My Lords, we are piloting the provision of early legal advice for debt, housing and welfare benefit matters. We will introduce legislation later this year to ensure better access to social welfare advice for people facing possession proceedings. We have reviewed the means test for legal aid and are currently consulting on plans to increase access to legal aid to an additional 2 million people for civil legal aid.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. I acknowledge the work done in this field by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. Frankly, though, two small pilots over a two-year period hardly begin to tackle the scandal that a large number of our fellow citizens cannot get the legal advice that they need and are entitled to. The number of new cases that were helped last year was one-quarter of those helped in the year 2012-13, just before the ghastly LASPO Act came into effect—all that at a time of increasing living costs and families finding it difficult or impossible to cope. Does the Minister agree that much more must be done now to tackle this gross injustice that shames our country and goes to the very heart of access to justice?
My Lords, the noble Lord has acknowledged the work done by my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar. I in turn acknowledge his work in this important field, as part of the Bach commission, which he chairs. In relation to the matter of the priorities now, the Government consider it important that steps in this area be taken on the basis of the most robust data possible, which is why we are proceeding on the basis of pilot schemes that will in-gather the necessary data upon which we can base further actions.
My Lords, is it not scandalous that at a time when our newspapers are full of the vast expenditure of footballers’ wives on libel proceedings ordinary people are still denied justice in those areas which most impact on the lives of the less prosperous and the less privileged? What the Government have announced goes at least some way to help but, looking at that contrast, it really is scandalous.
My Lords, a fundamental principle of our courts is that they are open to all. If people choose to spend their money in a particular way, then the courts permit them to do that, but the Government spend on average £1.7 billion on legal aid. That is a figure which we have under review and are constantly working on it. We acknowledge the importance of this area.
My Lords, the pilot scheme put forward by the Government seeks to quantify the benefits to individuals, their support networks, the Government and, ultimately, the taxpayer. Those seem very sensible aims and I support them. But how is this to be achieved and taken forward, with the access that the noble Lord referred to in his first Answer, when the number of providers of these services has been reduced by a third and in some areas we have a complete desert of providers?
The noble Lord makes an important point. We understand that there are areas where there are no providers, but perhaps I may offer him this assurance: the Legal Aid Agency keeps the matter under constant review and looks to engage with new providers where there are none. No part of England or Wales is without access to legal advice, because of the existence of a national telephone helpline, which can be drawn upon by people who require to access legal aid and assistance who would not otherwise have that available to them.