word, but what it had to do with the Committee's proceedings I was not quite sure.
We want to get away from rhetoric and down to the nuts and bolts of the Bill to see what solution we can come out with at the end. That is why I shall support my noble friend if this is taken to a vote and ask my colleagues to come with me to support the Government at this stage. It might be necessary later in our proceedings to hammer home certain points that we have not yet discussed, but I respectfully suggest that it is not necessary to defeat the Government on this amendment.
My Lords, I must begin by declaring some interests. I am an unpaid consultant with the firm of which I was senior partner for 30 years, in the course of which I engaged in legal aid work in the fields of personal injury law, family law and criminal law. I was also one of the founders of the citizens advice bureau in Wallsend, near the town in which I live, and I was instrumental in securing a law centre in Newcastle. I also have to declare a paternal interest, as my daughter practises in the field of housing and employment law at the Bar.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and his co-signatories on tabling the amendment. I confess that I share some of the reservations expressed by other noble Lords about the qualification included in the amendment. I am tempted to say that if my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith is satisfied, I must be satisfied. In all events, I am open to persuasion by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, whom, with his display of forensic skill and general persuasiveness, I have never heard without being utterly persuaded. I am sure that he will persuade me and others of your Lordships that the amendment is on the right lines. The reference to Part 1 is predicated upon changes that I think many of your Lordships would like to see to the scope of the Bill.
The key issue for Parts 1 and 2 is that of access to justice, as fully explained by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in his brief opening remarks. There are two parts of the Bill with somewhat different purposes. Part 1 deals with legal aid, which is what we are dealing with today. Part 2 deals with litigation funding and is based on the recommendations of Lord Justice Jackson. Taken together, they mark a fundamental change in our system of justice. We will debate the Jackson proposals in Part 2 later. Many will see merit in many of his proposals.
At this point, I should say that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is wrong to assume that we on these Benches want substantially to maintain the status quo in respect of Part 2. We have some reservations and we may have some amendments, but we are by no means dismissing Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations. Of course, the Government are cherry-picking from Lord Jackson's recommendations and observations in the manner of George Washington, who, as your Lordships will recall, had to confess that he had chopped down the cherry tree. There are those of us who fear that the cherry tree of access to justice is in danger of exactly that treatment.
Lord Justice Jackson, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, was explicit in saying that neither the scope of nor the eligibility for legal aid should be changed. We are presented with a Bill which will drastically reduce the scope of legal aid and impose a very large cut in its financing, so that 650,000 cases will no longer receive legal aid or advice and £280 million of the £350 million savings to be engendered as a result of the Government's proposal will come from civil legal aid.
That approach flies in the face of the pronouncements of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, when he referred to unimpeded access to a court ranking as a constitutional right, which was cited in the Constitution Committee's report, as was Lord Bingham, who pronounced that,
“denial of legal protection to the poor litigant who cannot afford to pay is one enemy of the rule of law”.
Both those observations of those very distinguished judges should be reflected on in the light of the book of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, entitled The Pursuit of Justice, a pursuit of justice which will be made very much more difficult for so many—some 650,000 people.
Therefore, while denying the allegation of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, that we on these Benches seek to maintain the status quo in respect of Part 2, I make no apology for saying that we will do our best to maintain as much as possible of the status quo for those who are to be affected by Part 1—the most vulnerable people who most need legal help and advice, generally speaking, at the most difficult times of their lives.
Of course, savings have to be made. The previous Government made some in controversial areas and, undoubtedly, we would have made more, perhaps concentrating on some aspects of criminal legal aid, but we would not have put legal aid and advice out of the reach of hundreds of thousands of people across a range of areas of law, from virtually the entirety of private family law to debt, housing, employment and welfare law nor, of course, to clinical negligence, to which others of your Lordships have referred.
Nor would we have legislated to pass the buck for the ensuing problems of homelessness, debt, family breakdown, the impact of welfare cuts and so on to other government departments and agencies and their budgets, or created difficulties in the courts and tribunals systems—enhancing the costs of both systems by increasing the number of litigants in person, for that will undoubtedly be the effect. It is no wonder, then, that family law organisations which are not specifically legal organisations have vigorously opposed the proposed changes. The Children’s Commissioner, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and Women’s Aid have all come out against the proposals. The Ministry of Justice’s own family justice report and the Civil Justice Council have equally criticised the proposals.
At Second Reading, the Minister said that 95 per cent of cases with children as parties would be unaffected. However, there will be a saving of only about £6.5 million as a result of 35,000 such cases involving children being taken out of scope. Of course, 35,000 cases does not mean 35,000 children, as there will be cases involving more than one child. I do not know whether the Government have estimated the total but it is surely likely to be of the order of 50,000 or more. That is just one area in which these problems will become manifest.
Who will be expected to fill the gap following the withdrawal of legal aid and advice? It might be thought that the vanguard in the big society, the much praised citizens advice bureaux and law centres, would be expected to do so, but they are sustaining severe cuts in both government and local authority funding. Law centres face cuts of 85 per cent of their funding, leading, they say, to a 90 per cent cut in legal help cases, which amount to some 33,000. The Lord Chancellor, in his article in today’s Guardian, appears to threaten their role, for in that piece he says:
“We are … rethinking the trend … for voluntary sector advice providers to take on more … strictly legal work”.
Therefore, legal aid goes and the voluntary sector, which might have been able to take up some of the slack, is not only to suffer cuts in funding but is to be deliberately steered away from replacing what would otherwise have been available from the ordinary legal aid system.
In addition, there are serious questions about the impact of these proposals and the robustness of the financial savings which it is suggested they will lead to. The impact assessment on legal aid, which many of your Lordships will no doubt have read, makes very interesting reading. Paragraph 6 says:
“Legal aid may be regarded as a redistributive transfer of resources from taxpayers to those who are most needy, in relation to both the nature and merits of their case and also to their financial position. The proposals … involve reducing the scale of these redistributive transfers. This will help the Government secure the wider macroeconomic benefits associated with reducing the fiscal deficit”—
at the expense, as the analysis makes clear, of the most needy. Paragraph 9 goes on to say that,
“it is possible that these behavioural changes might be associated with losses in economic efficiency. For example, for people no longer in receipt of legal aid less resource may be devoted to resolving their dispute, delivering a resource saving. But if dispute outcomes were much less fair then … these resource gains might be more than outweighed by the total economic costs. … This would include the wider social and economic costs, both tangible and intangible”.
The analysis goes on in paragraph 44 to say that the proposals will,
“reduce the number of 2009/10 Legal Representation closed cases by 38% and legal help cases by 66%”.
It also says, very significantly that,
“Of the legal representation cases removed, it is estimated that nearly 80% relate to individuals within the bottom income quintile”—
that is, within the bottom 20 per cent. A more aggressive analysis would be hard to imagine.
The report also goes on to look at the considerable reduction in case volumes across a whole range of services: 84 per cent of total family private cases, 99 per cent of consumer cases, 95 per cent of employment cases, and so on, would be out of scope. In terms of both legal help and representation, huge reductions would occur in available assistance. The Minister will no doubt refer, as I think he did at Second Reading, to the fact that exceptional funding would perhaps be provided for a new scheme for excluded cases. However, again if one looks at the impact analysis, one sees that this will be minimal. In some cases, there will be,
“Up to 5% for some proceedings”,
and in roughly half the cases “Negligible” assistance will be provided.
