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Justice Questions

11th January 2011

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

Legal Aid Expenditure

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the likely effect on the expenditure of other Departments of his proposed changes to expenditure on legal aid. [32680]

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the likely effect on the expenditure of other Departments of his proposed changes to expenditure on legal aid. [32684]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I have had discussions with a number of ministerial colleagues. Those discussions have covered a range of matters affecting our respective Departments, including the potential impact that our proposals to reform legal aid could have on those colleagues' Departments.

Heidi Alexander: I thank the Minister for his reply, but may I push him a bit further on the longer-term costs to the public purse of withdrawing legal aid for all education matters? Obviously, that includes school exclusions. Given that the link between exclusions and offending is well documented, is it not a false economy to cut legal aid for that type of case?

Mr Djanogly: The way in which the impact will take shape in each Department-the hon. Lady mentioned education-is complicated because it involves determining whether our proposals will lead to behavioural change. We intend that that should be the case and that alternatives to court and taxpayer-funded remedies should be used to resolve disputes when at all possible.

Nic Dakin: The White Paper suggests retaining legal aid only for cases in which homes are at risk, but all housing cases carry the risk of homelessness if an early intervention is not made. A representative from a legal practice that currently gives advice to 350 people a year in the Scunthorpe area told me yesterday that most clients are referred to it by the citizens advice bureaux and the wider voluntary sector.

Right now, those agencies do not have the capacity to give appropriate support, and given that funding is being withdrawn by the state and local authorities, the system itself is in imminent threat of collapse. Does the Minister agree that if the proposals go ahead without significant additional money being invested in the voluntary sector, necessary early intervention will not take place, leading to higher levels of homelessness at a significantly higher cost-

Mr Speaker: Order. I think we got the gist of it.

Mr Djanogly: As the hon. Gentleman intimated, the housing budget for legal aid will have savings. However, he failed to mention that it will go down from some £50 million of spending to £38 million of spending; this area of spend is not going to disappear. If an individual or family are subjected to having their home repossessed or if there is any chance of their losing their homes, legal aid will remain available.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Are Ministers not going to have to take steps to convince people that they will not be put at a disadvantage by appearing before tribunals without legal representation? Is the Minister going to take steps to ensure that voluntary organisations can provide people with the support that they would need to appear in person at tribunals?

Mr Djanogly: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This issue is wider than purely legal aid; it is also about how we give what is often non-legal advice. To a great extent, that is provided by the not-for-profit sector. I have had some half a dozen meetings in recent weeks with the not-for-profit sector. We also accept that there is a co-ordinating role across Government to ensure that we minimise any gaps.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I urge my hon. Friend, in doing this review, to look at the spending of legal aid money on private investigators? There was a case in my constituency in which the Legal Aid Board funded a quite dangerous criminal, well known to the police, in the search for his badly battered wife and small children; it then went on to fund his case without making any effort at all to see whether his claim to be penniless was true. He went on to harass that low-income family; the woman had remarried. I urge the Minister to look into that kind of case.

Mr Djanogly: The question of expenses, which would be included in what my hon. Friend mentions, is mentioned in the consultation document. If he gets in touch with me, I will specifically make sure that it caters to the point that he has raised.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): In answer to a recent question, the Minister stated that appeals against decisions on incapacity benefit were 65% more likely to succeed if the appellant were represented. If we apply that to all areas of social welfare law where he is proposing to cut legal aid, that would mean at least 40,000 people each year losing appeals that they would win today solely because of the lack of representation. In the light of that and of the answer that he has just given to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), will he withdraw his earlier claim that individuals will be able to prepare their appeals without formal legal assistance, and reconsider these draconian cuts, which will hit the poorest hardest?

Mr Djanogly: In most cases, individuals will be able to appeal to the first-tier social security and child support tribunal without formal legal assistance. Legal aid is not currently available for legal representation as the appellant is required only to provide reasons for disagreeing with the decision in plain language. For those who need assistance on welfare benefits matters, which I think was the point the hon. Gentleman went on to make, advice and assistance is available from, for example, Jobcentre Plus, the benefits inquiry line and the tribunal itself.

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Legal Aid (Welfare Advice Services)

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): What plans he has for the future funding of welfare advice services currently funded from legal aid. [32685]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): While cost considerations are at the forefront of our review of legal aid, we remain committed to ensuring that legal aid is available to those who need it most in cases where legal aid, legal advice or representation is justified. Accordingly, we propose that specialist legal aid be retained in the highest priority cases of welfare advice, such as those involving debt, housing-for example, where someone's home is at immediate risk, or homelessness or serious disrepair is involved-and community care. The funding of welfare advice services is a cross-Government issue, and it is being considered as such.

