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Legal Aid

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the protests by lawyers on 6 January concerning further cuts to legal aid.

My Lords, we have engaged constructively with lawyers over a period of many months and we continue to do so. However, the fact remains that we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and in the current economic climate this is not sustainable for taxpayers, who fund it. We have to find efficiencies to ensure that legal aid is sustained and available for those most in need of a lawyer.

I thank the Minister for that uninformative Answer. Does he recognise that the Justice Alliance, representing a large number of people and organisations and many senior judges, has expressed its concern about these proposals? Is it not the case that these cuts will lead to more, not less, expenditure, that cases will be bound to last much longer when people are unrepresented, that there will be a reduction in standards and that there will be more miscarriages of justice and an inevitable increase in guilty pleas? Is not the Minister concerned about all those things, as expressed by reputable organisations?

My Lords, the Government have undertaken to listen, consult and work with the profession, and we continue to do so. However, in the current economic climate and indeed with the crisis that we inherited, we needed to look across the board to ensure that efficiencies could be had. Even with the efficiencies that we will be making from this series of cuts, £1.5 billion will continue to be spent on legal aid—a figure that is among the highest in the world.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that the figures that the Government have been giving for the incomes of members of the criminal Bar refer to turnover before VAT, tax and chambers expenses are taken off, and that therefore these figures are utterly misleading?

My Lords, the Government and indeed my honourable friend Shailesh Vara, who is the legal aid Minister, have made it quite clear that when we have referred to these figures—for example, the average figure of £84,000—they have related to fee income. The Government recognise that costs are to be taken from that fee income, and we have talked about that.

My Lords, one feature of the stand-off is that the representatives of the criminal Bar and the Government are quoting very different figures for earnings—not just the net and gross earnings. Would it not be helpful as a basis for negotiation to try to agree with the representatives of the criminal Bar a common basis for the actual earnings?

I repeat my assurance to noble Lords that the Government continue to consult. Indeed, we have just had close to 2,000 responses to the latest consultation on legal aid. As part of those discussions, I am sure that we will take on board the noble Lord’s comment, which seems a very sensible suggestion.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that over the past few years when there have been discussions concerning cuts in legal aid on a broad basis, the Government have accepted that there are massive downstream costs which greatly erode what otherwise might seem to be an attractive saving? Can the Minister tell the House what surveys have been made of such downstream costs and what the results of those surveys are, and, in the event that such surveys were not made, how any Government could have been so monumentally imprudent as to jump into the dark in such a situation?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Lord. This is not a jump into the dark; it is a recognition of the current situation that the Government face across the board and across every department. We are seeking to focus legal aid spending on those who most need it. Spending on legal aid in the UK amounts to about £39 per head. I reiterate that one should look at some of the figures, even making international comparisons. Compared with like-for-like systems—for example, New Zealand at £18, Canada at £10 and Ireland, next door to us, at £20 per head—our legal system will, after the efficiencies are made, still remain one of the best in the world.

My Lords, the Minister has just spoken of efficiencies. How is it efficient to impair the quality of justice?

Again, I disagree with the noble Lord. Looking around the world, and speaking for the Benches behind me, I believe that our justice system is one of the best in the world and will continue to be so, despite the efficiencies being made. I do not agree with the picture that the noble Lord paints.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that solicitors are also essential to criminal advocacy and that there are growing deserts in this country, which will be much accelerated by the cuts, where people will not be able to find solicitors for miles? What is he going to do about that?

Having just returned from Dubai, I can perhaps relate physically to the picture of a desert, but not in the sense of the legal aid environment. Of course my noble friend is correct to say that solicitors play and will continue to play a crucial and important part, and the Legal Aid Agency will ensure that representation for those who need it will be available.

I am most obliged to the noble Lord.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that VAT and expenses, to which reference has been made, actually account for 40% of the fees that are currently being quoted? What is his response to those members of the judiciary who are concerned about future recruitment of judges to deal with criminal cases in the likely event of a decline in the quantity and quality of the criminal Bar?

I believe that I have already answered the noble Lord’s question. The Government recognise that there are costs that are taken across, which is why we quote fee income. As for recruitment into the profession, and as I said, we believe that after these efficiencies are made, the criminal Bar and indeed the legal profession as a whole will continue to be an attractive proposition. We will continue to work with the profession to ensure that the standards and quality of legal representation in our country remain among the best in the world.