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Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

Volume 762: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, given the fall in the number of citizens who now receive legal advice in the field of social welfare law, whether they will bring forward the review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

My Lords, in 2014 we funded advice and assistance in over 51,000 new social welfare matters and issued over 11,000 certificates for representation at court. We are monitoring the impacts of legal aid reform and will conduct a post-implementation review within five years of implementation.

My Lords, of course I thank the Minister for his Answer, but is he aware that everyone outside the confines the Ministry of Justice believes that LASPO has been a disaster? He referred to 52,000 cases in 2013-14. Perhaps I could remind him that in 2009-10, the number of advice and assistance cases was 471,000. This means that more than 88% of our fellow citizens, who, I need not remind the House, are the poor, the vulnerable and the disabled, who previously benefited from legal advice, are now effectively deprived of access to justice. Two powerful parliamentary committees, the Justice Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, have made severe criticisms of the Act. Does the Ministry of Justice reject all their findings, and does the Minister not agree that, now we have a new Government, this is the right time to review how the Act is working?

My Lords, the LASPO Act has not been a disaster. It was necessary to make some sensible and well-directed changes to legal aid. In social welfare, the most important cases concerning people’s housing and their ability to stay in their house are still within scope, but some of the lesser matters are not. Of course we keep the matter under review, but the noble Lord will know that the legal aid reforms did not take place until April 2013, there having been a spike before then. It is important to see how they are affecting people over the longer term, which is why this Government repeat what the previous coalition Government agreed, which is that we will look at the whole system in much more detail, but only within five years and not before.

My Lords, given that the Ministry of Justice is one of the departments vulnerable to further depredations by the Chancellor in his drive for economy and to scale down the state, will the Lord Chancellor and his ministerial colleagues in the department this time round stand up to the Treasury and insist that equality before the law and equal access to justice are beyond price in our constitutional heritage and indispensible to a liberal society, and that they will defend them to the hilt?

I can assure the noble Lord and the House that all the Ministers in the Ministry of Justice are wedded to the rule of law and to access to justice. But the question that arises out of social welfare law is whether it is always necessary for everybody who has quite real problems to have a lawyer at £200-odd an hour, or whether there are better and more effective ways of giving advice.

The National Audit Office also reported on the LASPO reforms last November. A key finding was that there had been, as predicted, a large increase in litigants appearing in person, with an estimated extra cost of £3.4 million a year. May we now have a full and urgent cost-benefit analysis to assess what changes could be made to improve access to justice without driving up unduly the cost to the public purse?

Well, it is interesting that the noble Lord is now very much against the legislation that the coalition Government promoted. Neither his party nor the Labour Party in their manifesto suggested that they would reverse any of these cuts. Indeed, they did not suggest in either of their manifestos that they would look at it any earlier than we intend to do. Of course—

No. Of course litigants in person provide challenges. There are a number of strategies, which I have told the House about before, to enable them better to access justice. We remain alert to try to improve those as far as possible.

Is the Minister able to say whether the advice centres that are available to people of all means are sufficiently active to deal with the problems that may or may not arise out of the LASPO Act but, in any case, may require a degree of knowledge of social security legislation which not all lawyers possess but which are very much concentrated in advice centres? Is that not a better way of dealing with this problem than the old system of individual legal advice from individual lawyers?

My noble and learned friend makes a good friend—I mean, a good point: he is a good friend. We have given significant sums to various bodies: £16.8 million to the advice services fund, £107 million to the transitional fund launched in 2010 and £68 million to the advice service transitional fund. It is important that advice is accessed via these means, and I entirely agree that much assistance can be derived thereby.

My Lords, the Government are threatening a further £12 billion in social security cuts. This is bound to increase the need for advice on social welfare law. Does this not strengthen the case made by my noble friend for bringing forward the review of how Part 1 is working so far?

I think that the noble Baroness is referring to universal credit. The point about social welfare reforms I have already answered. Of course the Government are aware of all the potential difficulties that may confront individuals with cuts in either welfare provisions or access to legal aid, which was the subject of the Question. We will be having a careful look at these as they happen, but there must be a systematic review, and that is our intention.

My Lords, will the Government act to ensure that all company directors are obliged to have legal expenses insurance so that they do not need to have recourse to legal aid if they are prosecuted, for instance, for fraud?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I know that this was part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It is a matter on which, at the moment, we have no plans to legislate. The Liberal Democrat manifesto contains a number of wise things, including the suggestion that we should,

“develop a strategy that will deliver advice and legal support to help people with everyday problems like personal debt and social welfare issues”.

I entirely agree with that.

My Lords, if we follow the convention that it is important that all groups get a turn in each Question, we have not heard from the Cross-Benchers, so I suggest that we hear from the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.

My Lords, are the Government looking at the way in which exceptional circumstances are being dealt with? There is a lot of criticism that they are not being properly dealt with. Will they look at that, if they are not already doing so?

I think that the noble and learned Baroness is referring to exceptional funding provisions. There has been less take-up than was originally anticipated, but I am glad to say that the percentage of applications that are granted has greatly increased since April 2013 and is now 25%. That probably reflects the fact that there is a better understanding in the legal profession about exactly what the exceptional funding is supposed to cover, which is a potential breach of convention obligations or EU law. I do not think that I can comment further because the matter is the subject of a judicial review which we are resisting strongly.