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Justice Questions

29th March 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers questions from MPs on Legal Aid reform, changes to the payment of fees to criminal law barristers and volunteer magistrates.

Legal Aid Reform

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What progress he has made on his proposed reform of legal aid. [49328]

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): What progress he has made on his proposed reform of legal aid. [49335]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The consultation for the reform of legal aid closed on 14 February and we have received some 5,000 responses from members of the public, lawyers and their representative bodies, advice providers, charities and many others. We are continuing to review all the representations received and we hope to publish our finalised proposals, which will include plans for implementation, after the Easter recess.

Nic Dakin: I thank the Minister for his reply. Citizens Advice has calculated that every pound cut in welfare legal aid will cost the state a further £9 in additional costs. In light of that information, will he amend his plans?

Mr Djanogly: We do not accept the figures provided by Citizens Advice, but we do recognise that early advice can certainly be helpful in a range of contexts. Often, people need general advice on welfare benefits or debt rather than legal advice.

Kate Green: The Government are announcing a huge programme of welfare reform, which means that, at least for a time, there will inevitably be confusion and uncertainty about entitlement. Will the Minister explain how it can be right to consider removing funding for legal aid for welfare benefits and social law matters right now? What guarantees will he give about continued funding for such advice?

Mr Djanogly: There is never a right time to do these things, but we feel that legal aid needs to play its part in reducing the deficit and that is what we propose to do. In terms of benefits, there could be an issue with more benefit claims coming through from the Department for Work and Pensions and we are working closely with that Department to ensure that we maintain a smooth service.

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposed reforms will have a disproportionate impact on women-I declare an interest as a legal aid family lawyer-especially in the categories of employment, family and housing?

Mr Djanogly: Not necessarily. It is true that individuals featuring protected characteristics are over-represented in the civil legal aid client base and as such any reform to civil legal aid is likely to have a greater impact on those groups when compared with the population as a whole, but that is a function of demographics. When affected clients are compared with unaffected clients, proportions are very similar.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Will my hon. Friend take on board all the careful representations he has received about the potential problem of using domestic violence as the criterion for granting legal aid in family law cases?

Mr Djanogly: The Government's position is that domestic violence should be the gateway to receiving legal aid in relation to family law. However, my hon. Friend has asked specifically about the definition and I am pleased to tell him that many representations have come in on this issue and that we are going to consider them very carefully when we make our final report.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): What the Minister told the Justice Committee is at odds with what he has said to the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) today. He said that he wanted legal aid to be directed towards the most vulnerable, but every authoritative voice the Committee heard, and even his Department's impact assessment, said that the opposite will be the case and that the most vulnerable will be disproportionately hit by his cuts. We will see tomorrow, when the Committee publishes its report, whom it found more credible, but may I offer him the opportunity today finally to accept the overwhelming evidence that his cuts to social welfare legal aid will hit the most vulnerable the hardest?

Mr Djanogly: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions social welfare and misses criminal legal aid, because when it comes to eligibility and defining who is vulnerable, it was the previous Government who decided that criminal legal aid would be means-tested. We are not addressing that, but in relation to civil legal aid, yes, we do believe that the eligibility tests need to be looked at, and that is what we are doing.

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Criminal Law Barristers (Fees)

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): What progress has been made on proposed changes to the payment of fees to criminal law barristers through the Legal Services Commission. [49339]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The processing, validation and payment of claims under the advocates graduated fees scheme is being transferred from Her Majesty's Courts Service to the Legal Services Commission. The transfer is taking place on a phased basis between 7 February and 18 April of this year.

Anna Soubry: I know that it is not proper to talk about lawyers and fees in the same sentence, but this is an overly bureaucratic system that does not pay out, as may be familiar to many Members of this House. There are criminal barristers who have not received fees for many, many months after they have completed their work. Does the Minister agree that that is plain unfair?

Mr Djanogly: If my hon. Friend would like to contact me with specifics, I would happily take them up. However, the responsibility for processing claims began to be passed to the LSC only on 7 February, so delays of six months are impossible. Properly completed claims are currently being processed within two weeks.

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Topical Questions

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): The Government are proposing to remove legal aid for all asylum support law cases, while retaining it for other asylum matters. Why is the Minister drawing that distinction, when the vulnerabilities involved are surely the same?

Mr Djanogly: The fundamental principle that we are following is that when security or liberty is at risk, legal aid should be provided. That is why we propose to maintain legal aid for asylum cases, but not for asylum support.

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Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): The Government have decided to close a number of magistrates courts in this country, as a result of which, many valiant volunteer magistrates will travel far longer distances and incur additional costs. What action will my hon. Friend take to ensure that people are properly compensated for their time and travel costs?

Mr Djanogly: Our proposals will adequately compensate magistrates by aligning magistrates' subsistence and travelling allowances with those of the salaried judiciary and, indeed, Members of Parliament. The proposed travel allowances will align with rates commonly used across voluntary, private and public sectors. It is estimated that these changes will save Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service £3.2 million a year.

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