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Justice Questions

23rd November 2010

Jonathan Djanogly answers questions from MPs on subjects including reforms to the legal aid system.

Legal Aid (Immigration Appeals)

Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): How much was spent on legal aid for cases in respect of immigration appeals in the last 12 months. [25567]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): In 2009-10, overall legal aid expenditure on advice and representation in immigration and asylum appeals was £85 million. I should, however, point out that it is not possible to identify expenditure for initial advice separately from expenditure before the immigration and asylum tribunal in cases in which both advice and representation are provided.

Mr Evennett: I thank the Minister for his response. Can he confirm that, under the coalition Government proposals, immigration cases will be taken out of the scope of legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are consulting on removing all immigration matters from the scope of legal aid, other than for those in immigration detention. That means removing matters such as varying leave to remain-for example, if a foreign student wants to change their visa to get permission to work instead, or, indeed, to stay here for longer. Such cases will no longer be at the taxpayer's expense.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): One of the ways in which we can cut down on waste in the legal aid budget is to address no-shows by Home Office officials at immigration hearings. Can the Minister tell me the number of cases in which Home Office representatives do not turn up to these hearings and the cost of that to the legal aid bill, or will he write to me with that information?

Mr Djanogly: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with that information, but I can tell him that it is an issue. Defendants' representatives not turning up for hearings is also an issue.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Responding to Lord Carter's 2006 review of legal aid, the Minister said it put very vulnerable individuals at risk, that people were not being represented and that the structure was "being destroyed", and he concluded:

"I would say it's a meltdown."

Carter reduced the budget by about 5%, whereas the current Government's Green Paper cuts civil legal aid income by 42%. How would the Minister describe that?

Mr Djanogly: The important point to make is that the last Government did, indeed, look at legal aid: they had more than 30 consultations over a five-year period, including Carter. The result of that was that providers and those in receipt of legal aid were lost within the system and did not know where cuts were coming from, and what we are doing now is putting forward a comprehensive review of legal aid, whereby providers and all stakeholders will be able to see their position within the system-and as a result the consultation will be accurate.

Mr Slaughter: Well, we can all make what we will of that, but the fact remains that more than half a million people who may have unfairly lost their job, their income, their right to decent housing or access to their children-or, indeed, who may have been deported from the country, as the Minister has just said-will now go without advice or representation, whereas criminal legal aid and some of the high-cost advocates earning more than £900,000 a year are largely untouched. The Secretary of State said in his statement on these measures that it was important to strike a balance. Does the Minister not think that the balance has been got wrong in this case?

Mr Djanogly: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the consultation document, which has clearly got a section on very high-cost cases, and on which we have significant proposals. More particularly, the Labour manifesto said it wanted to cut legal aid, so if he is going to talk about our cuts, perhaps he might like to say where he would be making cuts in legal aid.

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Legal Aid

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): What steps he plans to take to fulfil the aspiration in the coalition agreement to increase the efficiency of the legal aid system. [25571]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The consultation document "Proposals for the Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales", published on 15 November, sets out proposals to make the legal aid scheme more efficient. We looked from first principles at its scope, the eligibility rules, and the fees paid to lawyers and other providers of legal aid. We looked at alternative sources of funding, and we are also consulting on reducing administrative bureaucracy and making the system simpler to operate.

Christopher Pincher: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he take this opportunity to make it clear that the issues raised by Des Hudson of the Law Society are unfounded, that access to justice will still be available for people who really need it and that worthy organisations such as Citizens Advice are valued by this Government?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, we are certainly very keen to work with voluntary organisations such as Citizens Advice to ensure more efficient and focused provision of legal aid, and included in that will be our proposals for a civil law telephone gateway service. By refocusing legal aid we aim to ensure that taxpayers' money will be prioritised to help the vulnerable receive the legal support that they need.

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that proposals to close both the county court and magistrates court in my town of Whitehaven have been met with widespread anxiety and have been condemned by the local bench and local solicitors. Will he agree to meet us, so that he can learn at first hand just how ruinous the proposals would be if enacted?

