Committee (5th Day) (Continued)
Clause 11 : Determinations
Amendments 96 to 98 not moved.
Clause 11 agreed.
99: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
(1) The Lord Chancellor may make funding available for the obtaining of civil legal services on matters not included in Schedule 1 where it appears to the Lord Chancellor that the provision of such services would promote efficiency, the saving of costs or the attainment of justice.
(2) The Lord Chancellor may make arrangements for such purposes by—
(a) funding public bodies, law centres, citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit advice and support agencies to facilitate the provision of such services; and (b) supporting the delivery of such services through the provision of grant in aid to providers of civil legal services, including any consortia or partnership arrangements with public bodies, into which they may choose to enter.”
My Lords, this is an extremely important amendment, which I hope that the Government will accept. The other side of the coin when legal aid is taken away, particularly in the area of social welfare law, is that there must be some provision for advice to people who require it in that field—in others as well, but certainly for those concerned with welfare benefits and the like.
In this country, a huge amount of work is done, a lot on a voluntary basis, by citizens advice bureaux, law centres and other not-for-profit advice and support agencies. I want an assurance from the Minister that those organisations will fill the gap, that they will be properly funded and put on a secure footing for the foreseeable future to provide the advice that is clearly needed in those areas. Consequently, my Amendment 99 is to give the Lord Chancellor power to,
“make funding available for the obtaining of civil legal services on matters not included in Schedule 1 where it appears to the Lord Chancellor that the provision of such services would promote efficiency, the saving of costs or the attainment of justice”.
What I have specifically in mind is the funding of law centres, citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit advice and support agencies.
I know that the Government have committed some £20 million for the support of Citizens Advice, but I understand that to be on a one-off basis. At the same time, we receive information that the Cabinet Office is working on schemes to provide some permanent support in this area. Citizens Advice has two sides: a side dealing with general matters, normally done by volunteers, and a side dealing with specialist matters. The specialist advice in Citizens Advice comes from generally qualified lawyers who are funded precisely by the legal aid that is about to be withdrawn if Schedule 1 to the Bill finally goes through. That is the focus. What will happen? Will people be left to stumble around in this incredibly complex area of social welfare law? Will they have any guidance and help when it comes to the new provisions that are being introduced under the Welfare Reform Bill, or what? That is what I want to hear from the Minister tonight. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment as far as it goes. We are all worried about who will fund organisations such as law centres, which at present are largely reliant on legal aid. Clearly, many of them will go under if there is not some alternative form of funding. What troubles me about the amendment in its present form is that there is absolutely no break on the way in which this Lord Chancellor—or a future Lord Chancellor—may choose to hand out the money. I should like some requirement on him to consult and some way of knowing that a distant Lord Chancellor—of course, not the present one—could not operate for reasons of political expediency, or simply on a whim to withdraw funding from an organisation which, for example, might be involved in action against the Government. Although I welcome the amendment in its present form, I think that it needs more added to it.
My Lords, I support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. It addresses a question that is crucial for the success of legal aid advice at local level. The question is how the Ministry of Justice can deliver its legal aid budget cuts of £130 million out of £250 million while still delivering an effective system of support for legal aid. After a lot of thought, I have concluded that a centralised system of contract procurement is not likely to work well. It would mean high overheads and poor flexibility at a time when a significant number of third-sector providers will be forced to close because of lack of finance, with the consequence of problems that could be sorted out early not being sorted out, and a greater cost to the public purse.
We should note that the Legal Services Commission has very high costs. It spends £120 million on administration. After the cuts, with the new director of legal aid casework, the amount spent on administration is likely still to be around £120 million. That figure is very high. Of course, it includes criminal legal aid, but this has barely been cut at all. However, at local level, the budget cuts will be very significant. They will be in exactly the places that require a seamless service that will enable clients with problems that cut across agencies to benefit from integrated support.
I have a potential solution. I am grateful to Citizens Advice for its suggestion of how we might solve the problem. Could the Legal Services Commission, or its successor body, be moved from centre stage? Could, say, £20 million be reallocated from its administrative budget—which would thereby be reduced to £80 million —to front-line funding based on local legal advice partnerships that would map local advice needs, share back-office services and be based on clear professional standards? There would have to be—
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I do mean £20 million a year from the recurrent cost to provide for those local partnerships. There would have to be a co-ordinating charity, but that should be possible.
In a short debate on citizens advice bureaux on 8 December, I talked around this point and said that there was capacity at a local level to help the Government to solve the problem. Of course, all of this would be in the spirit of localism. The Government have just enacted the Localism Bill. The Localism Act has as its basic principle the principle that far more should be devolved from the centre to local areas.
The first part of the amendment simply gives the Lord Chancellor discretion to permit transfers from the legal aid budget to other funding streams for the provision of advice on issues to which Schedule 1 does not apply. The second part facilitates a cheaper delivery model based on local partnerships. On a practical level, it is important to note that it would be a waste of resources if legal aid clients could not receive holistic advice. There could also be many cases at the margins of situations covered by Schedule 1, and we should note the Legal Services Commission's response to the Green Paper, which highlighted the problem of boundary issues and warned that,
“the administration costs of considering such cases could erode the revenue savings that the Ministry of Justice has committed itself to”.
I think this suggests that we ought to do some further work between consideration in Committee and Report and that we should not lose the opportunity to engage with finding a solution to this problem. I hope that the Minister will understand that in moving this amendment, we are trying to be helpful. There are suggestions that this approach, or one like it, could work very well. I hope that in his reply the Minister will say that he is willing to engage in further discussions prior to Report.
My Lords, in an earlier debate in today’s Committee I indicated my involvement in helping agencies that provide social welfare advice and legal help to consumers, employees and others. I am therefore very sympathetic to what lies behind this amendment, which is a recognition that the Bill as it stands will remove an important lifeline for individuals by removing legal aid from the agencies. As I said in that earlier debate, many people outside Parliament may not appreciate that legal aid is not just about giving fees to chaps in wigs; it is also about supporting agencies that provide a lot of excellent advice on a very good value basis. They are able to do that because some of the work they do is supported by legal aid. They are very good value for money and produce tremendous results.
My noble friend Lord Bach has already referred to the very interesting research produced by the Legal Action Group on the provision of social welfare law advice in London. That research points out not only what will happen in terms of dramatically reduced services but how that will cost the state more. As I think the report says, it is penny wise and pound foolish to go down this route. That has been debated before. I am very sympathetic to doing something that will provide funds for these agencies. That is not the only thing that needs to be done to the Bill, but it is an important point—and my noble friend Lady Mallalieu and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, have made it as well. The problem is whether this amendment will do that. That is where I am concerned. I agree with the identification of the problem, but I am very worried that this is not the solution.
It is not the solution for the reasons that both of the previous speakers referred to. The amendment provides discretion to the Lord Chancellor, because that is what it says, but it goes further than that, as I will describe. The amendment would give the Lord Chancellor the ability to make funding available in circumstances that are completely ill defined. In other words, the criteria are entirely for him to determine. I will come back to what I mean by the word “him” in a moment. It reminds me that in the days before the law of equity and common law were separated, the Lord Chancellor had his own jurisdiction in legal cases. He ran the rules of equity. The criticism—I think the most famous criticism came from the jurist John Selden—was that because it was discretionary and the rules were not rigid or written down in the way that the common law was, you never knew what you were going to get. It was said that it was as if the measure of a foot in equity would be as long, as short or as indifferent as the Lord Chancellor’s foot. That is what worries me about this amendment. It leaves it to the person who has the discretion to determine whether to make any funding available, and if so, how much.
At one stage, I was going to describe this as the “Lord Chancellor’s foot amendment”, but it is worse than that because it is not actually the Lord Chancellor’s foot I am worried about. The present Lord Chancellor is—as no doubt all future Lord Chancellors will be—a man of generosity and kindness who understands the problems of the world and is desperate to help his fellow man. The problem is that Lord Chancellors do not get their money themselves; they get it from another person with the word Chancellor in his name. So I am going to describe this as the “Chancellor’s foot amendment”. I would love to see this amendment come back with tougher criteria and more obligations imposed. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, suggested that more work be done on what is needed. I do not know whether £20 million a year is the right number for this area—I would be surprised if it is—but it is worth doing that work. This report deals only with London, which in my experience is the best served place.
I would like to see more work done on this, but the amendment will not work as it stands. I am really concerned that this will be put forward as a sop to those of us who would like to see specific areas of welfare law brought back into scope, and we will be told, “Don’t worry, because when this amendment goes through, all these cases can be dealt with through a decision to provide funding”. If this amendment said, “and the Lord Chancellor will have X hundred million pounds a year for that purpose and he will exercise that discretion in those cases”, I might be more favourably disposed towards it, but at the moment I am worried that this will simply be a sop. I too look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about it, but as it stands it identifies the problem but not the solution.