Stephen Timms: The Government want voluntary sector welfare advice to replace legal aid, but much of the funding for voluntary sector local advice services comes from legal aid, which is about to be withdrawn. That includes a quarter of the funding for local citizens advice bureaux across the country. I was encouraged by what the Minister said about avoiding a gap. Does he accept that there will have to be new funding from somewhere to replace the funding for advice services that is being withdrawn? In looking, rightly, for cost-effective ways to deliver advice, does he recognise the evidence from the Legal Action Group that those most in need of help are the least likely to use telephone advice services?

Mr Djanogly: The right hon. Gentleman asks a pertinent question. Having spent a lot of time discussing this matter over recent weeks with the not-for-profit sector, I can tell him that very little is known about it in that sector. Even the head offices of voluntary organisations may not know what the funding is for their own local organisations. The core funding for legal help, for instance, typically comes not from the Ministry of Justice, but from the local authority. We have to make up for a decade of people overlooking the need to co-ordinate funding, by seeing what the funding streams are and ensuring that they work in the way that they should. That will involve ensuring that there is no duplication. There is currently a lot of duplication in the system.

Mr Speaker: I appreciate the comprehensiveness of the replies, but greater economy would facilitate progress.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Does the Minister appreciate that those who practise welfare law have traditionally not been highly paid, and does he realise that swathes of firms are likely to disappear? Who will stand in that breach, because those who are most in need are the least likely to be helped in those circumstances?

Mr Djanogly: We believe that a cultural change is needed. We need to move away from the immediate rush to lawyers and courts, whether through mediation or, if a court alternative is required, a conditional fee arrangement, rather than legal aid. Much more should be made of those alternatives.

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Topical Questions

John Mann: In a statement to the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) said that Worksop county court would be transferring to Worksop magistrates court, and he confirmed that in answer to my question. In fact, the opposite has happened. Is he the kind of Minister who is in control of his Department and is his word his authority when he speaks to this House, or is he the monkey to his civil servants' organ grinder?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The hon. Gentleman speaks with his usual charm. He raised this issue on a point of order yesterday and I was going to write to him today, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to address it on the Floor of the House. I am, of course, sorry for any misunderstanding or inaccuracy regarding county court services in Worksop. That no doubt stems from the fact that the announced closure of Worksop county court and the announced retention of Worksop magistrates court leads to a slightly more complex set of arrangements at the Worksop courthouse than is typical and I am pleased to be able to clarify the matter.

On the closure of Worksop county court, the counter services will cease to be available, but county court hearings will be retained at the Worksop courthouse. However, the administrative work for Worksop county court is already dealt with at Mansfield county court and, as now, court users will continue to be able to contact Mansfield county court by a variety of methods.

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Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Following the Minister's decision to close Rochdale magistrates court, will he meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) to discuss the matter further?

Mr Djanogly: I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentlemen.[32706]

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Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): In December I discovered that constituents who were appealing against their benefit decisions at the tribunal service, for which the Ministry is responsible, were having to wait for appointments or tribunal dates for between six and nine months. Given that those individuals will suffer a financial penalty in that time and that a significant number will win their appeals, does the Minister think that that is acceptable? What will he do to remedy it?

Mr Djanogly: The timetable was worsening, but more resources have been put in and we hope that the situation will improve.

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Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Tomorrow I will be meeting representatives from my local citizens advice bureaux, Merseyside Employment Law and Merseyside Welfare Rights, who are part of the Justice for All lobby of Parliament. They will be raising their deep concerns about the severe impact that the cuts to legal aid will have on people in my constituency who are disabled, have low incomes or are unemployed. Will any of the Ministers here today be meeting anyone from the Justice for All lobby tomorrow?

Mr Djanogly: I have not received a request for such a meeting, although I would be very happy to attend if a request came in. However, as I said before, the point is that we have to cut legal aid; indeed, the hon. Lady's party has recognised that we need to cut the amount of legal aid paid. It is important that we redirect the scarce resources that remain to the most vulnerable, and that is what we will be doing.

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Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Given his remarks about legal aid and citizens advice bureaux, does the Minister look to local authorities as core funders, or to other Departments to increase such funding?

Mr Djanogly: We need to distinguish between legal aid and general advice. A citizens advice bureau may provide legal aid services, but half do not do so. However, all will provide core advisory services, which are normally funded by local authorities.

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Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I received a reply from the Ministry of Justice saying that the Data Protection Act 1998

"does not cover the...retention and storage"

of the records of deceased persons. That means that hospitals have incentives to lose, mislay or hide records in cases where there is some suspicion about what happened. Can the Minister read my early-day motion 1220 and have urgent discussions with the Department of Health to see whether we can review legislation in this area?

Mr Djanogly: That is a matter where co-ordination with the Department of Health will be required, and I should be very happy to do that work if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me on the matter.

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Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Before any decision is made to withdraw legal aid for families dealing with special educational needs tribunals, will my right hon. and hon. Friends work with the Department for Education, particularly in the light of its proposed Green Paper on the reform of SEN procedure, to ensure that the families of children with SEN get all the help and support that they deserve?

Mr Djanogly: We have been co-ordinating with the Department for Education on this matter, and the joint views will be going into the Green Paper.

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