Skip to main content

Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) (Amendment) Regulations 2015

Volume 764: debated on Monday 7 September 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) (Amendment) Regulations 2015.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

The statutory instrument before us today amends the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013 to set out the merits criteria that an applicant must meet in order to qualify for civil legal aid for a female genital mutilation—FGM—protection order. This statutory instrument also makes amendments to specify the applicable merits criteria for victims of modern slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour for legal representation in relation to immigration matters.

The Government considered it important that these provisions were brought into force without delay so that victims and potential victims of modern slavery or FGM could be protected. In particular, it was a government priority that the FGM protection order provisions should commence before the start of the school summer holidays as a means of protecting girls and women from being taken abroad during this period. For these reasons, and owing to limited parliamentary time, the statutory instrument before us was made and brought into force using an urgency procedure, and I am now seeking the approval of noble Lords.

FGM protection orders were introduced in the Serious Crime Act 2015 and came into effect on 17 July. Courts now have the power to grant FGM protection orders to protect women and girls against genital mutilation offences and to protect women and girls against whom such an offence has already been committed. The making, varying, discharging and appealing of FGM protection orders were brought within the scope of the civil legal aid scheme by the Serious Crime Act 2015. Amendments were also made to legal aid regulations under the negative parliamentary procedure to accommodate their introduction, including the financial means test.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 makes provision for the protection of victims of modern slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, and it came into effect on 31 July. The Act provides tools to tackle modern slavery, makes sure that perpetrators can receive appropriate punishments and enhances the support and protection for victims. Why are the Government taking this action? Why is it necessary?

The amendment to the merits regulations permits the application of less stringent merits criteria for FGM protection orders than those applied more generally in relation to applications for legal representation. The amendment provides for specific merits criteria to apply to applications for legal aid for FGM protection orders by specifying that the relevant merits criteria are the same as those applied to applications for full representation in relation to domestic violence cases. The amendments provide for specific merits criteria to be applied to applications for legal representation in relation to immigration matters—that is, those concerned with modern slavery. I should perhaps explain that the Government wish to replicate the civil legal aid arrangements for the victims of human trafficking for victims of modern slavery, the provisions of legal aid for advice and representation for damages in employment claims in relation to their exploitation, and in relation to immigration matters. The Modern Slavery Act brought these matters within the scope of the civil legal aid scheme by amending Schedule 1 to LASPO.

The effect of the amendments is to provide that the specific forms of civil legal service known as “help at court” and “investigative representation” are not appropriate forms of civil legal service in connection with immigration matters. Additionally, the amendments provide that the existing merits test in Regulation 60 of the 2013 merits regulations applies in relation to representation in immigration matters for victims of modern slavery.

The Government are committed to protecting victims and potential victims of FGM and modern slavery. This statutory instrument makes relatively minor but important changes to the civil legal aid scheme following the implementation of FGM protection orders and enhanced protection for victims of modern slavery. I therefore commend this statutory instrument to the Committee and I beg to move.

My Lords, this is one of the rare occasions on which I can congratulate the Government and the Minister on doing something positive in the arena of legal aid. Later this evening we will revert to the more normal discussions that take place between us across the Chamber in another respect. However, this is an important matter, and I very much welcome the Government’s initiative in ensuring that the change in the law can be adequately enforced.

In that connection, with regard to something that we have just discussed at some length concerning other serious matters relating to safety within the home, there is the publicity that is being given about the issue generally, but more particularly about the availability of legal aid for those suffering from abuse in terms of either of the two categories embodied in the order. It may well be the case that the Government are already directing publicity not only at the potential victims but at organisations and others who might be able to assist in disseminating the information that legal aid is available. It may be too early at this stage for the Minister to give an indication of the number of cases that are thought likely to be brought under each category, or it may be that the information is simply not available this afternoon. However, if and when it becomes available, that information would be helpful—and, of course, it would lend some force to any publicity that the Government will no doubt give about the remedies that will be available.

Having said that, the Opposition certainly support the Government’s steps here. We look forward to assistance being given to people who are being ruthlessly exploited and who hitherto have had insufficient protection from the law.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for his support for these regulations, and I look forward to renewing our customary postures later in the day.

As he rightly says, these are early days, and it is difficult to give any figures. I made the very same inquiry of my officials and understandably they were somewhat tentative. I do not suppose that the numbers are going to be very large. What I can say, of course, is that there has been a great deal of publicity generally about both areas that we are concerned with. Therefore, I think that the general public and all those who are likely to encounter these issues will be aware of the situation and will be keen to find out the extent to which there may be legal aid, and I am sure practitioners working in this area will make themselves aware of it.

A guide to the court process was published in July this year, and I understand that it includes the relevant information. I am now being handed a copy, which lays out, in paragraphs 31 to 34, the information which will assist. This is under the female genital mutilation protection orders; it explains their scope and who can apply, and it contains information about the availability of legal aid. Anybody familiarising themselves with these orders—a practitioner or anybody affected by or concerned about them—would find out that legal aid was available. I am not sure whether there is similar information in relation to modern slavery but, if there is, I will undertake to convey it to the noble Lord.

That being, I think, the scope of the inquiry made by the noble Lord, I think we can now proceed to ask noble Lords to approve this amendment. I believe that it is a reasonable one and that it will provide appropriate frameworks for the provision of legal aid for victims of both FGM and modern slavery.

Motion agreed.