The Ministry of Justice was very dismissive of the Law Society’s proposed savings. There were two sets of proposals. One included what I considered to be the very sensible provision of a 1 per cent increase in the duty on alcohol, although I accept that that is not quite within the province of civil justice reform. The revised version had other suggestions, yet the ministry, which appears to have dismissed the Law Society’s suggestions out of hand, does not have evidence to support its own proposals. In 15 separate statements in the impact assessment there are 30 admissions that it is speculating on the likely effect of those proposals. The ministry told the Justice Select Committee that,
“it is not possible to quantify accurately these wider costs”,
in respect of other government departments.
The Government should accept this amendment. They should sit down and work with the Law Society and third-sector providers to examine alternative savings, including looking at the costs of the justice system, such as the delays and the administrative problems and the costs of the Legal Services Commission, which have already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. They should obtain an independent assessment, perhaps by the National Audit Office, of the impact of the revised proposals on access to justice and in costs to other departments and public services.
The Lord Chancellor, who is one of those John Lewis-style politicians—never knowingly understated—says in the Guardian that the debate in your Lordships’ House should focus on,
“reconciling the reduced but generous funding that fiscal reality requires, with the protection of fundamental rights of access to justice for critical issues that no civilised society can do without”.
The problem is that his list of critical issues is very short. It refers to loss of life and liberty and loss of home, but it leaves aside a range of issues which most of us would regard as critical, especially if we had to confront them in our daily lives, as very many of our fellow citizens do.
If those critical issues do not relate to those very widespread problems, we will have a system in which, if you have the means, the doors to justice will be open but, if not, they will be locked and barred for too many people in our society. It is this fundamental dichotomy that this Committee must address and to which the Government must offer redress. I hope that the widespread support expressed for the thrust of the amendment will be reflected by the time we get to Report in substantial government amendments and with an accommodation that will minimise the damage which the Bill threatens to inflict on too many people in our country.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for his words. We are very pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Bach, with us. He very courteously explained to me the personal reasons why he could not be with us earlier, but it is good to see him in his place now.
The debate has taken on some of the aspects of a Second Reading debate and it is none the worse for that. The first amendment allows for such wide-ranging points to be made. I shall not try to reply to them all at this point, as we are at the very start of Committee stage. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace and I will return to many of the issues, like medical negligence and social welfare, as the Committee stage runs forward.
I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that the official Opposition are not arguing for retaining the status quo. He and the spokesman for the Labour Party in the other place have made it clear that, if they had been in office, faced with the economic situation with which we are faced, they too would have been making cuts. The debate is about where those cuts should be made and with what impact. It is fair for him to look at the impact assessment, and the fact that it lends some ammunition to him is an assurance that it is a very fair impact assessment. The very first question I answered from this Dispatch Box about the Bill related to the fact that if you make budget cuts to a section of government expenditure that is focused mainly on the needy, it is the needy who will find the impact of those cuts. That is true of housing, social welfare, and so on, and that is the reality of a Government who have to cut back on expenditure.
I make no complaint at all about the contributions from lawyers in the debate. If we were debating a fundamental issue about medicine, I would hope that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and other expert medics in the place would contribute; and if we were talking about defence, I would hope that our generals would contribute. I do not think that there is anything wrong with the fact that a large number of the contributors have come from the legal profession. The daunting thing for me, as a non-lawyer, is the array of talent that is on display from the legal profession. I always remind my colleagues down the corridor that, whenever I stand at this Dispatch Box, I am very conscious that somewhere in the listening audience there are about three former Lord Chancellors and half a dozen former Solicitor-Generals or Attorney-Generals. I have never quite got to grips with the number of QCs that we have in the House of Lords, but there is a goodly number. We have good legal expertise and this debate is, and the Committee stage will be, all the better for it.
It is certainly not my intention to approach this—I am trying to find that barb from my noble friend—with something like tetchy impatience. In fact, over the past few months, I have been watching my noble friend Lord Howe at the Dispatch Box. He will be my model for this Committee stage—a kind of concerned bedside manner.
However, in talking about Committee stage when I was on the Benches opposite, I was on record as saying that if the House divides in Committee, almost invariably one will have to resist. I genuinely want to use Committee stage to listen. I cannot make blanket promises and I certainly, at this stage, cannot start giving a list of concessions. The position of the Government is that the Bill has been delivered from the other place in pristine condition and ready for adoption but, as our system works, we listen to the advisory—
I am not so sure about adoption being that much more difficult these days.
We will listen and we will ponder. I hope that that will be the spirit in which we conduct the debates. It is certainly not, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggested, an attempt to turn the clock back. Even when this exercise is finished, no one could dispute that we will have one of the most generous legal aid schemes in the world. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor, in his article in the Guardian, which has been quoted a number of times, says:
“Access to justice is a fundamental part of a properly functioning democracy”.
He goes on to make the point that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and a number of others made: “Without legal aid, and”—I emphasise this—
“the dedicated lawyers who deliver it, our system of justice would quite simply collapse”.
That is the starting point.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has just cited the idea that we have the most generous legal aid system anywhere in the world, which he said no one would dispute. During the debate, noble Lords have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, myself and others about what Lord Justice Jackson has said about any further cuts in legal aid. He certainly disputes it, as do surely many others.
There is absolutely no logic in what the noble Lord has said, with the utmost possible respect—I think that is what you say to each other when you are insulting one another. Lord Justice Jackson may well have a perfectly reasonable opinion that legal aid should not be cut, but it does not follow that, if it is cut, it will not remain the most generous system in the world. There is a non sequitur in what was said. Lord Justice Jackson says that he does not want the present system cut, which is fair enough but, if the system is cut, it will remain the most generous legal aid system in the world.
Does my noble friend at least accept that we legislate vastly more than any free democracy in the western world? We have between 200 per cent and 400 per cent more statute law than any free state that I have yet discovered.
I have no idea whatever whether that figure is correct. I am not even going to promise to write to my noble friend about that. Yes, I think both members of the coalition came into government determined to legislate less and I am sure that, if and when power changes, any new Government will come into power wanting to legislate less. However, you get into a department and find that it has two or three Bills that it has just been waiting to get on to the statute book, or some campaigning organisation, probably chaired by my noble friend Lord Phillips, has a ready-made Bill to get on to the statute book as soon as possible.
First, perhaps I can deal with the calumny from the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. I am not a Home Office Minister; I am a Ministry of Justice Minister. We benefit from that subtle division of responsibilities carried out by the previous Administration, which has so benefited government. Just as my noble friend Lord Carlile emphasises the liberalism of his approach, I make no apologies for approaching these matters as a social democrat. I look at these issues through those eyes, including that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. It is extremely important that in reforming our justice system, we keep rehabilitation in the forefront. It is important to make clear that we will have a vigorous system to prosecute justice and punish offenders. However, if we carry on casually allowing the upward rise of our prison population into six figures, it will be a self-defeating process. Unless we attack the rehabilitation of offenders to stop the horrendous reoffending rates, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has often championed, we will be doomed to be spending increasingly more on punishment in a justice system with no real help to society at large.
