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Legal Aid

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 26 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, as a result of their plans to reform legal aid, defendants will be able to choose their own lawyer; and, if not, why not.

My Lords, the reasoning behind the proposed changes is that they will ensure that contract holders have enough certainty about work volumes so that efficiencies and economies of scale are achievable. However, we are carefully considering the consultation responses to this proposal.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer and confess to being somewhat—a little—encouraged by it. The choice of lawyer is an essential part of our criminal justice system, as of course is the presumption of innocence. Does the Minister agree with his right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor’s justification of the proposal to abolish choice of lawyer, given in a recent interview in the Law Society Gazette? That seemed to be based on the absurd principle of “too thick to pick”. Or, does he agree with his right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of his own party, who is quoted as saying last weekend that it would be “perverse” to go ahead with this proposal? He cannot agree with both. What is the Government’s position?

The Government’s position is that we put forward a model for competition, as proposed in our transformed legal aid consultation. That said that the client would generally have no choice in the provider allocated to them but that, in exceptional circumstances, a client might be permitted to change their provider. We put that matter out for consultation. As I indicated in my Answer, we are now considering the responses to the consultation and will come forward with further proposals.

My Lords, does the noble Lord remember a letter that appeared in the Telegraph about a month ago signed by some 70 or more QCs? It said that the denial of choice in representation would lead to what they called a rapid and probably irreversible deterioration in the standards of representation. Does he accept that analysis? If so, is he happy with those consequences?

No, my Lords. When one gets into one of these processes, those kinds of letters are sent to various distinguished newspapers and of course we take note of them. We are doing two things. We have never hidden the fact that part of what we are doing is because of financial constraints. The legal aid budget has to take its share of the burden of our spending cuts but we are trying to do that in a way that retains the fundamental access to justice. We have consulted very thoroughly. We have had some 16,000 responses, which we are working through. We will try to come back with constructive proposals, so long as the legal profession recognises that we have to make the savings that are necessary for the taxpayer.

My Lords, it was a Labour Question to begin with. If the responses to the consultation demonstrate that there are savings to be made in other areas, particularly in the resource-hungry high-cost criminal cases, will my noble friend’s department use those savings to mitigate the harshness of the legal aid cuts in other areas where the effect of the proposed cuts is most serious?

We are certainly looking across the piece and making decisions. Our current thinking is not to compete crown court advocacy and very high-cost crime cases. We have made separate proposals to reduce fees in this area, which are set out in the consultation. However, my noble friend is right. Under the current system, the most expensive single criminal legal aid case in 2010-12 cost the taxpayer £8.5 million. Under our present system, this would reduce to £6 million. The total cost to the taxpayer of just the top three cases in 2011-12 was £21 million.

My Lords, I understand that the Minister is able to disregard what 70 QCs have said in a newspaper, but will he tell the House whether the Government intend to disregard their current Attorney-General, who has expressed concerns and who remains the guardian of the public interest and the rule of law? Will they disregard him, too?

On the contrary. The Attorney-General’s advice, which is invariably wise and measured, is taken fully into account in this consultation. I say again: we are going through a consultation and 69 QCs and 300 economists are part of this kind of exercise. Of course there is a free press, but in the end I hope that the legal profession will engage with us in a constructive dialogue. This will allow us to meet the realities of the economic situation in which we find ourselves, but also to meet the realities that were referred to about access to justice and the rule of law. These are important issues and sometimes they can be trivialised by wild statements about their implications.

Shocking? The last Labour manifesto said the party would cut legal aid. For three years, all that I have heard from the Opposition Benches is: “Not this bit of legal aid” or, “Not that bit of legal aid”. No wonder they got into the economic mess they did, because they are frightened of making a decision. We are not.

My Lords, my noble friend talked about economies of scale. Will he accept that there is an iron law in the legal profession: the bigger the firm, the bigger the fees? Will he have regard to local justice and the cost to somebody accused of a crime of having to travel miles away in order to see his or her nominated lawyer?

These are extremely important issues. They have been raised in the consultation and we are considering them.