My Lords, I have my name to this amendment. I confess that I have been impressed by the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith.
It surely is beyond argument that with the cuts in scope to legal aid this Bill will bring about, the need for the citizens advice bureaux and the law centres will be infinitely greater than it already is. If we were to have this discussion in the other place, there would scarcely be an MP who would not automatically come to the aid of the citizens advice bureaux in particular, because they rely on them: they send people from their surgeries to their local citizens advice bureau to get the advice that the MP cannot give.
The numbers of cases dealt with by the CABs in a year are measured not in tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands but in millions. I urge my noble friend to have regard to this simple reality. To put it in scale, I think there are 500 full-time CABs, with something like a further 3,000 CABs sharing premises in libraries and council offices and so on; so 3,500 of them, and probably 60 or 70 law centres now, a declining number; but they are on the front line of citizen advice. They are indispensable in the truest sense of the word.
The fact that so much of what they do is done by voluntary assistance—and very many local solicitors are volunteer CAB workers—only multiplies the value of what they do financially. The £20 million that the Government gave a couple of months ago to tide over the CABs in a funding crunch must be the best value £20 million the Government have spent on anything in the last year. I repeat, the multiplier effect of the voluntary effort put in to CABs makes every pound of support given of much greater value.
I do not think it needs labouring, it is just that I feel so passionately about this. I declare an interest that I was for 20 years legal adviser to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and my firm still does work for them. I have seen for myself from the inside and as an occasional volunteer the absolutely essential front-line work that they do. Frankly, to think of this country without the CABs is to contemplate a nightmare. My noble friend the Minister may say, “That is an exaggeration; there is no chance of that”. Well, put us at ease by allowing this amendment. Indeed, take it away and contemplate putting some obligation alongside the discretion.
I also know that Citizens Advice has to plan its finances on a solid future framework. It cannot hope each year that somehow the money will tip up. It needs certainty of supply, as do the independent law centres. We all understand the financial rigours under which the coalition Government are having to work but I cannot urge more strongly the fact that the task of the CABs and the law centres, in the straitened circumstances which will prevail after the cuts in legal aid brought in by this Bill, will be ever more urgent in an ever complicating society.
My Lords, until now, I have been happy to support every amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, but I have to say that on this one I find that I cannot give my support. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that we are incredibly lucky in this jurisdiction to have a not-for-profit sector, as well as those solicitors who still do this work, which provides at very little cost a terrific service for people who otherwise would not get access to justice. They do so largely due to the good works of a lot of Lord Chancellors in the past but not least the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who is not in his place now but was here earlier, who, in 1995 I believe, made it possible for law centres and CABs to receive legal aid and thus give the kind of advice that changes lives. I agree absolutely with what the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has said. If that should disappear, it would be one of the scandals of the first few years of this century.
If this amendment is intended somehow as an acceptable substitute for taking whole areas of legal aid, particularly social welfare law, out of scope, it has the potential be dangerous and short-sighted. I do not doubt for one second the good intentions and good faith of those who have put forward this amendment. But why do I say that? It seems to me to play entirely into the hands of a Government. It could be this Government or a future Government. I agree absolutely with my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith on this. Most likely the Lord Chancellor would be at liberty to pay whatever grant he wanted or no grant at all because the power is entirely discretionary as the amendment is drafted.
We know that there are a multitude of not-for-profit advice centres. Well over 500 CABs, 60 law centres, and hundreds of small, sometimes specialist, centres deal with the type of issues with which Part 1 is concerned. Some receive legal aid and some do not. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, that it is not a perfect system by a long way. Given his background, what he has to say about localism is of huge interest, which I know from being the Minister some time ago. But at least under the present system, the Legal Services Commission grants contracts for legal aid for a length of time and it is not the Lord Chancellor’s job to grant those contracts. It is not perfect by a very long way but the contracts are intended to cover the country. At present, those contracts are one step removed from a politician’s stroke of the pen. In my view, that is an important consideration.
Who will the Lord Chancellor fund? Of course, I am talking about a Lord Chancellor in the future. I am not talking about now. Will it be those he likes? Will it be those that are in his part of the country? The Lord Chancellor may be a Member of Parliament, as he is now. Will it be those who do not often sue the state or do not offend him or the Government? He could turn the tap off at any moment and the organisations would have no way of planning their present and their future. There would be no certainty.
One of the criticisms made by the not-for-profit organisations I certainly remember hearing as a Minister was, “Look, there is not enough continuity. We do not know about the future. How can we plan and become efficient organisations without knowing how long we will get contracts for?”. There may be not be enough continuity in the present system, but necessarily there would be no continuity under the system being mooted in this amendment. Frankly, it is an open invitation to a new Lord Chancellor, under pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and every Lord Chancellor I have ever heard of or spoken to has been under that pressure from the day he gets into office—just not to make the grants, and that will be it. The not-for-profit sector will collapse. I ask this question: if grants are the solution, where is the money coming from? If the money is there, why take social welfare law out of scope in the first place? Why not provide the rather limited, perhaps too limited, resources for social welfare law that are available at present?
Of course we are open to discussion and further debate about this, but what we want to happen is that those areas of the law—in particular, social welfare law, which it is suggested should be taken out of scope by the Bill—should not be taken out of scope; they should remain in scope. The system does not work badly; in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is working well. There is no need for this. If I was the Minister tonight, I would bite off the arm of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and accept this amendment saying, “Yes, I agree”. That is because, as it is presently drafted, I am afraid that it plays much too much into the Government’s hands.
I am pondering whether to say, “If the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is playing into the Government’s hands, it would be for the first time”, but I will not. Instead, I will simply say that we have taken a decision on the shape of this Bill which we have continued to explain. We have returned to a number of issues around that, and this amendment seeks to include a power within the Bill to fund the not-for-profit sector to do work that is outside the proposed scope of the civil legal aid scheme. I acknowledge that a number of noble Lords have concerns about the sustainability of the not-for-profit sector, and I will return to that later. However, to seek to include a provision within the Bill to fund the sector for work outside the proposed legal aid scheme is, in our view, unnecessary. Not-for-profit providers have been eligible to compete for legal aid contracts since 2000, and while the proposed changes set out in the Bill will impact on the type of cases they currently handle, future contracts for work that remains in scope will continue to provide opportunities for such organisations to bid to deliver legal aid services.
It is also unnecessary to provide for such specific powers in the Bill, as the Ministry of Justice can provide grants to organisations promoting Ministry of Justice objectives. For example, both the Ministry of Justice—
Is the Minister able to tell the Committee whether any analysis has been done to see which areas of law are currently used to fund not-for-profit agencies, but which are now going to be taken out of scope? At the moment a lot of housing work, employment and welfare law is done. If that all goes out of scope, how will the not-for-profit agencies get any of the contracts that the Minister is talking about?
The Minister said that the answer for the not-for-profit agencies is that they can bid for contracts. If at the moment they are bidding largely for work relating to housing, welfare and employment—things that will go out of scope—what contracts will they bid for? My specific question was whether the Minister or his department had done an analysis so that we might see what percentage of the money that the agencies have up to now received would no longer be available because it would be for work which was out of scope.
The Government may not have done that analysis, but the Law Centres Federation and the CABs have. I do not have the precise figure in my head, but law centres would do about 70 per cent less work because of the matters that are taken out of scope. It would not be quite as much, of course, in the case of the CABs, but they would have a much reduced caseload which would make their existence in some cases doubtful. That work has been done by the agencies, but I agree with my noble and learned friend that the department should perhaps confirm those figures or come up with some new ones. The agencies are going to lose work.
Of course they are going to lose work in the areas that are being taken out of scope. That is self-evident. I make no complaint about it, but we continually have brandished at us reports from organisations with, to put it bluntly, an interest in the issue. It can at least be examined thoroughly. Organisations which have been involved mainly in areas which are being taken out of scope will find that that work is no longer there, which will have an impact on some of them. However, they will still be free to bid for work which is within scope. We can go round that time and again.
I know that my noble friend is trying to get into his speech but, en route, important issues come up, and one has a duty to the Committee to continue with them. Does he not appreciate—I do not think that he can—first, that local authorities, because of their financial stringencies, have withdrawn grants to law centres and CABs all around the country and, secondly, that, if the centres can no longer do the work that is taken out of scope, many if not most of them will simply shut their doors and go away? The consequence of that, my noble friend will, I am sure, recognise.
Throughout the passage of this Bill, assertions are made about what is going to disappear and the nightmare of a country without CABs—to quote my noble friend. Unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, I cannot airily, as he did in his intervention, say, “£20 million? That is not enough. Perhaps we should put another nought on the end”.
