Motion to Consider
That the Grand Committee do consider the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2015.
Relevant document: 5th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (Special attention drawn to the instrument)
My Lords, the statutory instrument before the Committee today amends the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013, known as the “merits criteria regulations”, so that legal aid funding can be provided in some cases where the prospects of succeeding are below 50% but where legal aid funding is required under the European Convention on Human Rights or EU law. These changes have been made to reflect the findings on the legal aid merits test made by the High Court in the recent case of IS.
While this judgment is under appeal—I have had an indication that an appeal will be heard on 25 or 26 April next year—the Government consider it important that these amendments are brought into force without delay to provide a means by which the Legal Aid Agency is able to comply with the judgment in the interim. Failure to make such a change promptly would have resulted in an extended period in which the Legal Aid Agency might in some cases either have taken an unlawful decision or indeed have been unable to take any decision. For these reasons, and owing to limited parliamentary time, the statutory instrument before us was made and brought into force using the urgency procedure provided for under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The merits criteria regulations set out the merits criteria that must be applied by the Director of Legal Aid Casework at the Legal Aid Agency when determining whether an applicant qualifies for civil legal services under Part 1 of Schedule 1 to LASPO. Broadly speaking, these criteria provide the basis for deciding whether it is justified to provide, or to continue to provide, public funds in an individual case. The factors to be considered are similar to those that would influence a privately paying client of moderate means when considering whether to become involved in proceedings.
Why are the Government taking this action? The merits criteria regulations include a number of different requirements, including a prospects of success test for an application for full representation. When the prospects of success test applies, the regulations generally prevent the Legal Aid Agency funding any case where the prospects of success are below 50%. Had the merits criteria regulations remained unamended, the director would therefore have been placed in something of a bind. Refusing legal aid in some cases would have been an unlawful decision as, on the High Court’s findings, it might have resulted in a convention breach. While the Legal Aid Agency could have sought to delay non-urgent decisions, we did not think it would be reasonable to await the outcome of the Government’s appeal in this matter, which may not be known for some time. Even though the hearings are in April, there may well of course be some delay in producing a judgment.
The amendments made by this instrument mean that, in cases where an application for full representation is subject to an assessment of its prospects of success, legal aid may now be provided for some cases assessed as having “borderline” or “poor” prospects of success. The director will need to be satisfied that it is necessary to determine or, in the case of a risk of a breach, appropriate to determine that the prospects of success test is met in order to prevent a breach, or the risk of a breach, of the legal aid applicant’s rights under the convention or enforceable EU rights.
A discrete point arises. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, or JCSI, has expressed its views on the clarity—or, more accurately, the lack of clarity—in respect of the transitional provisions in the SI. I apologise to the Committee for any confusion that may have been engendered; the department intends to develop a revised drafting approach—resulting, I hope, in greater clarity—to be used in future that is more closely targeted at solely those cases that begin before commencement. However, we consider that the transitional provisions in this instrument still operate to achieve the policy intention.
This instrument makes important and necessary amendments to the merits criteria regulations to ensure that legal aid will continue to be provided in any case where refusal to grant would be unlawful. It does so while maintaining the underlying purpose of the civil legal aid eligibility criteria and the legal aid scheme—that is, to make sure that the limited legal aid budget is directed at the cases which most justify public funding. I therefore commend this statutory instrument to the Committee, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall be extremely brief. I thank the Minister for his very clear outlining of these regulations. I can tell him and the Committee at once that the Opposition do not oppose it—indeed, we support it. I thank him for his generous apology regarding the points made by the JCSI. The regulations are clearly a sensible step for Her Majesty’s Government to have taken following the High Court judgment. The Government are appealing that decision, and we are grateful to the Minister for telling us the date. I gather that it was a fixed date for the hearing. The Minister and I know that those dates can change, however fixed they may or may not be. If the appeal is unsuccessful, will it be the Government’s intention to change the criteria by legislation? Our advice, for what it is worth—and if the Government are interested in any way—is not to do so. We welcome the regulations.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his observations and for the advice that he so generously offered on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Of course, depending on the outcome of the case, one side or another might consider it necessary to pursue the matter further to the Supreme Court, were permission to be obtained, but in due course a decision will follow that judgment and we will decide whether or not to proceed with the matter.
I have been given an amended date, I am afraid to say. I wrongly informed the Committee that it was April, but the better news is that it has been brought forward: the date is now 21 or 22 March 2016, but of course that will be subject to the provisos so accurately identified by the noble Lord, Lord Bach.
If we allow this to carry on for a bit longer, do you think that the date may get closer and closer?
I am grateful for that interruption. Who knows? But we are at least moving in the right direction, I am glad to say.
I am grateful for the general acknowledgement of the sense of these regulations, and I thank the noble Lord for that. I believe this to be an appropriate instrument that makes the necessary amendments to the merits criteria regulations in order to comply with the judgment pending the appeal.