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Justice Questions


31st January 2012

Jonathan Djanogly answers back bench MP's questions on issues including support for law centres, the availability of free legal advice and the proposed changes to legal aid.

Law Centres

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to support law centres. [92472]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Ministry of Justice does not provide direct support for law centres. However, law centres are able to bid for contracts issued by the Legal Services Commission to provide legal services in specified areas of law and will continue to be able to do so in the future.

My Department is also working closely with the Cabinet Office to support the cross-Government review into the funding of the not-for-profit sector announced on 21 November last year.

Lilian Greenwood: I thank the Minister for that reply, but what would he say to my local law centre in Nottingham, which, as a result of his legal aid changes, says it will no longer be able to offer specialist advice to people experiencing problems at work, with debts or with benefits? When our local citizens advice bureau is already hugely overstretched, does that not mean that hundreds of people—particularly vulnerable people—will be unable to get the advice they need and will be denied access to justice?

Mr Djanogly: Specifically, legal aid will be provided for a lot of debt advice after our changes. We are reducing our spend on legal aid, and law centres will be affected by that, but the Government recognise and highly value the important role of not-for-profit organisations such as law centres. That is why we launched a £107 million transition fund last year and the £20 million advice services fund this year. It is why the Cabinet Office has also announced a review of not-for-profit advice centres, which is a welcome and important development.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Is it not an assumption behind the Government’s reforms that the availability of advice needs to replace a great deal of litigation? If that is to be achieved, is it not necessary to ensure that there is a long-term, not merely a short-term, solution to some of the funding problems of law centres and citizens advice bureaux?

Mr Djanogly: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are changing the way funding works and looking for alternatives to be taken up. However, we appreciate that, in the meantime, while the reorganisations are happening, there is a need to support law centres, which is why we are looking at transitional provisions to ease that passage.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail, Matthew Elliott, the chief executive of the TaxPayers Alliance, pointed out that:

“advice costing £80 to deal with a housing problem can save thousands for councils who are legally required to house homeless families…cutting £10.5m for legal aid in clinical negligence cases will cause knock-on costs to the NHS of £28.5m.”

He says:

“Almost everyone who has looked at these particular cuts”—

even Norman Tebbit—

“thinks that too many of them will end up costing taxpayers more than they save.”

Is he right?

Mr Djanogly: No, he is not right. The figures have been repeated by the Law Society. The point is that legal help is not the same as legal aid. We certainly appreciate the strong need for legal help so that problems can be dealt with early, and that is why we are very supportive of not-for-profit organisations.

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Free Legal Advice

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the availability of free legal advice. [92476]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Ministry of Justice is responsible for legally-aided advice services through its relationship with the Legal Services Commission. This is publicly funded legal advice, rather than “free” legal advice. “Free”, or pro bono, legal advice is not within the scope of the Ministry’s ambit. Legally aided lawyers do not act for free; they act for money and are paid for by the taxpayer, so it is important that we get value for money for the taxpayer.

Stephen Timms: I am grateful to the Minister for his visit last year to the excellent advice service at Community Links that is used by my constituents. Is he aware that funding cuts mean that that service will stop providing all welfare benefits advice next year, shortly before the massive upheaval that will follow the introduction of universal credit? Is not that a recipe for disaster?

Mr Djanogly: The legal aid scope changes will not come in until April 2013, but that is indeed something that is on the horizon. I have visited the right hon.

Gentleman’s local law centre, and it is a very good organisation. As I said to him the last time he asked about this issue, changes are going to have to take place, and that is why we are looking to put in place transitional arrangements.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): The legal aid budget amounts to a spend of £39 per person in the UK, while it is nearer to £5 in Spain, France and Germany. Does the Minister agree that the present position in the UK is wholly unsustainable, and that savings have to be made in the light of the financial circumstances that we inherited from Labour?

Mr Djanogly: Savings do have to be made. A similar comparison can be made with a Commonwealth country such as New Zealand, where the figure is about £18 per head. We must ensure that the scarce resources are spent as well as possible, and that people do not go to court when they do not need to do so.

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Legal Aid

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment his Department has made of the effect on women of his proposed changes to legal aid. [92488]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government published an equality impact assessment alongside their response to the consultation, which set out the best assessment of the effects on women of the proposed changes to legal aid. This recognised the potential for the reforms to have an impact on women alongside those with other protected characteristics. We have taken the view that any such impacts would be justified in the light of the policy objectives, especially in the context of reducing the deficit.