Throughout the Bill, we have tried to restructure legal aid so as to deal with the most vulnerable in our society in a way which we think is fair. My noble friend Lord Phillips referred to the squeeze being put on CABs by local authorities. There have been squeezes on local authorities and on the Ministry of Justice. The country is having to readjust to a considerable degree to what is available for many good causes, and that is why this debate is reoccurring in Committee.
As I say, I recognise the general concern about the future of such funding. I hope I can reassure the House by making it clear that the Government value the services provided by the not-for-profit sector and are committed to ensuring that people continue to have access to good-quality free advice in their communities. That is why the Government have launched the advice services fund and a review of free advice services. The Government have set aside £20 million to support the not-for-profit sector. That is about the seventh time of announcement but, to provide clarity for the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, I say that it is still the same £20 million. This fund will provide immediate support for the not-for-profit advice service providers to deliver essential services in debt, welfare benefit, employment and housing advice. An announcement on the fund and review was made on 21 November by my honourable friend Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, in the other place.
It is important to recognise that legal aid is only one of several funding streams that not-for-profit organisations receive and that the future sustainability of the sector is a cross-government issue which this Bill cannot be expected to solve on its own. Accordingly, alongside the advice services fund, the Cabinet Office is conducting a review into local advice provision, looking at the funding environment for these services, likely levels of demand and how government can play a positive role. The Cabinet Office will work with other departments that either fund advice services or whose activities have an impact on advice services, such as my department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Treasury.
The House may also be reassured to know that both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are taking a keen interest in these reviews. Stakeholder events with representatives from the sector, to gain their input into the review, have already been held by the Cabinet Office. I urge the House to await the conclusions of that review, which is expected in the spring. My officials are working closely with colleagues across government to support this important work. I hope this will reassure the Committee that I and my colleagues in government are united in our efforts to support the not-for-profit sector while it adapts to difficult changes in the funding landscape. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
No—but you will be by the time I have finished.
In his reply my noble friend said that we must await the conclusions of the group that is looking into this matter, which has already taken advice, as I understand it, and carried out various consultation processes. I want to know when it is going to report. I have discovered that in government departments the spring can turn quickly into the summer. The Bill will be through this House by the middle of March and we would all be much happier if we were assured by that time that the future of the CABs, the law centres and so on is secured to give precisely the advice for which the grant was announced in November—for welfare, for employment and so on—as the noble Lord said.
I am anxious that the group should get a move on and that we should receive these reassurances so that we can be confident that the gap that will arise through the withdrawal of legal aid will, to a degree, be filled. I understand the position of the noble Lord, Lord Bach. He does not want anything to interfere with the general thrust that everything in social welfare law should go back under Part 1. Indeed, voices on my Benches have made exactly the same comments, including me. However, if that is not to happen we must be sure that there is a source of advice in these very important areas which will be available to the citizens of this country. At the moment, I ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 99 withdrawn.
99A: After Clause 11, insert the following new Clause—
“Report reviewing claims for clinical negligence
(1) In discharging his functions under section 1(4) above, the Lord Chancellor shall have regard to the report of a review under this section.
(2) The Lord Chancellor must, before the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, appoint an independent person to review generally claims for clinical negligence and means of improving the modes, procedures and outcomes relating to the same.
(3) The review must address, in particular,
(a) the accessibility, cost, effectiveness, openness, fairness, proportionality and speediness of such claims, and(b) any other matters the Lord Chancellor considers appropriate.(4) After the person appointed under subsection (2) has completed the review, he or she must compile a report of conclusions.
(5) As part of their conclusions the reviewer may propose such voluntary scheme or schemes as he or she shall see fit.
(6) In this section “claims” shall mean claims and complaints made by patients receiving services provided in the United Kingdom and commissioned in England in respect of a liability in tort or contract owed in respect of personal injury or loss arising in connection with breach of a duty of care owed to any person in connection with the diagnosis of illness, or in the care or treatment of any patient of an NHS body, a primary care or independent provider.
(7) The Lord Chancellor must lay before Parliament a copy of the report compiled under subsection (4).”
My Lords, this amendment is in my name and those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks. Both much regret that they cannot be here to join the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is a practising Queen’s Counsel who concentrates on work in the field of clinical negligence. The renown of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, needs no repetition.
Clinical negligence cases are perhaps as—or more—difficult and complex than any in the field of litigation. They tend to be extremely slow, expensive and to some extent unfair in the way that they unwind. The position under the Bill is that clinical negligence claims are taken out of scope, although the House will know that there is an amendment yet to be resolved which would keep the independent specialist or expert medical reports within scope. The importance of medical reports in clinical negligence claims cannot be exaggerated. Medical evidence is the vital linchpin around which such claims revolve. They establish whether there has been medical negligence and whether there is causation between the condition suffered by the would-be claimant and the event purportedly giving rise to it. Upon the expert medical report depends: first, whether a solicitor will take the case on a conditional fee agreement; secondly, the terms of the conditional fee agreement, because obviously if the solicitor does not like the sniff of the case he or she will maximise their benefit under the agreement; and, thirdly, the cost of insurance which is now almost an essential part of any clinical negligence claims because they are uniquely expensive. That, too, will depend of the expert report. Even with insurance, the cost implications of these claims are fearsome. Some may remember that in debates last week I referred to a case from south Wales referred to me by the NHS legal team there. A case taken under a CFA resulted in the claimant getting damages of £4,500 but the costs and expenses were over £98,000.
The point of this amendment is really to have a long, cool look at the whole of the clinical negligence scene to establish whether—and, if so, how—we might better conduct this vexatious class of claim. I will refer briefly to a 2003 report by the chief medical officer for England, the consultation document Making Amends, which drew particular attention to the slowness, complexity and cost of these claims. Sadly, I do not think that much has come of the Making Amends consultation.
In this field, the Welsh are streets are ahead of us. In 2002, the Welsh NHS report on alternative dispute resolution was produced. It led in 2005 to the setting up of a pilot project called the Speedy Resolution Scheme—again confined to clinical negligence claims. In 2006, the NHS Redress Act was past, which empowered the Welsh Assembly to set up its own redress regime. This was referred to—and still is—as “putting things right”, and was a root and branch review that led last year to the NHS Concerns, Complaints and Redress Arrangements Wales Regulations 2011, which is still in the process of unwinding. Another aspect of the regulations comes into effect in April. In between that, there were additional measures.
I mention this only to illustrate, in a way, just what a quagmire this area of legal claim is. The Welsh have grappled with it and the speedy resolution scheme is still running on. Swansea University has evaluated it and has a mixed report, with a good deal of compliments but a good deal of criticism as well. Those of us proposing the amendment thought that it would make a lot of sense to have a thoroughgoing independent review of all this so that the independent reviewer could come back to the Lord Chancellor and hence to Parliament with an assessment as to how,
“the accessibility, cost, effectiveness, openness, fairness, proportionality and speediness of”,
these clinical negligence claims may be improved. Then, of course, with the report in its hands, the Lord Chancellor, Parliament and the Department of Health would have the opportunity to draw on it and to produce something which might need legislation or might not. At any rate, we have taken a leaf out of the Charities Act 2006, which provides in Section 73 for a review. I have also incorporated into the amendment some of the wording of the Welsh legislation.
In brief, to finalise my remarks, I would like to think that my noble friend would welcome this initiative as potentially shedding a lot of badly needed expert light on a singularly vexed area of litigation, which could inure for the benefit of the NHS, of claimants and of everybody on this planet. I should just add that we have had discussions with AVMA, the specialist organisation that is involved with this type of claim. I beg to move.
My Lords, in principle I welcome the notion of a review and some of the provisions that are effected in the amendment clearly make sense. However, despite the most distinguished provenance of the amendment I am left in doubt as to some of the wording and/or implications of what is proposed.
To begin with, the only duty on the Lord Chancellor, apart from initiating the review, is to lay a report before Parliament. There is no obligation for him in any sense to implement the review or to make changes having regard to the review. One fears that such a report might meet the fate of the infamous Black report—or the famous Black report that was infamously treated—in 1980, which some Members of the Committee will recall was published just before a bank holiday and disappeared from view thereafter. In other words, all we are getting is a report.
Moreover, the report, although it talks about the procedures and costs of claims, apparently is not required to deal with the funding of such claims. It talks about the costs but does not direct the person appointed to carry out the review and to report or comment on funding mechanisms—as I read it. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, may put me right when he replies. It is quite sensible to have a provision that the reviewer may propose a,
“voluntary scheme or schemes as he or she shall see fit”,
but I am not quite clear what is meant by “voluntary scheme”. Is it a voluntary scheme of advice, or of conducting cases?