This has been a philosophical debate. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, set the tone in a speech which, as my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford pointed out, was wonderful in its rhetoric but brought us to why there was not universal support for the Pannick amendment. It suggested that the Government might have to take some account of the resources available. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, went back to Magna Carta, quoting Lord Bingham and others. I have beside my bed a copy of his The Rule of Law, which is a guide for any lay innocent Justice Minister. We have to accept the fact that Governments and departments have to meet budgets and that they cannot find blank cheques and never have been able to.
I went to see the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, who, sadly, can no longer attend the House and has taken leave of absence. Jeremy Hutchinson is now 96, but was one of the group of lawyers who helped to bring in the 1949 Act. He said rather wistfully, “We thought that we were bringing in a National Health Service for law”. In a way, I can understand that that is a noble aspiration. However, as successive Governments have shown, it is one that must be constrained by the economic realities of the day. Therefore, we are having to make choices—and sometimes hard choices. Perhaps I may again quote my right honourable friend’s article in the Guardian:
“The logic is simple: to determine carefully which types of cases most urgently merit scarce resources, to encourage people to use non-adversarial solutions to their problems where appropriate, and to speed up and simplify court processes where they are not”.
That is the philosophy of the Bill and it is what we are attempting to do. It is unfair when people use language suggesting that we are taking an axe to a whole system of justice. I know from my contact with the Lord Chancellor that that is not his intention.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked me about our approach to non-adversarial solutions. As the Lord Chancellor indicated in the Guardian article, we are looking to increase funding for family mediation. The Government are committed to increasing it by £10 million, which would fund an extra 10,000 cases.
I hear the speeches from my own Benches and am always interested when someone like my noble friend Lord Carlile makes an intervention followed by praise for courage from around the House. I draw his attention to the line in George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan”:
“Woe unto me when all men praise me!”.
Actually, I am a little bit old fashioned. I believe that the real courage is in standing up and saying, “I support the Government. I think that this is a very good Bill and I intend to vote for them tonight”.
I am sorry to interrupt and I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I want to help the Minister, I really do. I do not yet understand whether he really disagrees with the principle stated in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The principle stated would replace what is in Clause 1 with what seems to me a platitude but a very important one. I do not hear the Minister say that he thinks it is not the right principle.
I suggest that this needs to be thought about right now because we had the same situation in connection with the Public Bodies Bill. In Committee on that Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and I did a rather bold and perhaps unthinkable thing and I stood on my head about it. The noble Lord made the House divide on my amendment to write a principle at the front of that Bill. We did that at the beginning in Committee, and getting the principle in had a beneficial effect. I am not suggesting that that might be necessary now, but it would help those of us who are loyal to the Government to know whether there is a real disagreement with the statement of principle in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
If my noble friend had a fault—and, my God, that is a dangerous thing even to suggest—it is his impetuosity. I was just coming to the nub of the Pannick amendment, but thought that after a long debate it was reasonable to try to pick up at least some of the points made by noble Lords.
The amendment seeks to place a statutory duty on the Lord Chancellor to secure access within the resources made available and in accordance with the provision in Part 1: the legal services that effectively meet the needs of individuals. We accept that this proposed amendment is very similar to the duty placed on the Legal Services Commission by Section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999. We also accept that the duty that the amendment would place on the Lord Chancellor would be qualified by the reference to the duty being subject both to the resources available and to the provisions of Part 1. However, against the backdrop of this Bill, we believe that Amendment 1 is unnecessary. It is central to our proposal for reform that the reforms establish an affordable system while ensuring that no one is denied their fundamental right of access to justice. Legal aid will be a key element in ensuring access to justice in some cases, but in many cases justice can and should be afforded without the assistance of a lawyer funded by the taxpayer. Fundamental rights to access to justice are the subject of international protections such as the European Convention on Human Rights and certain enforceable EU rights, and are protected by this Bill in relation to legal aid through the areas retained in scope in Schedule 1 and through the exceptional funding provision in Clause 9.
The exceptional funding scheme will ensure the protection of an individual’s right to legal aid under the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as those rights to legal aid that are directly enforceable under European Union law. These rights are of fundamental importance, and the Government consider that the Bill adequately protects them. However, we do not consider that any more extensive right to taxpayer assistance by way of legal aid to access to the courts should be established. In light of the way the Bill protects fundamental rights of access to justice, to the extent that the amendment seeks to introduce requirements over and above what is required by, for example, Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it is not desirable or necessary. To the extent that it would require no more than, for example, Article 6, it is also unnecessary. Clause 1 states that the Lord Chancellor must secure that legal aid is made available in accordance with Part 1 of the Bill. The Lord Chancellor has powers under Clause 2 to make arrangements to meet that duty.
Considerations about the demand for civil legal aid services have not been ignored. Under Clause 10 the Lord Chancellor will make regulations setting out criteria that the director of legal aid casework will be required to consider when making decisions. When settling the criteria, the Lord Chancellor must consider the extent to which the criteria should reflect certain factors. These include the availability of resources to provide the services and the appropriateness of applying such resources to provide the services, having regard to present and likely future demands for civil legal aid services.
In addition, the Lord Chancellor will be required, in carrying out his functions, to protect and promote the public interest and to support the constitutional principle of the rule of law. These considerations are inherent in the Lord Chancellor’s functions as a Minister of the Crown and do not require specific reference here. In addition, the Lord Chancellor will have specific duties under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. We have also been clear in our response to consultation that we will work in conjunction with the Legal Services Commission and its successor executive agency to develop and to put in place a procurement strategy that will reflect the demands and requirements of the new legal aid market.
Having read that out, I appreciate that a large number of noble Lords will want to read Hansard, see what it says and see how it matches. It would be madness for any Minister faced with an amendment tabled by the noble Lords who tabled this amendment simply to dismiss it. I will certainly draw the attention of the Lord Chancellor to the debate.
So far the Minister has not mentioned the conversations that he and the Government have had with the Bar Council, the Law Society and other bodies concerned with this aspect of law. They have been critical of the Government's approach, have they not? In what way?
At one stage I accused Peter Lodder, chairman of the Bar Council, of stalking me, so often did I see him. Of course the Bar Council, the Law Society and various other bodies, including committees of this House, will give an opinion on legislation. We are certainly in conversation on these matters. The noble Lord shakes his head, but when he was a Minister he did not say, “Come in, vested interests, tell me what you want and I will do it”. He listened to them, and where they could convince him he made changes. I assure noble Lords that my honourable and right honourable friends the Ministers in the other place and I have made ourselves constantly available to a wide range of bodies, including professional organisations, and we will continue to do so during the passage of the Bill. No organisation has a rubber stamp on the matter, but we will listen.
In philosophy and in content, this has been an extremely useful debate that I will draw to the attention of the Lord Chancellor. When it comes to the crunch, we face a division between the principled approach of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, that access to justice means that we must pay the legal aid bill, whatever it is.
