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Legal Aid

Volume 745: debated on Monday 3 June 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to the impact of cuts in legal aid on access to justice.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I declare an interest as a regulator of the Bar, but not its representative.

My Lords, these matters were assessed as part of the impact assessments which were published alongside the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and our current consultation on further reforms to legal aid, Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a More Credible and Efficient System.

Does the Minister acknowledge that it is widely regarded that the Ministry’s own impact assessment on that consultation paper does not adequately address the threat to the vulnerable and to minorities? Has he calculated the extra costs to the justice system of the longer trials and appeals which will inevitably result from inadequate representation, inexperienced advocates and self-representing litigants? Does he agree that the delays and miscarriages of justice that are likely to result will more than swallow up all the estimated savings?

No, my Lords. The noble Baroness puts forward a worst-case scenario in almost every aspect—one which I do not recognise.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the findings of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice at Warwick University that cuts to legal aid are likely to fall disproportionately on already disadvantaged groups, such as those in rural areas, children, those with disabilities and those who are otherwise already vulnerable or marginalised? What assurances can Her Majesty’s Government give that there will be a level playing field of legal aid availability?

My Lords, when I first answered Questions on legal aid more than three years ago, the first point I made was that legal aid was a system devised to help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. It follows that if you cut legal aid, those are the sections of society that are likely to be affected. Economic circumstances have forced cuts on my department and we are trying to make the reforms to legal aid as focused and effective as possible, while still protecting the vulnerable in our society.

My Lords, I declare an interest as someone regulated by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Does the Minister share the widespread concern that the Government’s proposal to introduce competitive tendering for criminal legal aid services will remove choice for the consumer, remove the incentive for the provider to maintain quality and inevitably result in the destruction of hundreds of small to medium-sized solicitors businesses up and down the country?

My Lords, I am greatly reassured that somebody is regulating the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. Again, in response to this consultation, we have heard various parts of the legal profession harping on about the worst-case scenario, which we simply do not accept. We are in consultation and have put forward proposals about legal aid contracts. However, the legal professions are facing a number of changes, irrespective of what we are proposing on legal aid—a point I have made before from the Dispatch Box—and they will have to adjust to the new circumstances if they are going to survive. We are consulting with the Law Society and Bar Council, and with other bodies and individuals. We are listening and we hope to get a solution that will reflect what the Government can afford to pay on legal aid at the moment but that will also leave us with the protections for our legal aid system that many of us have taken pride in.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House what the rise in the cost of legal aid has actually been in this country? Is it not inevitable, if we have to find savings in the public sector, that legal aid should find savings like anywhere else?

That is no more than the blunt truth. In 2010, when we came in, a spending review took place that asked for 23% cuts across the board in my department, which at the time was spending £10 billion a year on prisons, the probation service, legal aid, courts services and staff. All five of those have had to take the burden and brunt of the cuts. It is very difficult to make decisions at this time, but we have consulted and listened and are continuing to do so to try to make sure that we end up with a legal profession able to help the most vulnerable in our society through the legal aid fund.

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is aware of the widespread view expressed during the consultation on criminal legal aid that competitive tendering on price will prove unworkable and that the proposed changes are being introduced too fast and with too little preparation. In the light of the consultation, will his department consider introducing the changes more gradually and trialling or piloting them before their more general introduction? I declare a similar interest to that declared by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

My Lords, it is about 10 years since the Carter report had a look at this matter. It is more than three years since the previous Labour Government made cuts to criminal legal aid. The Labour Party, in its 2010 manifesto, was the only party to say that it would look for further cuts in legal aid. In that time there have been changes—alternative business structures and other changes—to the legal profession, yet we are still told that this has come as a surprise. Instead of asking for more time and putting forward arguments that are mainly scare stories, it would be good if the legal profession responded to this consultation with a productive dialogue that could put legal aid on a sustainable and lasting footing.

Will the Minister assist the House by indicating the steps he is proposing to take, or has taken, in order to monitor the impact of the changes that are being made?

Of course we continuously monitor this. Some of these proposals are consultations; they are not in place at the moment. We are suggesting that the legal profession keeps in close contact with us, and also that barristers and solicitors start thinking about how best to organise themselves to function in circumstances in which money may be a little tighter than it once was. These are circumstances that many other professions and many other areas of our society have to face.