Subsection (6) defines “claims” as meaning,
“claims and complaints made by patients receiving services provided in the United Kingdom and commissioned in England”.
I am not quite sure what that means. Is it a reference to the Welsh situation? Does it mean that a clinical commissioning group, or indeed that a claimant of the nature of a private patient seeking treatment in a hospital in another part of the United Kingdom, would be subject to review in this report even though a claim might arise outside the jurisdiction of the English courts? It certainly is not clear to me quite what is intended, so although I certainly support the principle I am not sure that what is being sought here in detail quite meets the aspirations of those who drafted the amendment—let alone being sufficient to secure the support of the Minister. He will no doubt tell us what he thinks shortly.
If this matter is going to be pursued, it really needs some further thought and elaboration. If it is brought back at Report, it might be better to do so in a clearer form and, in particular, not to create a situation in which all that is produced at the end of it is a report which can be kicked into touch.
My Lords, I would hope to persuade the Opposition not even to support the principle of this amendment, which says:
“The Lord Chancellor must, before the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, appoint an independent person to review generally claims for clinical negligence and means of improving the modes, procedures and outcomes relating to the same”.
We would prefer to stick to the process established by the previous Government, which put in place post-legislative scrutiny of Acts of Parliament. The aim is to complement the Government’s internal departmental scrutiny with parliamentary scrutiny, principally by committees of the House of Commons, to provide a reality check on new laws after three to five years.
As set out in the Cabinet Office guidance, these reviews normally take place within three to five years of Royal Assent. The responsible department must submit a memorandum to its departmental Select Committee, which will then decide whether it wishes to conduct a fuller post-legislative inquiry into the Act. Of course, the House will be free to debate the committee’s findings should it choose to conduct a review into the Act. In addition to this post-legislative scrutiny, the impact assessment for the specific policies in the Bill is accompanied by a post-implementation review plan. It is intended to review each policy between three and five years after the implementation date.
Noble Lords may also be aware that the Government have conducted a public consultation this year on how lower value cases should be dealt with more efficiently in the county courts. We are working closely with the National Health Service Litigation Authority to consider whether a lower value scheme similar to that which is currently operating for low-value road traffic accident cases would work for lower value clinical negligence cases. At the same time, we are actively considering the Government’s response to the consultation and will publish the response in the near future. In the light of these remarks, I hope that my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
Before my noble friend sits down, could I be perfectly clear about what he said at the start of his response? Is he saying that there will be a formal review of clinical negligence in the course of reviewing the whole of this Act, as it will become?
Yes. I have been one of the strongest supporters of post-legislative scrutiny, and I am just putting it in place in terms of the Freedom of Information Act. The Justice Committee in another place has just taken from the Ministry of Justice a full assessment of how that Act has been working and will then take evidence. I would have thought it inconceivable that such post-legislative scrutiny would not examine the issues relating to clinical negligence.
I apologise to the Committee that I was not able to be here at the beginning of this debate. In the Minister’s view, does the legislation as drafted provide the flexibility to enable the Lord Chancellor to respond constructively and effectively to such findings as a review might produce at a suitable interval?
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I was going to say that I thanked the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for what he said—I sort of do. I will not play legal games with him at this time of night, but if this is brought back I will certainly read carefully the points that he made.
As for the Minister’s reply, my sense is that the review that I am calling for in Amendment 99A is far more particular and focused than any review that would come forth under the general review of this legislation, not least because clinical negligence has only a very limited part to play in it. Further, the Bill deals with the scope of clinical negligence in terms of legal aid, not with the detailed functioning of clinical negligence litigation. I would like to read what the Minister has said and perhaps have a conversation with him before Report in order to see whether there is any point in persisting with the nub of this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 99A withdrawn.
Clause 12 : Advice and assistance for individuals in custody
100: Clause 12, page 8, line 25, leave out from “premises” to end of line 14 on page 9
My Lords, this amendment addresses Clause 12, which considers the important issue of criminal legal aid in the context of advice and assistance for individuals in police custody. The clause raises the spectre that some time in the future legal aid in police stations could be subject to some form of means testing. In other words, what is now an unfettered right, applied with ease, efficiency and, above all, speed, would no longer be routinely available, and where it was it might be subject to some as yet undersigned bureaucratic process.
My Lords, if I may interrupt, this may ruin a few speeches but I think it will help if I say that the Government intend to table an amendment to Clause 12 on Report that will remove the power to introduce means testing for initial advice and assistance at the police station.
Can I be clear that the proposals that the Government are bringing forward—I have an amendment in the Marshalled List that is almost identical to this one—will cover all the worries that have been built into the amendments today, and that they are not a superficial way of getting out of the debate today?
I hesitate to interrupt my noble friend, but we are curtailing the debate and what he has said is very helpful. Can he assure the Committee that, in preparing an amendment, the Government have in mind the importance of the duty solicitor scheme and of there being a process of integrity in the police station, so that suspects do not choose to refuse to answer questions in interview because they are not properly represented? Can he also assure us that the Government will bear in mind the risks of evidence obtained in police stations being rejected by courts because of a failed and unfair procedure in those police stations? Those of us who started practice at the Bar would say to my noble friend that there were long periods in our early practice when we cross-examined police officers about what used to be called “verballing”. I am sure that my noble friend understands the expression. I hope that whatever amendment is introduced will ensure that we do not have to return to the bad old days before the enactment of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
The Committee will be relived to hear that I will not be making the speech that I intended to make. I absolutely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, has just said. I, too, started practising in those days. What happened, in effect, was that guilty men got off—that is the truth of the matter—because, after a while and some notorious cases, juries were not inclined to believe on the basis of confessions alone. The Conservative Government of the time deserve enormous credit for passing one of the greatest Acts of Parliament in criminal justice, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which has worked pretty well, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, was about to say before he was so rudely interrupted by the Minister.
How did the Minister know what I was going to say? He is quite right. I said this at Second Reading. I agree with everything that has been said. The Minister has given a clear indication that the Government will withdraw the proposal that there should be some future means-testing. In those circumstances, the Government’s response is appropriate. Let us see what the amendment will be and, if necessary, come back on Report if it does not meet our objections. I hope it will.
Of course I agree with that. The only phrase that worries me slightly is Clause 12(2):
“The Director must make a determination under this section having regard, in particular, to the interests of justice”.
I am not sure what that adds to what happens at present. That is the only point that I wanted to make. I thank the Minister for his attitude towards this clause.
Amendment 100 withdrawn.
Amendments 101 to 102 not moved.
Clause 12 agreed.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14 : Advice and assistance for criminal proceedings
103: Clause 14, page 10, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) individuals who are involved in investigations which may lead to a caution or warning,”
My Lords, this concerns a very simple point, or rather a short one—I am not entirely clear whether it is simple. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to this.
Clause 14 is headed “Advice and assistance for criminal proceedings”. Subsection (1) refers to regulations providing,
“that prescribed advice and assistance is to be available under this Part to an individual described in subsection (2) if … prescribed conditions are met, and … the Director has determined that the individual qualifies for such advice and assistance”.
That is fine. Subsection (2) sets out in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) three classes of individuals who will be entitled to this advice and assistance. My amendment would add a fourth class of,
“individuals who are involved in investigations which may lead to a caution or warning”,
as opposed to,
“individuals who are involved in investigations which may lead to criminal proceedings”.
I admit that it is a long time since I practised, but I understand that people who are cautioned are liable to have that caution recorded and for it to be on their record for a period of time. In those circumstances, would it be better for that class of person to be granted advice and assistance, as are the persons covered by paragraphs (a), (b) and (c)? I will not argue with the Government if there is a good reason for not including that class of person. I just want to hear why there is not a fourth class of person covering,
“individuals who are involved in investigations which may lead to a caution or warning”.
I beg to move.
My Lords, as the noble Lord has said, Amendment 103 would allow the Lord Chancellor to provide specifically for criminal legal aid under Clause 14 to be available for individuals who are involved in investigations that may lead to a caution or warning.
Clause 14 creates a power to make regulations that prescribe what advice and assistance must be made available to individuals in connection with criminal proceedings if prescribed conditions are met and the director has determined that a person qualifies for such advice and assistance in accordance with the regulations. This largely reflects the provisions in Section 13 of the Access to Justice Act 1999. Advice and assistance for criminal proceedings is distinct from criminal legal aid provided under Clause 12 for individuals in custody.
Under the Access to Justice Act 1999, the Legal Services Commission has the discretion to decide what advice and assistance it considers it is appropriate to fund. Under the Bill, this discretion rests with the Lord Chancellor. In making a decision, the Lord Chancellor will take account of any legal obligations including the requirements of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Both sets of provisions leave the criteria for making a determination to secondary legislation.