I referred to expenditure that was genuinely necessary to ensure that all our citizens have equal access to justice. I certainly did not endorse any inefficiencies or extravagances in the legal aid system that there might be at the moment.
The point is that that is genuinely what we, too, are trying to do. It is a matter of judgment. In the next month or six weeks, as we take the Bill through the House, we will test those judgments in detail. I hope that in the light of my response, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, will withdraw his amendment.
The Minister referred to Article 6 of the convention being the standard. We should bear in mind, as he said, that among the 47 states we have one of the best systems, yet by using Article 6 we are adopting a standard well below common law and anything that we in this country have enjoyed since 1949. Will he reflect on that?
As I said, I reflect on almost anything that my friend says, and it is now in Hansard as well.
My Lords, this has been a lengthy debate that has touched on a large number of very important issues. In responding, perhaps I may briefly take the attention of the Committee back to what we are debating: the terms of Amendment 1. With all due respect to the Minister, I simply cannot understand his objection to the amendment. It is not a matter of legal complexity, it is not a matter of legal expertise, and it is certainly not a matter of philosophy. Surely the amendment identifies in terms that I hope are clear and uncontroversial the aims of the legal aid system in our society. It recognises that the provision of legal aid must be within available resources, so it does not cut across the Minister's understandable desire to save money. There is no question of the amendment requiring a “blank cheque”, which was his phrase in answering criticisms of the Bill. Surely a statement of constitutional principle such as this is absolutely vital at the start of a Bill of this nature.
I suggest to noble Lords that the Government's refusal, through the Minister, to recognise a simple, and I hope uncontroversial, statement of principle in Clause 1 is deeply troubling in what it tells the Committee and the world outside the House about the Government's approach to legal aid and to the more detailed provisions that we will come to debate in Committee.
Perhaps the noble Lord would outline what is meant by,
“in accordance with this Part”.
I will come to the noble Lord's concern that the amendment does not go far enough. My point is that if the Government are not even prepared to recognise the principle that the Bill should seek to secure, within the resources available, individuals’ access to legal services that effectively meet their needs, why should the Committee support the detailed reductions in the scope of legal aid that we will come to debate?
I do not think that the noble Lord grasped my point.
I will deal with the noble Lord’s point if he will be patient; I prefer to deal with it in the course of my remarks and not at this precise moment. The Minister said that the amendment was unnecessary. I say with respect that that ignores the need for a statement of constitutional principle to assist the Lord Chancellor, the director, the courts and the public. The Minister suggested that these matters were inherent in the role of the Lord Chancellor. What, then, is the objection to putting the statement in the Bill?
The Committee heard support for the amendment from all sides of the House, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke. The only noble Lords who spoke against the amendment, apart from the Minister, were the noble Lords, Lord Phillips of Sudbury and Lord Thomas of Gresford. Each was concerned that the amendment did not go far enough: that it was either anodyne or positively dangerous in cutting down on the possible provision of legal aid. I say to each of those noble Lords, and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that his comments, with respect, ignore the provision that has been on the statute book since 1999: Section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, the terms of which are echoed in this amendment. Under all Governments since 1999, that has been the state of the law, and Section 4(1) refers both to “the resources made available” and to provision,
“in accordance with this Part”,
so I cannot understand the objection to including those same phrases in Amendment 1.
I do not think the noble Lord has grasped what I was saying. The amendment states,
“in accordance with this Part”,
but we have not determined what this part will cover. As the noble Lord realises, I have put down many amendments to Part 1 in an attempt to rejig what will be in scope and what will not. He is inviting the Committee to accept,
“in accordance with this Part”,
at the very outset before we have decided what is going to be in it.
With great respect to the noble Lord, I am inviting the Committee to accept that whatever the Bill is at the end of proceedings in this House and in Parliament as a whole, it is vital to have at the outset a statement of constitutional principle. This amendment is entirely without prejudice to all the amendments that we will be debating, considering, and perhaps voting on, many of which I support, but that is an entirely distinct question from the issue that we are now debating, which is the constitutional principle about what goes into the Bill. I was particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, for his support on this point, and I respectfully agree with what he said.
I am not going to test the opinion of the House today—I am going to take the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree—but I very much hope that the Minister will be able without a vote to recognise that the opinion of the House is very strongly in favour of this amendment for all the reasons that have been expressed in Committee today. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that if there is no movement on this issue—an issue that I and many other noble Lords regard as absolutely fundamental—the House will return to this matter on Report, and it is clear, I suggest, that the Minister and the Government will face a substantial rebellion on their own Benches. For the present, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 12, at end insert—
“( ) The Lord Chancellor must secure equality between the state and any party in dispute with the state in the provision of services of advice, assistance and representation for appeals on any point of law in the fields of welfare benefits, employment, debt, housing, immigration, education, and asylum.”
My Lords, we are now coming to what I regard as the nitty-gritty of this Bill: what is going to be in scope and what is not? What is to be provided for? I have focused in particular on the area of welfare law, which I think is of extreme importance in our deliberations. I am speaking to Amendment 2, and, as your Lordships can see, to Amendments 29 and 78. They are concerned with the provision of legal aid in the appeal system in the tribunals. I have other amendments set down which I hope will address what I consider to be a very important part of our deliberations: how do you provide advice and assistance to people before they ever get into the tribunal system? When they are faced with a problem and they want a resolution of it, to whom do they go? I have amendments down which will deal with that part of the matter.
It seems to me to be a fundamental principle that if you get to the Second-tier Tribunal and then to the appeal courts beyond that and if, as will undoubtedly happen, the Government are represented by counsel and solicitors ready to argue the point in front of those experienced tribunals, under the principle of equality of arms, which is a very important principle under the European Convention on Human Rights, it is very important that the applicant—or appellant, as he will have become—should be fully represented as well. It would be quite improper, wrong and a breach of the convention if we were to have litigants in person in front of the Second-tier Tribunal and beyond seeking to put their case forward and to argue law as well as fact.
I sometimes have the feeling that the Ministry of Justice is living in the past. At one time, when the tribunal system was set up, it perhaps—I am not convinced of it—did not require experience, skilled advocacy and the putting together of a case. However, with all the legislation going through that my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury is concerned about and with the new Bill on welfare law, it is clear that there are going to be some very important issues of law to be discussed at that level. Therefore it is quite simply a statement of principle in Amendment 2 and of practicality in the two other amendments to which I have referred that I urge upon your Lordships for your consideration. Equality of arms is vital to justice, and nowhere more so than in the field of welfare law. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall intervene briefly. My remarks, such as they are—I hope they will not be long—apply also to quite a number of other amendments for which I shall not be able to stay, some of them in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bach. At Second Reading, I indicated that I have a lot of sympathy with many of these concerns, not least those in the field of welfare, for exactly the reason that my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has just outlined. At one and the same time, we are passing—or the Government are proposing that we should pass—significant changes in the welfare area affecting hundreds of thousands of people and we are seeking to reduce the scope for people to have legal aid or support of one kind or another in challenging some of the decisions that will then be made. I think I referred to it at Second Reading as a sort of pincer movement in that respect and I see no reason to change that judgment now.