Geraint Davies: The Minister knows that the courts are already in crisis due to a shortage of court and judge time. Will he accept that the removal of legal aid will encourage more and more women to provide their own defence, which will add to the crisis of delays and will mean further delay for children, bringing hardship to families and children?

Mr Djanogly: There is no shortage of court time or judge time. I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I understand why my hon. Friend is bringing forward the changes, but is he aware of the perverse consequences on new entrants to the Bar, particularly women, given the opportunities in relation to being mobile and entering a legal profession in which one or one’s family have not been involved? Doors are being slammed in women’s faces.

Mr Djanogly: Certainly, as far as solicitors are concerned, the number of entries to the profession by women is now greater than by men. I believe the same is the case for barristers, but I will check and come back to my hon. Friend.

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Conditional Fee Arrangements

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of his reforms to conditional fee arrangements on people's ability to pursue civil cases against newspapers and other media organisations. [92491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government are reforming the operation of conditional fee agreements through the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The relevant impact assessments are published on the Ministry of Justice website. We believe that meritorious claims, including against media organisations, will still be able to secure representation under CFAs.

Kevin Brennan: Victims of phone hacking are absolutely clear that they would not have been able to take their cases forward were it not for no win, no fee arrangements being available; nor would the critical mass of cases been built up to break the scandal open. Why are the Minister and the Government on the side of powerful media moguls against vulnerable victims?

Mr Djanogly: Quite the opposite: in fact, the high and disproportionate costs in the present system hinder access to justice and can lead to a chilling effect on journalism and academic and scientific debate. In the Naomi Campbell case, the European Court of Human Rights found the existing CFA arrangements with recoverability in that case to be contrary to article 10 of the convention.

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Topical Questions

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Last month, Welsh Women’s Aid surveyed 324 victims of domestic violence who were receiving specialist support, and it found that 46% of them would not be eligible for legal aid if the Government’s proposals were carried out. Why will the Government not listen to the evidence, which plainly points to the fact that many victims of domestic violence will be denied access to justice?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have had the Welsh report and are looking at it, but we dispute the figures in it. As I have said on many occasions, when it comes to legal aid, we are concentrating our efforts on helping to deal with domestic violence, and that will be the case following our reforms.

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Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Do Ministers share my concerns about the unacceptable burdens placed on small businesses by ambulance-chasing lawyers, who pursue those businesses for spurious claims when they have no right to do so?

Mr Djanogly: The Government are taking firm, significant steps to address the burgeoning claims market, which, as my hon. Friend says, particularly encourages low-value claims against businesses and others—claims for which we all end up paying. That is why we are reforming no win, no fee conditional fee agreements and banning referral fees, and why we are countering illegal text advertising and consulting on banning inducement advertising.

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Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The trade unions directly benefit from current no win, no fee arrangements, earning huge amounts via their legal arms through inflated success fees. What assessment has the Minister made of the amount of success fees paid to trade unions, particularly in personal injury cases?

Mr Djanogly: Unfortunately, the trade unions did not provide their lawyers’ success fee details, or their referral fee income details, to the consultation. However, given that they have received more than £550,000 from personal injury lawyers in donations, it seems that the unions’ lawyers are not entirely disinterested in the outcome of our attempt to rein in the compensation culture.

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Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): One in four girls, some as young as 13, are hit by their boyfriend. What action will the Minister take to tackle violence among children?

Mr Djanogly: Tackling domestic violence is an absolute priority of this Government, and we are co-ordinating action with the Home Office. Indeed, my hon. Friend appeared in a debate that was held in Westminster Hall only a few days ago, and she will have seen the full picture at that time.

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Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): In the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment of the cuts to civil legal aid, there are 15 statements that the Ministry does not have evidence for the savings and 30 admissions that the savings are based on speculation. Should not the Secretary of State listen to Citizens Advice and King’s college London, which can demonstrate that the cuts will cost the taxpayer more than they will save?

Mr Djanogly: We have seen the King’s college figures, and we do not agree with them. The fact of the matter is that we have published full impact assessments, and we stand by them.

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Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Throughout the 18 months to the end of September 2011, consistently more than half of appeal cases relating to employment and support allowance took longer than six months to be decided by the Courts and Tribunals Service, meaning that more than twice as many people as the service’s own target are waiting that long. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that they receive their decisions in good time?

Mr Djanogly: The service is under pressure because of an increase in appeals, but I am very pleased to say that in five of the past six months more appeals have gone out the door than have come in.

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