The proposed amendment would allow the Lord Chancellor to make provisions that legal aid may be available for individuals who are involved in investigations that may lead to a caution or warning. We believe that it is unnecessary to add the suggested amendment as provision could already be made under Clause 14(2)(a). If an individual is involved in an investigation that may lead to a caution or warning, that individual must be involved in an investigation that may lead to criminal proceedings. Cautions and warnings are used, where it is appropriate to do so, to divert certain offenders from the criminal justice system as an alternative to instigating criminal proceedings. For an individual in custody at a police station, or other premises, legal aid will be provided under Clause 12. I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 103 withdrawn.
Amendments 104 to 107 not moved.
Clause 14 agreed.
Clause 15 agreed.
Clause 16 : Qualifying for representation
108: Clause 16, page 12, line 20, leave out subsection (3)
My Lords, this amendment refers to Clause 16, which sets out the principles on which qualification for representation for legal aid can be determined. This is basically a probing amendment. Subsection (3) states:
“The Lord Chancellor may by order amend subsection (2) by adding or varying a factor”,
to or of the five factors set out in subsection (2). I apprehend that the Minister will confirm that such an order will be subject to the affirmative procedure. Given that the qualifications for representation for criminal legal aid are at stake, it is particularly important that that should be the procedure. If that is the case, the Opposition will be entirely satisfied and the amendment will be withdrawn.
My Lords, as the noble Lord said, the amendment would omit subsection (3) from Clause 16. This provides a power for the Lord Chancellor to use secondary legislation to add to or vary the list of factors in subsection (2). The Access to Justice Act also contains such a power at paragraph 5(3) of Schedule 3 to that Act. Any order made under Clause 16(3) would be subject to the affirmative procedure.
The factors in the interests of justice test broadly reflect the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, at Article 6(3)(c), provides expressly for a right for a person,
“to defend himself in person or through legal assistance of his own choosing or, if he has not sufficient means to pay for legal assistance, to be given it free when the interests of justice so require”.
We see no reason now to depart from the principle established in current primary legislation that it is appropriate to provide a power for the Lord Chancellor to use secondary legislation to add to or vary the list of factors in subsection (2). This allows for the flexibility to react to any developments in relation to factors relevant to the interests of justice requirement. As I have said and as the noble Lord asked, these would be subject to the affirmative procedure. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I am most obliged to the Minister for that assurance. For future reference, it might be helpful in these cases if it were to be made clear in the Bill that the affirmative procedure would be used. It would save a little time. However, we have not spent much time on this and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 108 withdrawn.
Clause 16 agreed.
Clauses 17 to 19 agreed.
Clause 20 : Financial resources
109: Clause 20, page 15, line 8, at end insert—
“( ) For the purposes of subsection (1), “financial resources” shall include all the realisable property of the individual subject to a restraint order under section 41 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (restraint orders) and subsections (4) and (5) of that section are hereby repealed.”
My Lords, when we were dealing with the previous amendment concerning the voir dire, as it used to be known, my mind went to happier days in Hong Kong, where the voir dire was brought to its artistic zenith. Voir dires could go on for six weeks or months. We have avoided all that in this country ever since. I was also reminded that in those days in Hong Kong to take legal aid was, as far as criminals were concerned, rather infra dig. Normally, they were funded from the resources that were available to them. That is the real purpose of the amendment.
Clause 20 is concerned with determinations about an individual’s financial resources. A determination that a person qualifies for legal services cannot be made unless it is thought that the individual is eligible for the services. All that I am concerned to do is add in to those financial resources all the realisable property of the individual. However, as happens these days in this country, the realisable property of the individual is frequently subject to an order of the court that freezes those assets where they are.
Consequently, we have what I regard to be an absurd situation whereby legal aid is granted to people of huge means because their assets are frozen. They can be unfrozen by an application to the court so that school fees can be paid. They can also be unfrozen for the purposes of civil cases but not of criminal cases. I was discussing this with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, yesterday, and she said, “I made orders all the time on applications in the Family Division for assets to be unfrozen so that legal fees could be repaid”. She was amazed to discover that that was impossible in criminal cases.
About 50 per cent of the criminal legal aid budget goes on 1 per cent of the cases, and it is in those 1 per cent where assets have been frozen. That is a great resource. As I understand it, the policy behind the refusal to permit those assets to be unfrozen is twofold. First, the Treasury thinks that it will get its hands on the assets at the end of the day, and therefore for them to be unfrozen to pay legal fees seems an unnecessary waste of what it will get in the end. Of course, it does not consider that it is funding the Ministry of Justice, which has to pay out the legal aid. My other thought is that that provides a route for the laundering of money by dishonest solicitors.
As to the first, the objection taken is quite unfounded. On the second issue, the question of—I have forgotten my train of thought for the moment.
Solicitors. It is perfectly possible for a solicitor to apply to the court, as happens in civil cases, with a cost schedule which indicates how much his costs will be and what reasonable rates he will charge, and for the judge to make an order to control the whole process to permit the release of funds to fund the criminal defence. To my mind, this is an area which the Government should seize on as reducing the burden of criminal legal aid. It is unlikely that all the assets of the individual will be recovered in an application under the Proceeds of Crime Act. Accordingly, the sooner that the Ministry of Justice gets its hands on the money—in the sense that it does not have to pay out legal aid—the better.
I hope that my noble friend will take the issue seriously and address my proposals. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall start by making a few comments about my professional experience and then look at the broader picture. In recent years, the bulk of the publicly funded work I have done at the Bar has been in very high-cost cases, as they are called—very large fraud cases. I have seen a procession of those cases in which substantial funds have been restrained and not used for the costs of the case. Confiscation proceedings have followed in those cases where there have been convictions. In some cases, they have been long drawn-out. The funds have rarely been confiscated in full.
In one case I can think of, the confiscation proceedings lasted two or three years and, in the end, the defendant was returned £30 million, I believe, because the wrong procedures had been used by the prosecution. In another case from my experience in recent years, a defendant who was later sentenced to nine and a half years’ imprisonment and made the subject of a confiscation order in excess of £130 million remained, throughout the period leading up to and during the trial and for a considerable time after—as far as his family was concerned—living in one of the finest apartments in central London, worth many millions of pounds. Nobody was able to lay a hand on any of it. By the time the confiscation proceedings were over, such a miasma of transactions existed that that substantial property was immune from any confiscation. There are current cases, about which colleagues have told me—and without referring to any of my own current cases—in which a similar picture may emerge. This is an issue on which the Bar Council, of which I am an elected member, as I said in an earlier sitting, has given a great deal of attention. I should say that on this subject at least it might be worth listening to the Bar Council. Senior members of the Bar act for the prosecution and defence in every one of these cases, bar a very few.
The intention of the Bar Council in proposing amendments, believe it or not, was to save legal aid funding and to create a situation in which people’s own money, subject, of course, to proper controls, was used to pay for their own defences. It would create a situation in which a defendant, who at present may be able to relax while public money is expended on abuse of process hearings, dismissal hearings, disclosure hearings, and all kinds of satellite proceedings, costing him nothing, may have to control the spending on his defence. It seems a very sound principle that the defendant who has resources should have some control over the spending on his or her defence.
Furthermore, restraint orders are on the increase, as the General Council of the Bar has pointed out to the Government. In 2009-10 the CPS made 1,549 restraint orders. That had increased to 1,641 by 2010-11. The estimated value of assets under restraint in 2010-11 was as much as £744 million, every penny of it being money available to be spent on criminal defence but not so spent. Any legal advice and representation in those cases is charged to the legal aid fund. These are cases which, on the latest available figures—from 2005—caused the expenditure of more than 50 per cent of Crown Court legal aid, although the cases amounted to only 1 per cent of the cases. The average cost per case for those cases in 2003-04 was £2.6 million, with the average trial lasting 67 working days. These are very big cases, which are being unnecessarily funded from public funds.
A defendant accused of serious fraud may, for example, have £1 million on deposit in a bank account, frozen under a restraint order. An order may be made for the funds to be unfrozen to pay his children’s private school fees. I was involved in a case recently in which exactly that happened. The defendant was unable to fund his own defence but he was able to fund his son’s school fees at one of the best public schools. My noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford has contrasted the criminal situation with the civil courts. He described the reaction of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, to what he had told her and she certainly represented the civil court position correctly.
The Government’s response to the Bar Council’s proposal, and that of some of your Lordships, has been to argue, at least so far, that the sums restrained need to be preserved in the hope that, at some point further down the line, a confiscation order may be obtained on conviction. In November 2011 several national newspapers ran stories on revelations that at the end of March 2011, the sum of money outstanding in purported confiscation orders was £1.26—wait for it—billion. That made the front page of the Sun. I suggest to my noble friend that the hope that some money might be recovered is no substitute for meeting the up-front costs of the defence via the legal aid bill.