That leads me to make two or three points. First, we really need something that we have not had, which is a combined impact assessment of the effect of the various pieces of legislation on poor and vulnerable people. We have not had it. This is not joined-up government and it is very difficult to make a judgment about what we collectively as a Parliament are doing to these people in those circumstances. That is aggravated by what has been acknowledged in this debate, which is that the Government do not know—I do not know whether the Minister will accept these words—what the financial effects of these measures will be, although we all know that there will be effects in increasing costs for other departments. The Government say that they cannot quantify them but I do not think that they would deny that they will be there. If they cannot quantify them, but cannot deny that they will be there, the savings figures are potentially meaningless.
Even within the Ministry of Justice, which I assume has costed the consequences, the extra costs of claimants, litigants and appellants defending themselves will almost inescapably drive up the costs of the Tribunals Service. Has that been measured? Is it taken into account in these savings figures? These are the questions to which we have to have answers. I do not want to see these amendments pressed to a Division tonight any more than I did the previous one, but they enable us to say that we need to know what we are doing before we can make a judgment in these matters.
I cannot stay for too much longer for reasons which I hope the House will understand but there are all sorts of things that one could say. Mediation was referred to earlier as well as alternative forms of advice in one way or another. Again, we need to know just what the position is. I should make the point that mediation has absolutely nothing to do with social welfare. You cannot have mediation about whether you are entitled to a benefit or not. You either are or you are not, although I accept that mediation may have a part to play in some other areas about which we are concerned.
In any event, we keep hearing talk about more cost-effective ways—I do not know the exact phrasing—of assistance, advice and so forth. But as has been said and as was illustrated in the debate on the CABs not much more than a week ago, most sources of advice are being squeezed either by this Bill—for example, the effect on law centres and other advisory services depending on pro bono work or legal aid work from lawyers—or by the squeeze on local authorities, which is putting the bite on CABs. We then hear talk about this, that or the other amount of money being available, but it is far from clear whether the Government know whether the availability of other forms of advice is going up or down and whether the measures will have any significant effect in either direction. We need to know more about all this before we can make a sensible judgment. I am very grateful to my noble friend for having raised this issue, even though I hope that he will not press it further tonight.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Newton, who I am tempted to call my noble friend even though technically he is not. I rise in support of Amendments 2, 19 and 29 in particular, although I do so with some trepidation because I am not a lawyer. After what my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws said, perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all. In fact, my first job was as a legal research officer with the Child Poverty Action Group. Many people assumed that I was a lawyer because the group did not have one in those days.
From what we have already heard in relation to Amendment 1, this Bill is not about a narrow understanding of the law; it is about an understanding of the law as an important instrument of citizenship. These amendments are about something I spoke on at Second Reading, the relationship between the citizen and the state. I cannot believe that any Member of your Lordships’ House wants to weaken the position of the individual citizen against the state, yet my fear is that that is what this Bill will do in Part 1.
I am a believer in the state, particularly the welfare state. But the state can loom very large and very oppressively in the lives of some of our most marginalised citizens. It is really important that they can turn to the legal system in their relations with the state. I also want to refer briefly—we will come back to this in later amendments—to the importance of the tribunal system. One of my first pieces of work as legal research officer at the Child Poverty Action Group was on one of the first empirical studies of the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal system. I was very privileged to be supervised by the late Professor John Griffiths, who I think would be horrified by the measures in front of us today.
The appeal tribunal system of course has moved on since the 1970s. It is a very different system now. But something I learnt then, which is as true today, is the importance of people who appear before tribunals having adequate advice and assistance if they are to be able to make their case. Another point I made at Second Reading is that social security law—welfare law—has become much more complex since then. I prayed in aid the example of the CPAG’s national welfare benefits handbook. I wrote the first edition of that, which was about 20 pages. It is now 1,620 pages and probably grows every year. Even though we hope that the Welfare Reform Bill ultimately will simplify the system, it will still be very complex. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, has already referred to how important it is that people are supported through such big changes.
The Government have put forward various arguments about why the legal aid system is not necessary for tribunals, one of which is that the law is not sufficiently complex. I am sure that we will come back to those arguments in greater detail. Earlier, we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, about how Lord Scarman wrestled for three days with his cleaner’s social security problem, which does not surprise me at all.
The Government have suggested that people who need help can turn to Jobcentre Plus or the benefits advice line, but that is a bit like asking the victim of a burglary to turn to the burglar for advice on how to deal with it. I am not suggesting for a moment that those employed at Jobcentre Plus are a group of thieves but they are party to the case. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, talked about mediation not being appropriate. Similarly, it is not appropriate to expect those at the source of the problem in the first place—that is, the state in the form of Jobcentre Plus—to give advice on appealing against the decision. In their helpful report, the CPAG and Scope suggest that, often, that advice is incomplete or incorrect. I acknowledge the very good job that many people working in Jobcentre Plus are doing but they are not there to provide impartial advice to benefit claimants.
It is sometimes suggested that legal advice makes the whole tribunal system too legalistic. But a number of groups, including Citizens Advice, have made the point that providing good legal advice can keep people out of the tribunal system when they should not be there—it is known as the triage role—and can send people to the right sources. Often, people think that they have a case to take to the tribunal system when they do not but, if they do have a case, it is important that they should feel comfortable going to the system.
Another argument is that the tribunal system is user-friendly, but we have to think about who the users of the system are. By and large, noble Lords probably are not likely to have a social security problem and have to appear before an appeal tribunal. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of those who do have to appear before the tribunals and accept that, as the research carried out by Scope shows in relation to disabled people, this can be a very daunting experience. It is very daunting to have to know what evidence you need to assemble in order to appear before the tribunal and how to present your case.
If you simply appear without having been given any support, often you will not even dare to go. The Minister has talked about being daunted at appearing before eminent lawyers in this House, but I do not think that that is anything like as daunting as it is for a social security claimant to appear before a tribunal. These people may have had very damaging relationships with the state in the past and therefore do not feel confident about going before something as official as a tribunal.
The only other point I want to make is that we are not simply talking about first order appeals. What happens beyond those? I am talking about going to the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court and even the European Court of Justice. Even at that point legal aid will not be available to support people, with the result that important issues of welfare law may not be adequately resolved. We are talking about a very small number of cases, so I wonder if the Minister could tell us in his response just how much money is being saved by removing legal aid from that level of appeal. I add that to the important list of questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Newton.
In conclusion, I return to the central point of these amendments. As we discuss all the aspects of Part 1, but also as we consider the Bill as a whole, I hope that we will bear in mind the central question of our responsibility to protect the rights of marginalised citizens in their relationship with the state.
My Lords, I agree with every word that has been spoken so far. I say to my noble friend the Minister that it is easy for those who have never been involved in what one might call social security law to underestimate the extent to which so-called ordinary citizens can be completely baffled and often frightened by their engagement with it, certainly if one is talking about appeals; it is important for the Minister to note that the amendment, to which my name has been added, is only in respect of appeals on points of law. I ask him to contemplate how he would feel, with all his self-confidence and eloquence, if he had to go before any of the tribunals mentioned in Amendment 2,
“welfare benefits, employment, debt, housing, immigration, education, and asylum”,
although heaven forfend that the Minister should appear before a tribunal in relation to asylum. Seriously, however, it is not reasonable to demand a citizen even to decide whether he or she has a point of law which can be taken before a tribunal. It is simply unrealistic. One could almost say it is cruel to pretend that we are creating rights for those citizens most in need when they cannot even get advice and representation on points of law at appeals.
