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Civil Legal Aid (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2019

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, as I indicated a moment ago, the Government published a technical notice on a number of areas which anticipated the possibility of our leaving the EU without any form of withdrawal agreement. On 13 September 2018, we published a technical notice which set out arrangements for civil legal aid cases, including arrangements in relation to the EU legal aid directive 2003, which I will refer to as the EU legal aid directive. The regulations we are discussing today will allow us to implement these arrangements and make other necessary amendments to the legal aid framework in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. These draft regulations will provide clarity for lawyers and citizens in the event of a no-deal outcome. As I indicated, that is not what we hope for, seek or wish to have as our destination. I emphasise that this will deal with the matter in England and Wales and in Northern Ireland. It is a matter of devolved competence in Scotland. The Scottish Government will address it as they see fit.

If we were to leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement, the current reciprocal arrangements under the EU legal aid directive would be lost. The EU legal aid directive sets out rules relating to legal aid in EU member states, other than Denmark, to ensure adequate access to justice in cross-border disputes. Its application is limited to civil and commercial matters. It only applies to cross-border disputes which are, very broadly, disputes where an individual who is domiciled or habitually resident in an EU member state requires legal services in relation to proceedings or to enforcement of a decision or authentic instrument in another member state.

In a no-deal scenario, we are seeking to ensure that legal aid provision—for matters within the scope of the EU legal aid directive but not otherwise within the scope of legal aid—is not made to individuals domiciled or habitually resident in an EU member state on a unilateral basis where there is no longer reciprocity from the EU member state.

The instrument also makes technical amendments to ensure that the legal aid legislation in England and Wales and Northern Ireland operates effectively following EU exit and makes changes to procedural requirements for legal aid applications in England and Wales. It amends the civil legal aid framework in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to remove the legislation implementing the EU legal aid directive, which will no longer apply to the United Kingdom.

Individuals who are domiciled or habitually resident in the EU member state who require legal services in relation to proceedings in England and Wales or Northern Ireland or who wish to enforce a decision will be subject to the same scope, means and merits requirements as those who are domiciled or habitually resident in England and Wales or third countries—in other words, it brings everyone on to a level playing field. Legal aid provision for those domiciled or resident in the UK participating in proceedings in EU member states will fall to each member state’s particular legal aid framework—again, we cannot legislate for those states.

Repealing the legislation implementing the EU legal aid directive will ensure legal certainty and clarity regarding legal aid entitlement. In addition, we avoid a unilateral arrangement where those domiciled or habitually resident in EU member states are treated more favourably than those domiciled or habitually resident in the United Kingdom.

If I may, I shall explain the technical amendments made by the instrument. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the Access to Justice Order 2003 require the provision of legal aid for exceptional cases not normally within the scope of legal aid where not to do so would be a breach of enforceable EU rights. LASPO also provides that the Lord Chancellor may make an order specifying circumstances where foreign legal advice may be provided when not to do so would, again, be a breach of enforceable EU rights.

The references in LASPO and the 2003 order will be amended to “retained enforceable EU rights”, because of course, pursuant to the 2018 Act, in our domestic law we will have retained enforceable EU rights, but we will not have EU rights. The terms will be defined with reference to the 2018 Act, as I said. That will enable the proper functioning of the exceptional case funding frameworks in England and Wales and, under LASPO, for the provision of foreign legal advice.

As to the procedural amendments, controlled work, which is referred to in the instrument, is a categorisation of legal aid work covering certain advice where the power to determine legal aid entitlement is generally delegated to legal aid providers—for example, initial advice and assistance. At present, it is not necessary for an individual seeking legal aid for controlled work in England and Wales to attend a legal provider’s premises in person where they are present or reside in the EU. Such an individual can authorise someone to attend on their behalf.