When confiscation orders are made, they are not used to fund legal aid but are channelled to other government departments; they go into the general Exchequer pot. This does not reflect the strain placed on the legal aid budget by high-cost fraud cases. Therefore, this seems to be—if I may be forgiven a vernacular phrase—a complete no-brainer. It is a way of saving the legal aid fund—to use another such phrase—shedloads of money. I say to my noble friend: let us wake up and do it.
My Lords, I must say, having heard those two speeches, that I would not want to be the Minister tonight. Having heard what was said and having read about this from the Bar Council and the Law Society, which both put in effective papers, I will say at once that I regret that in my time as Minister we did not spot this, because there is no question that we should have acted on it. The noble Lord can make as much fun of me as he likes, but it is no answer to the points that have been made. There are times during the passage of Bills when a Government behave totally irrationally. I speak from experience. There are all kinds of examples—not that many in my case, but some. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally—
That is absolutely right. I am just asking the Minister not to make a mistake on this issue; he should learn from my experience. Perhaps things were not quite as bad as I made out, but we should have spotted this as it shines out. It is not as though very high-cost cases did not come across my desk; my goodness, they did all the time.
The Minister will know that the majority of legal aid is spent on criminal cases. Over the years—although it shifted a bit as we made an effort at least to maintain what was spent on certain types of civil legal aid—the balance has been wrong. Criminal legal aid has taken more than 50 per cent of the budget and civil legal aid has been allowed to decline over a number of years. However, enough is enough as far as that is concerned. I point out to the Minister that the amount of social welfare law that has been taken out of the scope of legal aid equates to around £60 million. I do not need to repeat the figures that were mentioned by both noble Lords who spoke in this debate. The £60 million is dwarfed by the amount that it would be possible for the Government to get if they made wealthy defendants pay their legal fees.
When faced with an obstacle such as this, Governments sometimes become totally irrational and stick to their line, which can be completely hopeless and can sometimes not make sense at all. Common sense loses out completely. “No-brainer” is exactly the right word. The Government are faced with having to find money; there is a lot of heartfelt opposition to the idea that social welfare law, for example, should be taken out of scope; and there is a great deal of doubt about whether doing so will save any money at all—which in my view is the clinching argument. Here is a chance for the Government to take advantage of a sensible step. They have the power to do it and will have our support if they do. I very much hope that the noble Lord will at least consider carefully the very powerful representations made tonight in Committee.
My Lords, at this late hour this debate is taking on a confessional nature. There has also been a little bit of topsy-turvy. For a time, I was just sitting back while the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and his colleagues were rubbishing the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Thomas and his colleagues, and now I am going to defend the activities of the previous Government.
As has been explained, the amendment is intended to allow the restrained assets of those accused of criminal offences to be taken into account when granting legal aid and to allow legal expenses to be paid from a defendant’s restrained assets. Before the next debate, I must check on the noble Lord’s distinguished career in government as I am not sure whether he was responsible for the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Was it on his watch?
Nevertheless, the previous Government passed the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which prevents restrained funds being released to a defendant for legal expenses in relation to the offences to which the restraint order relates. The Committee will be aware that assets recovered from the proceeds of crime are already applied to offset the overall costs to the public purse, although I note the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, about the success of confiscation orders. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, will know that when he put this idea to me, it seemed very attractive with a little Robin Hood stuff about it. However, the reason that the previous Government took action through the Proceeds of Crime Act was that in their judgment there was a risk that individuals might recklessly dissipate assets through lavish spending on their defence in order to try to secure an acquittal at any cost. In 2002, the then Government decided that it was better to allow access to legal aid than to allow an individual to draw down restrained funds to pay for their defence. Restrained assets in these cases are suspected to be the proceeds of crime. They are not therefore legitimate money, and they should not be used to fund the costs of a person’s defence lawyers. First and foremost, the victims of crime ought to be compensated for their loss.
Before my noble friend goes down this course, which is an accusation that defence lawyers are simply going to charge what they like and take as much as they want, will he read his own clause? Nobody is saying that defence lawyers should be able to say, “Okay, I’ll take £1,000 an hour for representing you”. It is all subject to regulation and to the kind of limitations that currently apply through the LSC. What the Minister is saying at the moment simply does not recognise what the amendment provides. Will he please answer the amendment?
My Lords, I was the shadow Minister on the Proceeds of Crime Bill. I have rather a good memory, and I can say that the Minister is absolutely accurate in his comments about why the Government chose not to use the Proceeds of Crime Act as an opportunity for dealing with this issue.
It is very good to have the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, joining the debate, but if that was the best defence that the previous Government could put up for that, it was really not satisfactory. I remind the Minister that that argument has been described as,
“fallacious, and easily remedied by the simple implementation of a cap on defence fees, careful supervision by the court and/or an assessment by the court taxing officers, who are familiar with assessing what constitutes ‘reasonable’ costs in such cases”.
If that was the argument put forward by my Government at that time, I say here and now that it was a fallacious argument and not one that the present Government should fall into the trap of adopting.
As I said, we are in confessional mood tonight. The Government are currently considering a related proposition under which the value of restrained assets might be taken into consideration in the Crown Court means test. Until that proposition has been considered fully, we believe it premature to suggest an amendment to the Proceeds of Crime Act.
This has been an interesting debate. We have heard what the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said in apology for previous omissions by his own Government. As I say, we are looking at the value of restrained assets in the Crown Court, but at the moment we believe it premature to suggest an amendment to the Proceeds of Crime Act and I therefore ask my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
The problem is that my noble friend the Minister has not explained why people are allowed recklessly to dissipate criminal assets in civil cases. Why do you have one rule for civil cases, when you can use what are described as criminal assets although they are not necessarily so, and another rule in criminal cases? What is happening at the moment is that defendants are recklessly dissipating legal aid. That is the point and that is why legal aid is so high in criminal cases—it is being recklessly dissipated. My noble friend Lord Carlile explained how it can be done: you can have application after application; you can have little trials within trials; you can have satellite litigation; and the case can run on and on for months.
In the old Stafford Assize Court, which possibly the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has visited—
Good. I have appeared there on a number of occasions too—not against the noble Lord, Lord Bach, I have to say. There is a plaque on the wall that commemorated what was then the longest jury trial in Britain. It was 23 days and they put a plaque up because it had lasted so long. Now 23 days is peanuts as far as any serious case is concerned. They go on for months and months: application after application; disclosure of this, disclosure of that, and so on; recklessly dissipating legal aid funding that could be available for social welfare law or for all the other things that have been excluded—
In his closing remarks, perhaps my noble friend would like to reflect upon what the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said. In the last group of amendments there was some discussion of post-legislative scrutiny. It is now something like nine years since the Proceeds of Crime Act was passed and I am not aware of any post-legislative scrutiny on this issue. Might this not be the occasion for some creative post-legislative scrutiny?
I should hate to say who should be there in sackcloth and ashes, but clearly things went wrong and the reasons that were given by the Government of the day proved to be without foundation. The situation is simply a disgrace. The quicker the Government move to carry out this review that they are having in the Crown Court, the better.
I shall withdraw this amendment, but I can assure my noble friend the Minister that I shall be pounding on his door about it while this Bill is going through and, if nothing happens, thereafter.
Amendment 109 withdrawn.
110: Clause 20, page 15, line 24, leave out “, by telephone or by other prescribed means”
My Lords, this is one of four amendments with which I hope to deal in pretty short order. It relates to the provisions in Clause 20 and the determination of financial resources for legal aid. Clause 20(6) provides for,
“determinations to be made and withdrawn in writing, by telephone or by other prescribed means”.
That is not very satisfactory because it does not leave a sufficient audit trail. In any event, verbal communication, and possibly online communication, may not be suitable in all cases given the variable capacity of people to manage telephonic or online communication. In particular, if an appeal is made to the magistrates’ court subsequent to a determination, it is necessary to have that audit trail. Hence, the amendment proposes that the communication should be in writing and not by telephonic or other electronic means. I beg to move.
My Lords, concerns about the proposal to establish the community legal advice helpline as the mandatory single telephone gateway in four proposed areas of law were the subject of considerable debate in Committee on 20 December. Given that, and for the purpose of today’s debate, I will therefore address solely the specifics of this amendment as they relate to Clause 20.
Amendment 110 relates to the method by which determinations about financial eligibility for legal aid are made and withdrawn. It would require all determinations about financial eligibility to be made or withdrawn in writing to the person making the legal aid application. It would therefore stop determinations about financial eligibility being made or withdrawn by telephone, or by other prescribed means, thus of course affecting the proposed mandatory single telephone gateway. However, this amendment would go much further than just affecting the gateway. It would seriously affect the financial and operational viability of the provision of legal aid advice by telephone altogether.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, described existing telephone advice provision as “excellent” and,
“a fantastic channel for delivering advice”.—[Official Report, 20/12/11; col. 1759.]
