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Legal Aid

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent to which Section 10 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, dealing with “exceptional cases”, is working as intended.

My Lords, the Government consider that the exceptional funding scheme is working effectively. We are monitoring its operation and will continue to do so.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer as far as it goes. Parliament and the public were told time after time to believe that Section 10 would act as a safety net for those cases where it was manifestly unfair that the citizen should not have access to civil legal aid. However, the application forms are impossible for a non-lawyer to complete and a lawyer will not get paid a penny if the claim for legal aid is unsuccessful. Even worse is the fact that only in 3% of claims has legal aid ever been granted. The noble Lord was a member of the JCHR which, along with the Low Commission and many others, has recently criticised the working of this provision. Now that he is a distinguished member of Her Majesty’s Government, will he act to make this vital provision fit for purpose?

The provisions contained in Section 10 of the LASPO Act make it perfectly clear that it is there for exceptional cases where, in the absence of legal aid, there would be a violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights or possibly of the provisions of the European Union. It is not about whether a case may be deserving; it has to fall specifically within the confines of the section. As to the application form, it was consulted on regularly and in detail before it became part of the process. I am surprised that solicitors are having difficulty in filling it in. It is possible for someone to fill in the form on their own and they can then have a preliminary view given to them by the Legal Aid Agency as to the prospects of success. It is true that the number of applications has been much lower than expected and it is also true that very few have been granted, but we are satisfied that the system is working in accordance with the section.

My Lords, before the Bill was introduced, the Government said that they were expecting 5,000 to 7,000 applications a year. In fact, in the first year there were 893, of which only 23 were granted, which represents 1%. Is it not nonsense to suggest that this provision is a safety net for those who seek justice?

I can update the noble Lord by saying that in fact the total number of applications received is now 1,030, and the number granted is 31. I agree that it is a small percentage. It was difficult for the Government to predict exactly how many applications would be received. In fact, in some areas, including the area in which I practised, that of clinical negligence, there have been virtually none when it was expected that there would be very many. Trying to anticipate what might or might not be considered to be a violation of Article 6 has confounded many courts, not only in this country but also in Strasbourg.

My Lords, perhaps what the Minister has just said indicates that I may have been right when I differed as a judge from my distinguished predecessor, Lord Bingham. He took a narrow view of the word “exceptional” while I took a very broad view of it. I regard it as a word which should be used to ensure justice in all cases where justice is required. Does the noble Lord agree with my approach?

The answer to the noble and learned Lord is that it depends very much on the context in which “exceptional” is used. The context in which it is used in this particular section is by specific reference to the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, in answer to a recent Written Question from me, the Minister said that there had been 1,130 applications, of which 35 were granted, not the figures that he has given today. Be that as it may, what was the Government’s estimate of the number of successful applications and what did they anticipate would be the proportion of successful applications? Given that it has taken 14 months to reach a decision to grant legal aid in an important inquest case in which counsel appeared four times without any certainty of being paid, will the Government publish details of the times taken to determine applications?

In answer to the second part of the noble Lord’s question, the Government will be happy to publish the times taken. Indeed, I think that the noble Lord will be pleasantly surprised at how quickly these applications are being processed. In answer to the first part of his question, it was expected that some 3,700 would be funded each year. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it is somewhat mysterious as to why so few have qualified. Each case is considered separately by the Legal Aid Agency in accordance with guidelines given by the Lord Chancellor. All those doing this work are experienced and all of them follow the guidelines.

My Lords, the noble Lord said that Section 10 is working effectively. Will he give further consideration to the recommendation of the Low commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, that the application process for Section 10 is much in need of simplification? Will the Government act on the concern expressed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights about the lack of training for Legal Aid Agency employees who are responsible for making decisions about Section 10?

The Government are aware of the JCHR’s concern about the lack of training. I have been reassured that the employees are appropriately trained and aware of their responsibilities. In terms of the forms, I give the same answer that I gave before, which is that the matter is kept under review. It is believed that the forms are perfectly within the capabilities of solicitors to understand. If one of these forms is inadequately filled in, you are told, whereas with some forms in other contexts you never know which box you failed to tick.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether any research has been done into the number of cases of citizens who would wish to make applications but are unable to find anybody to help them in making those applications?

I think it is approximately 61. I will have to write to my noble friend with the precise number who actually made applications. Very often they are given a preliminary view, which they can then take to a solicitor, who will then be able, if he has been given some encouraging words, to take the matter forward.

My Lords, will the noble Lord reassure the House, in view of the very small number of applicants who have been successful, that the Government have no plans to withdraw the funding before people have figured out how to fill in the forms?