Finally, I shall quote from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux briefing that has been sent to us all because I am sure that we all share a huge admiration for Citizens Advice. The association says that it agrees with the arguments made covering legal assistance in the Upper Tribunals, which share the jurisdiction of the High Court and follow complex procedural rules to hear appeals on points of law; and that most often it is either public bodies or large corporate employers that use these tribunals to appeal decisions made in the claimant’s favour in lower tribunals, and they instruct legal counsel to do so. It is important to realise that it is not Mr Jones or Mrs Brown appealing, but the public body they have worsted at the tribunal appealing against the order made in their favour. If these people are denied the right to legal representation, what sort of justice is that? It is not justice and I hope that, with regard to this amendment and the others in the group, the Government will consider and agree to this change.
My Lords, on an amendment such as this it is important that we look first at the substance. This is an important and substantive amendment, and in general I think it is a very good one. However, it is also important to look at the text. I have one point on the text which, if I may, I shall put via the Minister to the mover. The reason I do so is that the coverage is very wide; that is to say, the amendment covers employment, housing and education —not just other welfare services but a whole range of things that go very wide. My question concerns the phrase,
“in dispute with the state”.
To a lawyer that may be absolutely clear, but as a non-lawyer I am not clear about what is covered in terms of important bodies like local authorities and so on. They are part of the state, but are they fully covered? Such a range of things is listed here that I would like some clarification on that.
For example, what about a state-owned bank which is in dispute with its staff about employment? Is that or is that not covered? I do not want to make too much of this point because it is not a substantive one on the main objective but, if we have an amendment before us, it is quite important to understand what the intention of the mover is in relation to its coverage.
My Lords, I am in broad agreement with the amendment, although again I share the reservation expressed just now by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, as to what is meant by the state. Does that mean central government, local government, public bodies or other agents of the state? That needs to be made clear because in some of these areas there might be a dispute with a local authority or even a housing association.
Anyone who has been a Member of Parliament or a local councillor will know that at their Friday evening and Saturday morning surgeries there will be people who come in on all these issues. The question then is where one refers them to. I am not absolutely clear whether the phrase,
“appeals on any point of law”,
is at a higher level or whether it refers to a first-instance tribunal. That may reflect my lack of legal background. However, if one has given advice as a Member of Parliament or as a local councillor, one has to become a little bit of an expert at triage in recommending where one’s constituents should go for more specialised advice. I used to have the social security handbooks so that I could look these things up, and one becomes not too bad at it. One is never an expert, but one needs to be good enough to know where to refer people, and hence I appreciate that the amendment talks about “advice, assistance and representation”. The reference to “advice” is important because we all know that if there is a dispute between an individual and the state or local government, the individual needs help.
I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that this is too difficult for people. Some of us, even the non-lawyers, might have enough experience and legal friends to give us advice, but for most people it is too daunting a prospect. We even know from our surgeries how nervous people can get about going to see their MP because MPs are authority figures. One needs to put them at their ease in order to discuss their issues with them. Expecting people to be unrepresented at a tribunal is simply an impossible suggestion. It is not going to work. People need further help in order to do that. So, while I like the amendment, I have my doubts about the word “state”. However, I hope that it will help the argument along on what is a very important part of the difficulty that this Bill presents us with.
I support the principle laid out in Amendment 78, which is in this group, because appeals will almost always involve points of law. However, I urge the Government to think further about the kind of legal advice that is essential to immigrants and asylum applicants at a much earlier stage in the process. They cannot be expected to know when they leave their country of origin everything that is contained within the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, nor can they be expected to know the highly complex law that we now have in this country, much of which is expressed in statutes which refer to earlier statutes.
Therefore, I ask the Government to think deeply, as the previous Administration began to do when they set up the Solihull pilot project, about providing legal advice to asylum seekers at a very early stage before even they have had their principal interview. That project has been going on for more than one year. I hope that it will very soon be possible to draw practical conclusions from it which can be extended to the whole country.
Legal advice for these people does not necessarily have to be given by fully qualified solicitors or barristers who know or can be expected to look up the whole range of English law; it needs to be given by persons who understand the current content of immigration or asylum law.
My Lords, I apologise to the Committee for not being present during the first, very important debate. I hope that I informed the principal players in that debate that I would not be here for personal reasons —I had to go to a funeral of a dear friend. I am grateful to the Minister for welcoming me in the manner in which he did. However, when I came and heard my noble friend Lord Beecham making his speech, I wondered why I bothered to come back at all.
He was very good.
That is what I mean—in case there is any misunderstanding about it. I can see how that could be misinterpreted.
As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, with his Amendment 2, to which he spoke along with his later amendments, Amendments 29 and 78, we get down to the nitty-gritty. I want to talk briefly about Amendment 19, which is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Beecham. It is the first outing of what I think will be a very important issue in this Committee, which is what should happen to scope of legal aid in particular areas of social welfare law.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the others who spoke in favour of his amendment have been too gentle with the Government on this issue. It is absolute nonsense that there could be any question that anyone who gets to the second tier, the Court of Appeal or even, heaven forbid, the Supreme Court, on a point of law—for example, on a welfare benefits issue—should not have legal can not afford their own lawyer to conduct their case, and I very much hope that the Government put it in the Bill in order to take it out. It is inconceivable that John Smith, as it were, could turn up alone at the Supreme Court with his case and be faced with the Supreme Court justices and the very experienced and brilliant counsel representing the other side. I cannot think of any other Government, of any persuasion, ever having thought of doing anything like that. I am quite sure that the Government of whom the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, were distinguished members would not even have dreamt of suggesting that someone should appear on their own at a case like that without the benefit of legal aid. I very much hope that we do not hear too much more about it.
Some vital case law—on welfare benefits, for example—has been decided at the higher courts as a consequence of the claimants concerned having been properly legally represented. Big social security test cases which reached the higher courts by way of the appeals process include Zalewska, on the lawfulness of the workers’ registration scheme; Hinchy, on the interpretation of the overpayment recovery test; Pedro, on the meaning of “family member in EU law”; and Mallinson, the seminal case on the interpretation of the law on disability living allowance. The idea that cases of that kind, or even those that are less important, should be conducted by a claimant in person is absurd. So I hope that the Government will accept Amendment 2 without cavil. Whether the wording is right is not a matter for tonight, but it is the principle that matters.
We argue in our Amendment 19, which is a probing amendment designed to find out what the Government feel about it, that the law should go wider and that there should be no question of taking out of scope reviews of welfare benefits. The amendment would ensure that individuals seeking to defend their fundamental economic and social rights had the advice that they needed to be able to present their cases and understand the processes that they would be subject to. Our amendment would allow the applicants to get advice before going to a tribunal. The First-tier Tribunals were set up, as we have heard, to consolidate the various tribunals that adjudicate on administrative matters of the state. Admirable work has been done and is being done to try to make First-tier Tribunals as user-friendly as possible—I praise the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, for having played a big role in this, as well as Lord Justice Carnwath, whom we should congratulate on being elevated to the Supreme Court today.