This excellent service is provided through the community legal advice helpline. Currently included in this service is the making and withdrawing of determinations about financial eligibility by telephone.
Determinations about financial eligibility are currently made immediately upon receipt of a call by the community legal advice helpline. No suggestion has been made that the system has not operated effectively and efficiently. This would add considerable time, cost and complexity to the provision of civil legal aid services by telephone. It could delay in particular callers who are not financially eligible for legal aid but are provided with alternative sources of assistance. It could also delay those who are eligible for legal aid help receiving it, as staff and resources would be involved in completing and sending out notifications about eligibility.
Determinations are made after asking precisely the same questions of all callers as face-to-face legal aid providers would ask. Where a person is eligible, they will usually start to receive help on the same day. They do not have to wait perhaps a few days or more for an appointment before their eligibility can be assessed or before they can start to receive help to address their problem, as a person walking into a face-to-face provider’s office may have to do.
In addition, Clause 11(3)(h) means that individuals will have the reasons for the making of a determination explained to them. It will, however, not necessarily be in writing. The assessment of financial eligibility through the community legal advice helpline also filters out those who are not financially eligible for civil legal aid. This assists those individuals by allowing them to receive information about suitable alternative sources of assistance immediately after that assessment is made, enabling them to begin to take alternative action to address their problem promptly and with the minimum of delay.
The current community legal advice helpline is a well used route to access civil legal advice. It offers a high-quality service and works well—the noble Lord’s description of it as excellent is testament to that. The Government understand the concerns behind Amendment 110, but restricting or preventing the operation of the community legal advice helpline will not help those who are in most need to obtain legal aid advice services to help them resolve their problem. This amendment is not in their best interests and I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
My Lords, the Minister said that he would address the narrow parts of this amendment because of the debate that took place before Christmas on some of the broader issues. Before we move on, can he tell the Committee whether the Government have given further consideration to some of the aspects that were exercised at that time, particularly with regard to the need to make sure that disabled people do not miss out in this process?
The answer I gave in our December debate was that we are looking at the points raised. We are in contact with representatives of disabled groups to ensure that the facilities that are available through the helpline will enable all aspects of disability to be dealt with in an effective way. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord.
My Lords, I regret to say that I do not find the Minister’s answer satisfactory. It is true that many people find the telephone advice line to be perfectly acceptable, but others do not. Telephone advice lines are not the best option for delivering advice to older people, those with language difficulties or those who do not understand English very well. However, this is not about advice; it is about the determination of financial eligibility, and there may be cause for people to appeal against decisions. It is difficult to do that on the basis of a telephonic communication. That is all this amendment requires. Although I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, I cannot say that the Minister has satisfied us about the difficulties which we envisage the proposal will create. It might be something that we have to return to.
Amendment 110 withdrawn.
Clause 20 agreed.
Clause 21 : Information about financial resources
111: Clause 21, page 17, line 15, after “individual” insert “or person”
My Lords, we return again to affluent criminals in a slightly different context. This amendment refers to the definition of an individual about whom information is requested for the purposes of a determination about that individual’s financial resources. The Bill defines such an individual as an “individual”, which is helpful, and goes on to say,
“and any other individual whose financial resources are or may be relevant for the purposes of the determination”.
The problem is that this may not cover, for example, a limited company or possibly a trust effectively controlled by the individual whose financial circumstances are being investigated. The purpose of the amendment therefore is to extend the definition to ensure that any connected companies or trusts are included in the assessment. It may be that the noble Lord will want to take a further look at this, but we are seeking to ensure in a different context the kind of approach advocated by the noble Lords, Lord Carlile and Lord Thomas, in respect of cases—in admittedly slightly different circumstances—where there are means which ought to be brought into account. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 111 relates to Clause 21, which provides a gateway for the disclosure of certain information to the “relevant authority”, defined as the director of legal aid casework or other person prescribed by the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the equivalent Northern Ireland department. The information can only be requested by the relevant authority for the purpose of facilitating a determination about the individual’s financial resources for legal aid; that is, for the purpose of finding out whether they are financially eligible for legal aid. The categories of information that may be requested are listed in subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 21. Those categories refer to types of information in relation to a relevant individual. A “relevant individual” is defined in Clause 21(8) as meaning the individual seeking legal aid and any other individual whose financial resources are or may be relevant for the purposes of determining financial eligibility for legal aid.
We intend as at present to continue to require those applying for legal aid to disclose any company directorships, positions or shareholdings in companies and to provide detailed information about such companies. More generally, applicants are required to disclose whether they receive any support from a third party, including an individual company or trust. Funding may be refused if this information is not supplied. In relation to companies, it is also possible to conduct an additional search through Companies House. There are indeed circumstances in which such information may be relevant. The Bill includes at Clause 24 a power that will enable the Lord Chancellor by regulation to require or permit the resources of a person other than the client to be treated as the resources of the client. That is currently done under the existing financial regulations.
Regulation 11 allows the resources of a person who is, has been or is likely to be substantially maintaining the client to be treated as the resources of the client. Regulation 11 also allows the resources of another person that have been or are likely to be made available to the client to be treated as the resources of the client. Regulation 12 provides a power to take into account resources that the client has either transferred to another person, deprived themselves of, or converted into resources that would be disregarded for the purpose of reducing their resources. For the purposes of those regulations, “another person” can mean a company, partnership, body of trustees and any body of persons corporate or not corporate. The effect is to prevent applicants for legal aid avoiding a full assessment of their resources by, for example, transferring them into the name of a company.
I return to Clause 21. The information listed in subsections (3) and (4) is about individuals because it is basic information such as date of birth, national insurance number and employment status, which can be related only to an individual. However, the information listed in subsection (4), which can be requested from HMRC, includes information about whether a relevant individual is carrying on a business, trade or profession, as well as further information—for example, the name of the business and its address.
As I have said, those applying for legal aid will continue to be required to disclose any company directorships, positions or shareholdings in companies and to provide detailed information about any such company. It is therefore inappropriate and unnecessary to extend the definition of “relevant individual” to include companies and other legal persons. I hope that, with that explanation, the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 111 withdrawn.
Clause 21 agreed.
Clause 22 : Payment for services
112: Clause 22, page 17, line 31, leave out subsection (3)
My Lords, the Bill provides for regulations to enable the Lord Chancellor to require a person who qualifies for legal aid to pay an amount exceeding the costs of the civil legal aid services provided. I confess to bewilderment, frankly, at the notion that, in these circumstances, a legally aided person should be obliged to pay an amount greater than the cost of the services—it is almost turning that aspect of legal aid into a profit-making concern. There is no rationale in the Bill for why that should be the case. Litigants do not ordinarily pay more than the assessed costs of a case unless they have incurred some kind of penalty in so doing. The only analogy, when we come to Part 2 of the Bill, is of a success fee having to be paid, effectively, by a litigant. However, in this clause it is not limited to a successful litigant; it simply allows for a prescribed amount in excess of the assessed costs of the civil legal aid services. I simply do not understand whence this derives.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has tabled an amendment which questions the principle and provides for an element of discretion in these matters. However, the Minister has to explain, with respect, why it is that recipients of legal aid should be expected to pay more than the costs that they have incurred. I beg to move.
I thought there was a printer’s error here: that is why I inserted “not”. It is not a matter of principle; I could not imagine that the Government would require someone’s contribution to exceed the costs and put money into the hands of the Lord Chancellor. I do not see any reason for that and I await the explanation with interest.
This had better be good. Amendments 112 and 113 would prevent anyone in receipt of civil legal aid being required to pay an amount for that legal aid which exceeds the amount of the legal aid itself. We intend to use the powers in subsection (3) to establish a supplementary legal aid scheme which will provide an additional source of funding to supplement the legal aid fund. As indicated in our response to the consultation on legal aid reform, under this scheme 25 per cent of damages obtained by successful legal-aided parties, other than damages for future care and loss, will be recovered by the legal aid fund. The supplementary legal aid scheme will apply to successful damages cases where the successful party is legal aided, including any out-of-scope cases which are funded through the exceptional funding scheme.
The provision at subsection (3) is not new. There is already an equivalent provision in Section 10(2)(c) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which allows for the establishment of a supplementary legal aid scheme whereby a legal-aided person makes a payment exceeding the cost of the services received. The power has not been exercised to date but, as we have made clear, we intend to do so in the future, so it is important that the Bill retains the provision to enable this.