The draft instrument changes the exception to apply to those present or resident in the United Kingdom, and these changes will allow the benefit to continue to apply to those within the UK and ensure that those residing within the European Union will now be required to meet the same criteria as those residing in third countries are currently expected to meet when applying for controlled work and not present in the United Kingdom.

Licensed work is a categorisation of work that is generally granted where there is a need for representation in court, and the procedural criteria that currently apply for individuals applying for licensed work in England and Wales who reside outside the EU and are not present in England and Wales will now apply to those who reside outside the United Kingdom and are not present in England and Wales. In other words, it will level down the playing field as between those resident in the EU and those resident otherwise in a third-party country. As such, those residing within the EU will now have to meet the same criteria as those residing in third countries for the purposes of applying for licensed work in England and Wales.

With respect to the changes made to the domestic legislation implementing the EU legal aid directive and to the procedural requirements, the draft instrument makes provision for transitional arrangements for matters that are live under the repealed or amended legislation at the time of EU exit, so at least they will continue under the same rules as before.

As regards the impact, the department carried out an impact assessment, although one would not have been required in the context of the present instrument. I say that because in 2017, there were only 27 cross-border applications made between England and Wales and the central authorities in all other EU member states with regard to legal aid and of those, 20 of the applications were from EU member states for legal aid in England and Wales and seven went the other way. In Northern Ireland, it is estimated that there have been three applications over the past two years.

The instrument is necessary to correct deficiencies arising from the UK’s exit from the EU and in LASPO. As I said, the Scottish Government are taking required amendments to legal aid legislation in their jurisdiction separately, in order that that, too, can be addressed. I hope that with that explanation, noble Lords will understand the need to put this in place in the event of our proceeding without a withdrawal agreement, without a relevant transition period and without the scope for negotiation to deal with these matters. I commend the instrument to the House.

My Lords, I must confess that it is not easy to grasp the scope of these provisions, but then I last filled in an application for civil legal aid when I was campaigning politically for Britain to enter the European Common Market about 55 years ago. In a paper published by the Ministry of Justice in August 2017, Providing a Cross-Border Civil Judicial Cooperation Framework, the Government declared that they would seek to agree new, close and comprehensive arrangements for civil judicial co-operation with the EU. The paper stated:

“We have a shared interest with the EU in ensuring these new arrangements are thorough and effective. In particular, citizens and businesses need to have continuing confidence as they interact across borders about which country’s courts would deal with any dispute, which laws would apply, and know that judgments and orders obtained will be recognised and enforced in neighbouring countries, as is the case now”.

In paragraph 7 of that paper, the benefits of the current framework are described as follows:

“This framework provides predictability and certainty for citizens and businesses from the EU and the UK about the laws that apply to their cross-border relationships, the courts that would be responsible, and their ability to rely on decisions from one country’s courts in another State”.

As with the previous statutory instrument, nothing appeared in the political declaration which refers to these “new, close and comprehensive” arrangements. Again, perhaps the Minister can advise us how far he has got in discussing the future.

An important feature of civil judicial co-operation at present is the mutual provision of legal aid. The legal aid directive set minimum common rules relating to legal aid to improve access to justice in cross-border disputes and it applied to all such disputes involving civil and commercial matters but, in particular, it applied to family law: problems about children, the disposal of assets and so on. As the Minister said, its provisions were incorporated into English law by LASPO, and this SI’s purpose is to ensure that those domiciled or habitually resident in EU member states are not treated more favourably after we leave the EU than those who reside in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. EU residents who require legal services in relation to proceedings in our courts or who wish to enforce an overseas judgment will no longer have a right to legal aid for matters within the scope of the EU directive alone. The SI uses Henry VIII powers under Section 8 of the LASPO Act to revoke the domestic legislation implementing the EU directive in the UK, as the Minister fully explained.

