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Access to Justice

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they plan to take in response to the recommendations of the recently published Theos report Speaking Up.

My Lords, the Government have noted the Theos report. We carefully considered the matters raised in it, including access to justice, when developing our policy on legal aid reform. The Government have already committed to a review of the impact of the LASPO Act three to five years after implementation. Even after reform, our legal aid system will remain one of the most expensive in the world at £1.5 billion per year.

I am very grateful to the Minister for that response and for the underlining of that commitment to an assessment of the effects of the legal aid reforms. I wonder if I might ask the Minister, if necessary, to pass on to colleagues a particular request to look at the impact of those reforms in relation to tenants in both the public and the private rented sectors, with particular reference to access to remedy in relation to things like the disrepair of homes, tenancy deposit schemes and other questions of tenancy rights. I declare an interest as the chair of the charity Housing Justice.

I can assure the right reverend Prelate that these are matters which will be considered by this Government, or indeed any other Government to follow, in due course—probably between 2016 and 2018.

My Lords, is it not clear that the principle of equal access to justice is held sacred across the political parties as well as across the churches? Is it not equally evident, however, and curiously, that it is a principle not cherished in the bosom of the Lord Chancellor, the very person who we would expect to be the high priest of justice? The Minister knows the present Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, well. Will he share with the House any insight he may have as to why the Lord Chancellor is a heretic in regard to this article of faith?

The Lord Chancellor is well aware of his obligations, as he told the Constitution Committee. He has had to ensure that so far as possible there is access to justice while at the same time having to cope with the deficit that was left behind by the party opposite. I can assure the noble Lord that the Lord Chancellor remains committed to access to justice, as do all his Ministers.

My Lords, the Minister is right to draw attention to the report, which is about access to justice. Does he not agree that it is a negation of democracy if justice is available only to those who can afford it? Will he therefore establish a system of monitoring so that we can see the impact of such policies, particularly on poor and disadvantaged communities in our country, and more importantly, the impact they will have on the rest of the criminal justice system and the Prison Service?

My noble friend is of course quite right to identify the potential injustice that can result from cuts in legal aid. That is something that any responsible Government will have close to their heart, and we will continue to consider any adverse effects.

My Lords, I do not know whether the Minister has had a chance to see last week’s report by the Justice Committee of the House of Commons, which criticised the LASPO Act in very strong terms indeed, particularly on the issue of exceptional funding. I do not think it is going too far to say that it suggested that, despite the promise that exceptional funding would be a way in which those who could not get legal aid any longer would be able to get legal aid in exceptional cases, there have actually been a tiny number of cases. It criticised the Government for their response as far as that is concerned. Does the Minister agree and what are the Government going to do about the fact that more than 325,000 people per year who used to be able to get legal help when they needed it no longer can because of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act?

My Lords, the exceptional funding provisions in the LASPO Act were very specifically drawn to deal with potential violations of EU law or of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are satisfied that the Act is performing as Parliament passed it, although it is true that there have been fewer applications than we expected. We have done our best to make it easy for those people who think they come within the terms to make an application and have afforded the possibility of a preliminary view being offered by the Legal Aid Agency. The answer to the noble Lord’s other point is that some people are not getting legal aid who were previously. We have tried to concentrate on those at the bottom of society who need it most.

Can the Minister say whether the Government, or the future Government if he can say, will look at the impact on private law cases in the family courts of the absence of any legal aid except in very unusual circumstances?

Obviously, I cannot give any undertakings for any future Government. I think the noble and learned Baroness may be referring to the problems that quite often occur with litigants in person. She will know that even before the LASPO Act 66% of people on average were unrepresented in private law cases. We understand that this can cause difficulties, but we congratulate the court staff, the judges and the Government on their ingenuity in dealing with these difficulties.

Does my noble friend not agree that those campaigning against the Government’s reforms of legal aid and arguing for better access to justice would have more credibility if they also argued for reducing the costs of the legal system and of the courts and the fees which are charged by barristers and other lawyers?

I am grateful for what my noble friend says. He may notice that the endorsement on the Theos paper from a former High Court judge says that all barristers should give a tithe of their time and services. I am sure that is not just restricted to Christian barristers and solicitors.

Following the question from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, can the Minister compute the whole cost of our justice system, and will he then compare it with the whole cost of the justice systems of other common-law countries?

I will certainly not do that calculation at the Dispatch Box, but I think I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, which is that those systems where the judges are more involved—more inquisitorial as opposed to adversarial—may cost more. None the less, we generally believe that our legal aid costs—as is quite right, because we value access to justice—are more expensive than anything which is remotely comparable elsewhere.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister recognise that with the cutbacks in legal aid and fewer solicitors being willing to do it a greater burden rests on the citizens advice bureaux and law centres? Will he contemplate affording them more resources in order to meet the unmet need?

My noble friend is right. We have in fact given £107 million via the transition fund; that was last year. We remain concerned that justice should be provided by whatever means and we acknowledge the contribution of the Low commission in identifying different ways of providing help other than by the rather expensive and cumbersome method that is sometimes used.