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Legal Aid: Access

Volume 628: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that people in each region of England and Wales have adequate access to legal aid providers. (900664)

The Legal Aid Agency regularly reviews the capacity of the legal aid market to cope with demand for legal aid and takes urgent action where any regional shortfall develops. I intend to look more widely at the impact of recent policy changes on access to legal aid as part of a forthcoming post-implementation review, about which I hope to be able to say more shortly.

The latest report from the Children’s Society, “Cut off from Justice”, found that in Yorkshire we saw a 56% drop in the availability of free immigration advice between 2012 and 2016. Given the acute vulnerabilities of unaccompanied children who need to access legal advice, will the Secretary of State commit to consider those children in the upcoming review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012?

There will certainly be an opportunity, as the hon. Lady wishes, for representations to be made and consideration to be given to that sort of change. While the most recent legislation did indeed exclude non-asylum immigration matters, much family law, including cases involving vulnerable children who might be taken into local authority care, is still eligible for legal aid.

While it is undoubtedly true that fewer people have access to legal aid than was the case before the reforms, it is also true that lots of people who are entitled to legal aid are not getting it. What can the Justice Secretary do to make sure that those people receive the finance that they need to get the access to justice that they require?

If people believe that they are entitled to legal aid, I would strongly encourage them to apply to the relevant authorities and to one of the legal aid providers that are contracted to provide that kind of advice. Even after the exclusion of certain categories in the most recent legislative reform, last year’s legal aid expenditure still amounted to £1.6 billion, which is nearly a quarter of my Department’s entire expenditure.

Does the Minister believe that a greater number of people who have to represent themselves in court—so-called litigants in person—helps justice to be done in this country?

What is important is that we manage legal aid in a way that directs finite taxpayer resources to those cases where there is greatest need, and that we look actively for ways to simplify access to justice, including through the use of digital technology, so that people do not feel the need always to have that kind of professional representation.

Barely a third of immigration detainees even know that they are entitled to 30 minutes of free legal advice in England and Wales, and only half have ever been able to access it. Given the horror show in Brook House that we saw on last night’s “Panorama”, will the Government act urgently to ensure that all detainees get access to the free legal aid that they urgently require?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the centre that was the subject of last night’s programme is accountable to the Home Office. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is concerned about the allegations and appropriate action is being taken.

On the hon. Gentleman’s broader point, legal aid is still available for asylum cases. I would certainly hope that appropriate measures are taken in every relevant establishment to bring those rights to the attention of anyone who is detained and might qualify for legal aid.

May I press the Secretary of State on a publication date for the legal aid review? Will he tell me how many people who have been denied legal aid since the Government changed the criteria the Government have heard from?

I would hope to able to give Parliament details in the relatively near future. I am conscious that this work has been promised. We have not yet been able to make an announcement, but the hon. Lady will appreciate that matters such as a general election and a change of Ministers have intervened. I want to press ahead with this as soon as possible.