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Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2013

Volume 752: debated on Monday 10 February 2014

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2014.

Relevant document: 19th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

Regulation (EU) No. 604/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining the member state responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the member states by a third-country national or a stateless person, known as the Dublin III arrangements. Under these arrangements, the United Kingdom can apply for another member state to consider an asylum application, and provide appropriate protection if that application is successful, where an individual’s first point of entry to the European Union is that other member state but an application for asylum is made in the United Kingdom.

Under these arrangements, a member state is required, if the financial means of the individual and merits of the case justify it, to provide free legal assistance and representation in relation to an appeal or review of certain decisions made under Dublin III. The Dublin III arrangements replace those set out in Council Regulations (EC) No 343/2003 of 18 February 2003, known as Dublin II. We have in this country routinely provided legal aid in relation to Dublin II matters.

The key difference between the old and the new arrangements, from the Ministry of Justice’s perspective, is that the requirement to provide free legal assistance for certain appeals, which in the UK is met through judicial review, is made explicit. The explicit provision in Dublin III for legal aid also prescribes a merits test, particular to it, that is to be applied. These regulations amend the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013 to give effect to the particular merits test. The merits criteria are tests which the Director of Legal Aid Casework must apply in deciding whether an individual qualifies for civil legal services.

The amendment before us today allows for the merits test set out in Dublin III to apply—namely that the prospects of success of an individual case must be judged to be greater than,

“no tangible prospect of success”.

The instrument therefore makes provision to ensure that we meet our international obligations but changes nothing else. Noble Lords will be aware that the Ministry of Justice laid an urgency statement alongside this instrument, in order that it could come into force without delay, as per the procedures set out in Section 41(9) of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Due to an administrative oversight, my officials at the Ministry of Justice failed to recognise that there was a subtle difference between the merits test prescribed in Dublin III and the existing tests more generally applied to applications for judicial review. In the case of judicial review, the prospects of success must be at least moderate. By the time this oversight was recognised, insufficient time remained to make the necessary changes via the standard draft affirmative procedure. The urgency procedure was used to ensure that the appropriate test applied from the point when the Dublin III arrangements came into effect, on 1 January this year. This means that there was no risk of an individual being unfairly disadvantaged by having the incorrect test applied to their application for legal aid, hence the urgency. I hope that my explanation has been of assistance to noble Lords. I commend this instrument to the Committee and beg to move.

My Lords, this is a rare opportunity for me to congratulate the Government on breaking the habits of this Parliament’s lifetime on access to legal aid. It is only 12 days since we had a debate about prison law and entered into a discussion about borderline cases for legal aid, when the noble Lord was vigorously supported by precisely no members of the Government—nor, indeed, anybody else—in a debate in which 15 Members were exercised about the restrictions on legal aid and the merits criteria under which these decisions will be taken.

However, on this occasion, the Government have not only done better than that, they have also refrained from stigmatising European legislation as an outrage to our constitution which should not be implemented if at all possible. For that small mercy, I am sure that we are grateful. Perhaps the noble Lord would like to convey to his Secretary of State the fact that a move towards something less stringent than the previous formulation about “no tangible prospect of success”, which is effectively what we are ending up with in other areas, would also be better applied to the remaining legal aid jurisdiction and not just that which is invoked by the European treaty and Dublin III. Having said that, we very much welcome the regulations.

My Lords, congratulations being in short supply in the context of legal aid, I gratefully accept them from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. I will pass on his comments on the lack of stigmatisation of European legislation and his suggestion to amend the merits test. I am sure that the Secretary of State will read carefully his comments in Hansard.

There is little more for me to add, except that this should enable no injustice to be done. Legal aid should be available. The urgency, while regrettable, has been explained to the Committee. In those circumstances, I commend this instrument.

Motion agreed.