The noble Lord’s mention of Lord Justice Carnwath put me in mind of a fact which none of us has so far mentioned but which I invite him to endorse, which is that the amount of court and tribunal time wasted by having unrepresented appellants has a cost attached to it.
I agree with the noble Lord and I shall say a little word about that before I sit down.
Admirable work has been done in the First-tier Tribunal to make it as friendly as one can. However, it is impossible—and the Minister has heard this from around the Committee today—to square the circle in that those tribunals still fundamentally are ruling on matters defined and decided through laws, rules and guidance, which is sometimes pretty heavy, that often carry criminal sanctions if violated. It is quite clear when one looks at official statistics on the First-tier Tribunals that the Government are wrong when they say that tribunals can be accessed without advice. You are twice as likely to win an appeal if you have had some basic advice rather than no advice at all. The Minister's team has kindly provided information that allows us to quantify the increase in likelihood of winning an appeal if the appellant has been advised. This is to the First-tier Tribunal. For some types of cases, such as employment support allowance, you are more than twice as likely to win. Given that it allows people to return to work, seeing thousands of cases that would have been won with advice is surely wrong headed.
Rather than saying that cases would have been won, would the noble Lord not use the expression “gained access to justice and obtained the benefits to which they were entitled”?
In my legal career and otherwise, I have always given way to better phrases used by Welsh lawyers and certainly by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and I do on this occasion too. Access to justice is rather important because you cannot win if you do not have access to justice. One of the worries is that the Bill will ensure that there is no access to justice for many who have had it up until now.
The reason for marked disparities is that appealing on welfare benefits inevitably requires, as my noble friend Lady Lister and the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, have just mentioned, an understanding, whether we like it or not, of complex statutes and rules and guidance that govern how the state evaluates an individual's eligibility for legal aid. Had legal aid not been present in 2009-10, if we apply the success rate for those without advice to those who did receive advice, 51,223 people in total would have lost their appeals. The long-term cost of supporting those people is incalculable. Never mind Second-tier, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court; to take out of scope advice on a review to the First-tier Tribunal is unfair and wrong.
The effect of people not being able to exercise their rights is again frankly explained in the Government's own impact assessment. The Government say that the changes may lead to:
“Reduced social cohesion … Increased criminality … Reduced business and economic efficiency … Increased costs for other Departments … Increased transfer payments from other Departments, in particular higher benefits payments for people who spent their savings on legal action”.
In welfare benefit cases, it is not enough to have legal aid at the Second-tier Tribunal upwards. In fact, if you do not have it earlier you are unlikely to ever get to the Second-tier Tribunal or above. Advice is needed when seeking to review, for example, DWP decisions before the First-tier Tribunal. It does not have to be expensive or sophisticated legal advice, but it has to be legal advice.
If advice is given at that stage, hopeless cases, as has been said, can be got rid of. First-tier Tribunals would not be so clogged up in the future. The Committee will remember what Judge Martin of the Social Entitlement Chamber said about unrepresented defendants—that at least 10 per cent of time is wasted in explaining what is going on. Proper cases can therefore go ahead quicker. In particular, many legal issues can be sorted out by the advice that is currently given so that the wrong can be put right before the tribunal ever gets involved.
That is what the present system does, although not perfectly. Lots of people do not take advantage of it and sometimes it does not work, but more or less it works pretty well. People get their advice, which frankly does not cost very much money and lawyers certainly do not get rich on it. The truth is that many cases no longer have to go anywhere near a tribunal. It does not encourage courts or tribunals: it actually avoids courts and tribunals. That is why it is slightly ironic that the Lord Chancellor said today in his Guardian article that legal aid’s,
“broad scope means that problems are dragged straight to the courtroom that could often be solved earlier and more simply elsewhere”.
That comment is not his finest: I would go so far as to say that it is rather absurd. The type of legal aid that he seeks to abolish is exactly the type of legal aid that he should be encouraging and reinforcing because it avoids courts and tribunals rather than encouraging them. In fact it often has some sort of mediating effect, and we know that mediation is an important and proper part of the Government's policy in this field.
The Minister has described himself today as a social democrat and someone who has a copy of The Rule of Law by his bed. If he is a person of that sort, he must see the argument that has been put in the Committee tonight.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for that summing up. I was well aware of his own deep concern about social welfare law and I am not surprised by the passion with which he deployed his arguments. I was interested that he talked about advice. Quite often as this Bill goes through we will move between what is advice, what is legal advice and what is taxpayer legally paid advice. It may be that some of the areas of concern are addressed by other means.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, about tribunals, I am advised that upper-tier tribunals are under a duty in accordance with the overriding objective to make sure that cases are dealt with fairly and justly. That includes,
“avoiding unnecessary formality and seeking flexibility in proceedings”,
“ensuring, so far as practicable, that the parties are able to participate fully”.
I am also advised that legal aid is not available now under the current system for representation at the Upper Tribunal or on welfare benefit cases, so we are not operating from a basis on which legal aid is as generally available now, as some of the speeches might have indicated.
I might be wrong, but is it not true that legal aid is available for advice for people who attend those tribunals?
The noble Baroness is an expert. She wrote a precursor to 1,620 pages of advice, so I will accept that. We will have plenty of opportunities for correction if either of us is wrong.
When I started as a Minister I started counting the number of times the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and I disagreed, but I have now stopped counting. Nevertheless, my love for him remains totally undiminished and I know of his own concern and expertise in this area. He mentioned the danger of a pincer movement, but a number of proposals that are currently being considered across government should make it easier for people to receive the right provision or entitlement in areas such as welfare, benefits and education. The most notable of these is the universal credit, which will help to reduce the scope of error significantly, as it makes the whole benefits system simpler and easier to understand. The Ministry of Justice is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions as part of its wider welfare reform programme to improve the quality and effectiveness of initial decision-making in social security applications, considerations within the DWP and the system of subsequent appeals to tribunal. That is another aspect.
A number of people have asked about the impact of particular reforms. It has not always been acknowledged that other government actions might be improving the situation in some of these areas. It is always difficult to give the full impact of any particular measure. As the Lord Chancellor points out in his oft-quoted Guardian article—I did not know there were so many Guardian readers in the House—part of the aim is, to a certain extent, to change attitudes and approaches so that we do not become overly reliant on legalistic solutions. There might well be changes, both beneficial and less beneficial, in the outcomes of some of the things that are going on.
I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, and others that appearing before a tribunal is daunting for the lay man. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked me a specific question about the cost of legal aid appeals to the Upper Tribunal on welfare benefit matters. I am advised that at the moment we spend approximately £1 million a year on legal aid for advice and representation on welfare benefit appeals to the Upper Tribunal and higher courts. I will come back to Amendment 2.