Mr Djanogly: The courts consultation closed in mid-September. We have been examining the significant number of responses and will be reporting back to the House on them before the new year. I am sure that the representations that the hon. Gentleman has made on his local courts will be examined and, following our decision, I would be happy to meet him.

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Legal Aid (Clinical Negligence Cases)

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effects on the NHS of removing clinical negligence from the scope of legal aid. [25574]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Clinical negligence cases against the NHS are funded approximately 50:50 between legal aid and no win, no fee agreements with lawyers. We will be interested to understand through our consultation the specific impact on the NHS of the removal of clinical negligence cases from the scope of legal aid, which should save some £17 million to legal aid. However, we also estimate that our proposals to reform no win, no fee conditional fee agreements will save around £50 million each year to the NHS in reduced legal costs.

Dr Wollaston: Could reducing legal aid for clinical negligence lead to an upsurge in no win, no fee deals and an increase in the compensation culture?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend is right to point out that changes in one area can have knock-on implications in another area. It is important to point out that that is precisely why we put out the legal aid consultation document on the same day as Sir Rupert Jackson's proposals on no win, no fee agreements. The two can be weighed up together and the consultation will therefore take a holistic approach.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): On legal aid, the Minister has spoken today about working with voluntary sector organisations. Community Links' welfare advice service in my area has seen 9,000 people so far this year. It is very cost-effective and has been paid for until now by legal aid. Under the Minister's proposals, it will not be in the future. How will that work be supported by the Government in the period ahead?

Mr Djanogly: People have the option of getting conditional fee agreements, also known as no win, no fee agreements. They can go to a lawyer and that lawyer will take a view on the chances of success. The question that must be asked-we will be very interested to hear the responses to it during the consultation-is whether, if the private sector is not prepared to take on the risk, the public sector should be prepared to do so and what proportion of that risk it will be prepared to take on.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Following my question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice during his legal aid statement, is there not a danger that, given the complexity of clinical negligence cases, the most vulnerable will not have access to no win, no fee simply because such companies will not offer their services to them?

Mr Djanogly: There will still be power to grant legal aid in exceptional cases where a CFA will not be available, although it will be restricted. The fact remains that CFAs will still be available for people with no ability to fund their cases so that they can take proceedings.

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Legal Aid (Family Law)

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the reduction in the number of family law cases that will be eligible for legal aid during the period of the comprehensive spending review. [25575]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We estimate that removing from the scope of legal aid most private family law cases, except for those involving domestic violence, forced marriage and international child abduction, would reduce the number of people receiving advice under the legal aid scheme by about 211,000 annually and of those represented in court by just under 54,000 annually. Together, those figures represent an estimated annual saving of £178 million. However, we have also decided to retain legal aid for mediation to help separating couples sort out their issues without the courts where possible.

Tony Lloyd: The Minister's last point is very important. In many such private cases, child-protection issues arise. Can he give the House an absolute guarantee that private cases in which child protection becomes an issue will still receive legal aid? If not, these cost savings will be at the expense of our children's future.

Mr Djanogly: Absolutely; where a public family law matter arises, that case will remain within scope. If a child is subject to being taken away from their parents, legal aid will be available.

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Topical Questions

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): What assurance can Ministers give my constituents in west Cornwall that the legal aid reforms published last week will not adversely affect the coverage of, or reduce access to, legal aid, particularly in civil and family proceedings?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The hard facts are that the amount of legal aid being paid out in civil cases will be reduced. As part of the Government's savings of £2 billion, £350 million is subject to be taken out of legal aid by 2014-15. That means that we will focus legal aid on the most vulnerable who need legal representation.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): On a less controversial subject, what scope is there for mediation in family law cases, and will such cases continue to qualify for legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: We have taken the view that mediation should be retained within the scope of legal aid, and we think that it should be thoroughly encouraged. Too often, people take the course of court when they should look towards sorting out issues between themselves, and mediation will play a big part in enabling them to do that.

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