At a time when the public purse is constrained, the funds recouped by the supplementary legal aid scheme will help to put legal aid on a sustainable footing and therefore help support the funding of civil legal aid cases. Besides creating a valuable additional source of funding for legal aid, in setting up the supplementary legal aid scheme we are addressing the interrelationship between legal aid and the proposal for reform to the cost of civil litigation put forward by Lord Justice Jackson and reflected in Part 2.
We want to ensure that, so far as it is possible to do so, the recovery level of damages by the supplementary legal aid scheme is consistent with the Jackson reforms to ensure that conditional fee agreements are no less attractive than legal aid. We have therefore selected a recovery level of 25 per cent of all damages, other than those for future care and loss. This mirrors the maximum level of damages that a solicitor will be able to claim from a successful client under a conditional fee agreement in a personal injury case. Under the Jackson proposals, there will also be an increase of 10 per cent in non-pecuniary general damages such as damages for pain and suffering and loss of amenity in tort cases for all claimants. This will help claimants to pay their CFA success fee or supplementary legal aid scheme contribution.
With that explanation, I hope the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
I will read what my noble friend said with great care. For 12 years, this power that he said was in the 1999 Act—introduced by a previous Government but never mind—was never used. My mind immediately flicked back to a case that I once had. I use legal language that lawyers will understand: I once had a case in which a young girl lost the skin from her leg in a motorcycle accident. All the skin was stripped off. Now the Government want her to pay for somebody else. She presumably gets general damages of £30,000. The Government would take a fair portion of that because she had the temerity to apply for whatever it is—legal aid. They then want to keep the extra for somebody else. That seems quite wrong in principle. I am not surprised that it is in the 1999 Act, though with the coalition Government in power I would expect an entirely different approach.
The Minister expects us to be grateful for this activation of a pretty redundant provision. I cannot say that we are and clearly the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is not either. Of course, the noble Lord’s example would no longer apply because civil legal aid would not be available for the personal injury case to which he referred, but it would occur in other cases. In one of these exceptional cases or if, for example, there is a move on clinical negligence, a huge slice of not only general damages but also—as I understand the Minister—special damages accrued to the date of the hearing might be taken. In a clinical negligence claim, that is potentially a very substantial sum. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is absolutely right. Successful claimants are being asked here to substantially help underwrite the costs of the system. That is not something that successful claimants should be asked to do.
We will revert to this when we come to Part 2. It seems that the burden has shifted from losing parties, and in particular losing defendants, to successful defendants. The Minister refers to the fact as if it were common knowledge that this would be moved. Maybe I have missed something—and so has the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. Neither of us seems able to recall this proposal being ventilated in debates—not in this House or Committee, or generally as part of this process. I am certainly not happy with this. We may well revert to it on Report. If it activates a provision that was laid down in 1999, it should not be done. As my noble friend will confirm, I was critical from time to time of the previous Government’s policy, particularly in relation to criminal justice and criminal legal aid. Had I known about this aspect, I might have been critical at an earlier date—presumably with no effect, either. This is not something we can let pass.
If this provision is activated, as the Minister told us that the Government intend it should be, would the likely effect be that damages awards were increased by the courts to ensure that claimants got appropriate damages and at the same time, unfortunately, to underwrite the requirement that part of the proceeds of damages should go to boost the funds of the Ministry of Justice?
Increasing general damages by 10 per cent does not compensate for the deduction of 25 per cent. It does not touch the matter of special damages other than the future loss, to which the Minister referred. The 10 per cent is pretty much a gesture in terms of the likely impact on clients. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment but we will certainly want to look at this again.
Amendment 112 withdrawn.
Amendment 113 not moved.
Amendment 113A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Clause 22 agreed.
Clause 23 agreed.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 24 : Charges on property in connection with civil legal services
113B: Clause 24, page 19, line 18, leave out paragraph (b)
My Lords, we are now at the end of Part 2—sorry, I mean Part 1. The Chief Whip was ecstatic at the thought that we might have reached the end of Part 2. As I am leading for the Opposition on Part 2, I would be ecstatic as well, but we are not there yet, and the House may not be so ecstatic when they hear me during our debate on Part 2.
This is another potential sting in the tail of Part 1, given that it looks to be another device to extract from beneficiaries of legal aid—or, more particularly, their advisers—money to help fund the general system. Of course, the practice of having a statutory charge on the assets recovered is long-standing and has been particularly relevant in matrimonial cases. It has been well understood that money was devoted to the cost to the legal aid fund incurred as part of the action. We are now apparently faced, in addition to the charge on property recovered, with a charge on costs paid by the other side in such a case. In reality, given that legal aid rates are significantly lower than the rates of inter partes costs, the defendant’s or unsuccessful litigant’s costs, the inter partes costs in effect help to subsidise the legal aid costs. There seems no logical reason to attach those costs—and it might well have a significant impact on providers, who in the swings and roundabouts that we will debate at some length when we discuss conditional fees under Part 2 actually help to subsidise the work.
Moreover, I understand that there has been no consultation about this aspect, which is a matter of some considerable concern. I do not know whether the Government have assessed the impact on the supply of legal aid providers—maybe they have. The suggestion from some in the profession is certainly that it would have a significant impact on the provision of legal services. I have heard today in a different or earlier context of a significant legal aid practice in the north-east that is seeking to drop a couple of its contracts because it is having to subsidise it from the rest of its work, and the practice cannot cope with that. This kind of provision will make that even more likely.
The noble Lord has referred to the fact that there could be some reduction in the number of suppliers who are available, and some may be withdrawing from this field. Does he have any indication of whether that is likely to be a blanket withdrawal or whether some sectors could be particularly badly hit by that, and that therefore those with cases dependent on those sectors might find themselves in a very difficult position?
My Lords, I am not in a position to say and I fear—perhaps I am wrong—that the Government are not in a position to say either, which is part of the point. There does not seem to have been a consultation. There may or may not have been an assessment of the impact, but there certainly ought to be. As I say, this provision has come out of left field, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, on an earlier point. It really ought not to be progressed until there is a proper assessment of its impact, in consultation with the profession.
In any event, it seems there is something of an issue of principle as to whether the statutory charge should apply not just to the property secured by legal aid but to costs paid by the opposite party, as a contribution towards the total costs incurred on behalf of a claimant. That seems to be a novel principle and one which, as I say, came out of the blue and certainly needs justification. On the face of it, it is difficult to see what the justification would be. I beg to move.
My Lords, I hope to end the evening on a reassuring note. We recognise that by virtue of the specific reference to costs, the language of Clause 24(1) is different from that in the equivalent provision at Section 10(7) of the Access to Justice Act 1999. However, we consider that costs are capable of falling within the existing provision on the statutory charge as,
“property recovered or preserved by”,
a legally aided person. In any event, I reassure noble Lords that Clause 24 does not represent a change of policy and will not result in any change to current practice.
The provisions in Clause 24 reflect existing practice by protecting the interests of the Legal Aid Fund in the same way that those interests are currently protected by the provisions of the Community Legal Service (Costs) Regulations 2000. For example, the provision in those regulations regarding payment of money due to a legally aided person relate to all such money, including any costs awarded. We therefore have no intention of altering the existing position that operates in cases where interparty cost orders are made and a claim is made against the Legal Aid Fund by a supplier. The current position in such cases will remain exactly the same when we implement the relevant provisions of this Bill.
Indeed, we recognise that market rate costs payments where interparty costs are ordered represent an important source of income for legal aid providers, and nothing in the Bill is intended to interfere with the present position in respect of such payments. Specifically, legal-aid-only costs will continue to be payable to providers where a supplier recovers interparty costs, to the same extent as at present. So the existing position, including in partial cost order cases, will remain. I also confirm that, in the specific context of interparty costs, we intend to exercise the power in Clause 24 of the Bill so that it is clear that legal-aid-only costs, including in partial cost order cases, remain payable to suppliers. This will make the position clearer than it is at present, given that the entitlement to payment for legal-aid-only costs currently appears only in the LSC contract. I hope that with those assurances, the noble Lord will withdraw this amendment.
My Lords, that certainly sounds extremely reassuring. I will read what the Minister has said with some care—not that I doubt him, of course—because on the face of it, if the clause does not change the previous legislation, I am not quite sure why we have it at all. However, accepting his assurances and good will, and in a spirit of relief at 10.45 pm, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 113B withdrawn.
Clause 24 agreed.
Clause 25 agreed.
Clause 26 : Choice of provider of services etc
Amendments 114 to 117 not moved.
Clause 26 agreed.
Clauses 27 to 30 agreed.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Clauses 31 to 37 agreed.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clause 38 agreed.
Schedule 5 agreed.
Clause 39 agreed.
Schedule 6 agreed.
Clauses 40 to 42 agreed.
House adjourned at 10.46 pm.