Amendment 19 deals with Clause 7, which defines what “legal services” and “civil legal services” mean for the purposes of Part 1. Clause 7 provides an overarching definition, but the specific levels of service—for example, legal help and legal representation—that will be available in any particular case will be set out in regulations made under Clause 10. This approach is based closely on the current model, where Section 4(2) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 describes the types of services that can in principle be funded, and the Legal Services Commission’s funding code criteria set out the precise levels of service that are available in any particular case.
The definition of service in Clause 7 is wide enough to cover the things that one would expect, such as advice from a high street solicitor about a case that a person wishes to bring. I can perhaps assure noble Lords that legal advice and assistance in relation to tribunals is a service that is already encompassed in the description of legal proceedings in Clause 7(1). Indeed, “legal proceedings” is defined in Clause 41 as meaning,
“proceedings before a court or tribunal”.
We rely on this for the provision of services, including advocacy, in, for example, mental health tribunals as set out in paragraph 5 of Part 1 of Schedule 1 or in paragraph 9 of Part 3 of Schedule 1. The definition of legal services in Clause 7 is therefore wide enough to include legal help and indeed advocacy in proceedings before a court or tribunal, and this amendment is unnecessary.
Amendments 2, 29 and 78 all broadly concern appeals to the Upper Tribunal and appellate courts on a point of law. Amendment 2 seeks to make legal aid available in relation to,
“appeals on any point of law in the fields of welfare benefits, employment, debt, housing, immigration, education, and asylum”,
where an individual is in dispute with the state. Amendment 29 seeks to make legal aid, including advocacy, available in social security appeals before the Upper Tribunal and appellate courts. Amendment 78 would add a new paragraph to Schedule 1 and seeks to include appeals on a point of law,
“from the Immigration and Asylum Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal to the Upper Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court”,
within the scope of legal aid.
The categories of law in question include ones such as welfare benefits where tribunals are used. Legally aided representation is not available for most tribunal hearings because tribunals are designed to be user-friendly, without the need for legal representation. Indeed, legal aid is not currently available for legal representation in point-of-law appeals on welfare benefits. Amendments 2 and 29 seek to extend legal aid even beyond its current boundaries by providing legal representation for these Upper Tribunal appeals.
The Government have considered whether funding remains justified for all appeals, regardless of the area of law in which they arise. In the Government’s view, it does not. Under the present scheme, funding is not provided for cases that are not considered a priority for the scheme, such as defamation or business cases, even where these take place in the High Court, the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court. We consider that the ability of the client to represent their arguments and the importance and complexity of the issues will vary from case to case. The fact that a case is to be heard in a higher court or tribunal does not automatically mean that it will be particularly complex; nor will the forum in which a case is heard outweigh other considerations that determine our priorities for funding.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to immigration. Since consultation, we have taken on board some of the concerns raised, including those raised during the passage of the Bill in another place on domestic violence and immigration cases. On the introduction of the Bill, we included in Part 1 of Schedule 1 funding for advice in asylum support cases concerning the provision of accommodation. However, our fundamental position has not changed. It is our view that most immigration cases do not require a lawyer. I should make it clear, however—because some of the points made by noble Lord, Lord Hylton, refer to asylum cases—that asylum cases will remain within scope. I can assure noble Lords that funding is being retained, including for advocacy, for a range of tribunal appeals. These include appeals to the First-tier Tribunal under the Mental Health Act 1983 and appeals to the Upper Tribunal in special educational needs cases. Here, we have focused our limited resources on the highest priority cases.
On the question of appeals to the Supreme Court, we will continue to fund appeals to the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court where the area of law to which the appeal relates remains in scope. Again, this will allow for our limited resources to be focused on areas of higher relative priority.
Amendment 2 appears to suggest the requirement of an equality of arms with the state in such cases. The principle of equality of arms is clearly important but is susceptible to misunderstanding. This amendment implies that justice can be done only in a particular case where both parties in proceedings have identical representation. This is not a view supported by the law, or by the experience of many litigants who currently appear before tribunals without the benefit of legally aided representation.
The important question is whether an imbalance in representation gives rise to an obvious unfairness in the proceedings. The case law on Article 6 of the ECHR sets out the circumstances in which legal aid will be required to guard against an obvious unfairness in proceedings. In determining this question, it is necessary to consider all the circumstances of the case, including the nature of the rights at stake, the complexity of the law, the capacity of the individual to represent themselves and whether there are alternative means of securing access to justice. In many cases, for example before tribunals, the procedure is relatively straightforward and there are sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that the absence of legal representation on one side does not lead to an unjust outcome.
Clause 9 provides for an exceptional funding scheme that will continue to ensure the protection of an individual’s rights to legal aid under the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the rights to legal aid that are directly enforceable under European Union law. I must emphasise that the threshold here is very high—as the name suggests, they will have to be exceptional cases. However, in cases in which Article 6 of the ECHR is engaged, the exceptional funding scheme will provide an important safety net for those in which an egregr—
Thank you, Cambridge. This is the value of the House of Lords—there is always an expert around to help you. Queens’ College, Cambridge, comes to my aid.
The noble Lord would not have made that mistake if he had not been reading it out.
This is another moment in history. I have been heckled for mispronunciation by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. I stand corrected. The exceptional funding scheme will provide an important safety net for cases in which an egregious inequality of arms would lead to an obvious and unlawful unfairness in proceedings.
We have had to make difficult choices about legal aid. Our reforms to the scope of the scheme are designed to refocus civil legal aid on the most serious cases in which legal advice and representation is justified. In social welfare law, education and immigration, we are reducing the availability of legal aid; but it will remain for cases with the highest priority, and we will continue to spend £50 million on social welfare law.
As I said in the other debate, I realise that noble Lords will want to study some of the things that I read out at speed while referring and cross-referring to parts of the Bill. I think my noble friend indicated that he will withdraw his amendment, and I hope he will, although I am making no promises of massive change. One of the crunch parts of this Bill as it passes through the House will be whether we rightly judged which areas we are withdrawing from the scope of legal aid. The Lord Chancellor and my colleagues in government are confident that we have made the right decisions, hard as they have been in some cases; so, as I say, I hope that the noble Lord will, at this stage, withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thought I detected in the last few sentences the possibility of some movement in this area, but despite that the final sentence was a killer. I am very disappointed with my noble friend’s response to what I considered to be an overwhelming case. If you cannot get legal aid for the Second-tier Tribunal, the Court of Appeal and above, as of right, we really are in a very parlous position. I assure my noble friend that I shall press him on these matters in the future. I thank all noble Lords for their participation in this debate and say to your Lordships that the state in Amendment 2 is widely defined to include local authorities, government organisations and so on. That is quite well understood when we deal with the concept of equality of arms.
While I listened to my noble friend’s summing up, I was reminded of the one person I know quite well who appeared as a litigant in person in the Divisional Court and won—my noble friend Lady Walmsley. The authority concerned went to appeal, where she was represented by a leading counsel, who is now a High Court judge, and by my son, who is a Queen’s Counsel in his own right, and lost. Fortunately her costs were all paid by the authority concerned. It takes an exceptional person to be able to take a case before a judge as a litigant in person and argue it through. The Government have underestimated just how exceptional that person has to be. For the moment, and subject to what I shall say at a later date, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee stage to begin again not before 8.35 pm.