So far as I can ascertain, this statutory instrument will prevent EU residents from seeking legal aid for exceptional cases that are not normally within the scope of UK domestic legal aid, but where not to do so would be a breach of “retained enforceable EU rights”. Will the Minister give a concrete example of what “exceptional cases” means? He told us something of the statistics but how often have such applications for legal aid in exceptional cases been made by EU domiciled people or residents? Can he confirm that EU residents, even after Brexit, can apply for legal aid in the ordinary way for, say, a case involving children across borders in an English court, and that it would be granted if the ordinary merits and the means tests were satisfied? Does domicile or residency in the EU disqualify an applicant from legal aid in the normal way?

My Lords, in general, the view of the Law Society and the Bar Council is that these regulations do not raise many problems but some matters appear to require clarification. I am not sure whether I am about to overlap with what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has just raised. He will forgive me—although the Minister may not—if I am going over the same ground.

The Law Society has raised a question on the impact on the provision for legal aid under paragraph 44 of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to LASPO, which states:

“Civil legal services provided in relation to proceedings in circumstances in which the services are required to be provided under Council Directive 2003/8/EC of 27 January 2003 to improve access to justice in cross-border disputes by establishing minimum common rules relating to legal aid for such disputes”.

At present it is unclear, certainly to me, how many people are granted legal aid under this provision. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord will have that information to hand—presumably not. Perhaps he can provide it later if it is not immediately available.

The other question is: do the Government know how many such provisions are reciprocated by the other side, so to speak? If there are significant numbers involved, the Government should surely ensure that there is funding in the event of a no-deal Brexit but if there is a Brexit deal, this provision should be included on a reciprocal basis, given the number of UK citizens residing in the EU who may well need such assistance. As I say, I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord will have that information but I certainly join the noble Lord who spoke previously in wishing for confirmation that legal aid will still be available for those who need it in these areas.

My Lords, I am obliged for the contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, makes a good point about the advantages for all in securing mutual judicial recognition and enforcement. That is why, at an early stage, we sought to take forward those discussions with the profession on what was required. He is right to observe that the matter is not contained in the withdrawal agreement or the existing declaration but is an ambition. That may seem very little but, recognising that, we have taken forward what we can, which is to deal on a unilateral basis with the more recent Hague conventions that have been entered into by the EU on behalf of member states. We have engaged in discussion to become an individual state signatory to those conventions. My recollection is uncertain but I think the 2005 and 2007 conventions were involved. We have engaged with the council of the Lugano convention, which deals with the reciprocal position between EFTA states and the EU, to engage on that. Again, to become a party to Lugano, we require the consent of the EU because it is also party to it. Those steps are being taken forward and we are conscious of their importance. I underline that.

On legal aid provision, there is no question of a disqualification being applied on the basis of residence in the EU. Let me be clear about that. The point is that the scope of the EU legal aid directive is wider than the scope of the legal aid provision under LASPO. This instrument is to bring that into line with LASPO and have a situation whereby, in certain forms of civil and commercial dispute, the directive would require consideration of a legal aid application that would not otherwise fall under the LASPO provisions.

I was coming to that and would point out that the exceptional case provision is there for all cases that fall under LASPO. That will apply equally to those resident in the EU, as it would apply to those resident in the United Kingdom. Again, I point out that there is no disqualification or discrimination in respect of that matter; it is a case of ensuring that there is a level playing field whereby the scope of legal aid availability and the qualification for that aid are the same. It may not assist your Lordships much but there are provisions in the EU directive for taking account of differences in standard of living, for example, when applying financial criteria for legal aid under the directive. It is that sort of provision that we have to deal with to ensure that there is a level playing field. I emphasise that this instrument does not seek to disqualify anyone who would otherwise qualify for legal aid under LASPO, whether under the exceptional provisions or standard provisions of that scheme. I hope I can reassure your Lordships on that point.

I have rather forgotten the other points that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, so eloquently made, but if I sit down without answering, will he remind me afterwards and I will write to him? As I say, I want to underline the purpose of the instrument, which is to produce a level playing field, not a disqualification.

Motion agreed.