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House of Lords Hansard
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19 April 2018
Volume 790

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure sufficient availability of legal aid.

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My Lords, we recognise that the availability of legal aid is an important part of maintaining access to justice. The Government remain committed to targeting legal aid to those who need it, while balancing that with the cost to the taxpayer. As the Lord Chancellor has confirmed, we will conduct an evidence-based review of LASPO and will publish our findings later this year.

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I thank the Minister for his reply, and I am conscious that this is not the first time this Question has been asked, but it is generally acknowledged, in particular by legally trained Chancellors, that the quality of advocacy provided by properly trained barristers is of a significantly higher quality than that which is provided by others in court. Does the Minister agree that not only is the criminal Bar an essential part of the criminal justice system but it also requires adequate fees to function properly?

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My Lords, we agree that the criminal Bar is one of the vital pillars underpinning the rule of law and that its contribution should be fairly rewarded.

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My Lords, there are two forms of advice desert in relation to the current legal aid system. One is geographic, where legal advice is simply unavailable because there are no longer legal aid practitioners to provide it, and the other is in relation to particularly sensitive and important areas, such as housing or family law, where the number of cases receiving legal help since LASPO has dropped from 200,000 to 40,000 in the last financial year. Will the long-awaited LASPO review address these problems? Do the Government have an open mind in relation to the possible restoration of legal aid and advice currently denied to people of limited means, with the added benefit of reducing the pressure on the courts system from the growing number of unrepresented parties to proceedings?

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My Lords, with particular reference to housing, at present 133 of the 134 housing and debt procurement areas for legal aid have provision, and in addition there is provision for telephone advice in the context of housing issues that are covered by LASPO. Our review will embrace all the issues that are being raised by interested groups and will take account of the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in their respective reports.

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My Lords, when the Government inquiry takes place, will it please look at the situation of the criminal Bar, which is currently in very real trouble? The noble Baroness made an important point about the very good advocacy of the criminal Bar. It is under real threat and is an issue which the Government have to look at.

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We are conscious of the contribution that the criminal Bar makes. The noble and learned Baroness is alluding to developments with regard to recent changes to the advocates’ graduated fee scheme. That scheme was developed in conjunction with the profession, in particular the Bar Council. The changes are intended to create a simpler and more modern pay system which better reflects the reality of the work being done. As regards the question of an inquiry, a review by the Lord Chancellor is ongoing and we intend to report on it in the course of this year.

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My Lords, the impact assessment for LASPO anticipated annual savings of £450 million. In fact, annual savings have been running at about £950 million. Last month’s terms of reference for the LASPO review commit the Government to ensuring that legal aid is,

“available to those who need it”.

Given that this aim is clearly not currently being achieved, will the Government make these extra savings of £500 million available to fund any proposals made on the review for extra legal aid spending? Has that been made clear to officials conducting the review within the department?

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My Lords, the coalition Government introduced LAPSO in order to ensure that legal aid was directed at those who most require it. The figure of £950 million arises only in the context of a comparison between 2010 and 2016. In that period, legal aid expenditure fell by about £950 million, or 38% in real terms.

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My Lords, is it intended that the review will cover third-party litigation funding? Third-party litigation funding is a useful access to justice, but too often the division of any awards of damages between those who provide the funding and those in whose name the cases are being brought are obscure. Would it not be a good idea if the courts had the power to require the disclosure of such terms to ensure fairness between all the parties?

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My Lords, the matter of third-party litigation funding is of course a matter of contract between two parties, and the Government would be slow to interfere in that contractual process.

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My Lords, further to the excellent question from my noble friend Lord Beecham, will the Government now at last admit that they have denied access to justice to hundreds of thousands of people, with cuts to legal aid taking people with social security, homelessness, mental health and other extremely important issues out of scope; widespread confusion as to who remains eligible; difficulty in proving financial eligibility; and a very damaging fall in the number of legal aid providers? How does the Minister explain the collapse in the number of private practice and not-for-profit organisations undertaking legal aid work? Will the Government now act to restore access to justice as a basic right of citizenship?

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My Lords, we recognise the need for access to justice; it is a fundamental common-law right. We seek to ensure that there is a legal aid scheme that is affordable but allows for access to justice. That scheme is currently the subject of review by the Ministry of Justice.

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My Lords, does the Minister agree with that famous saying, “British justice is the best in the world if you can afford it”? Do we not need a different legal system that makes it possible for ordinary people to pursue cases in the courts?

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My Lords, I am not familiar with that particular comment.