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Justice Questions


17th May 2011

Jonathan Djanogly answers MPs'questions on subjects including legal aid reform, magistrates courts and mediation in family cases.

Legal Aid Reform

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): When he expects to bring forward legislative proposals for the reform of legal aid. [55671]

7. Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): When he expects to bring forward legislative proposals for the reform of legal aid. [55672]

9. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): When he expects to bring forward legislative proposals for the reform of legal aid. [55674]

12. Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): When he expects to bring forward legislative proposals for the reform of legal aid. [55680]

13. Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): When he expects to bring forward legislative proposals for the reform of legal aid. [55681]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We intend to bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows.

Jessica Morden: A host of organisations, including Citizens Advice, the Law Society and the Select Committee on Justice, have criticised the lack of an evidential basis for the proposed legal aid changes and have asked the Government to slow down and think again. Will the Minister be willing to act on their advice?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Lady’s question implies that the Government have not been listening. I would say that that is not the case. The consultation elicited some 5,000 responses, we have now had three Adjournment debates on legal aid reform, hundreds of questions have been tabled and I have been engaging in debates, sometimes with shadow Ministers, outside this place. I would say that the Government have been doing a lot of listening on the issue and we will be ready for legislation shortly.

Chris Evans: Solicitors have complained to me that the proposals could turn Islwyn into a legal aid desert. What estimate has been made of the number of practitioners who would stop legal aid work if the reforms were made?

Mr Djanogly: The Government’s position is not to start off with the number of legal aid practitioners. Our starting point is the sort of legal aid system that we should have in this country, which will support vulnerable people. The number of practitioners to service that will follow.

Rosie Cooper: Does the Minister believe that there is anything to learn from the Secretaries of State who have been dealing with forestry and health when it comes to rushing through proposals that have been rejected by professionals, the public and coalition Members of both Houses?

Mr Djanogly: I think that I answered that question previously. I certainly believe that we have listened and engaged fully.

Liz Kendall: The Minister has just said that he wants his plans to protect the most vulnerable, but his own impact assessment says that low-income families, women and minority ethnic groups will be disproportionately affected. Can he explain how that is fair?

Mr Djanogly: Legal aid per se involves poor people, so if we are going to reduce costs it will impact on poor people. It is true that individuals with protected equality characteristics are over-represented within the current client base of civil and family legal aid when compared with the population as a whole, although the extent of that varies by category of law.

Julie Elliott: Will the Minister be taking the advice of the Select Committee on Justice, which recommended that the Government should assess the

“merits of the cost-saving proposals put forward by the Law Society”,

namely the alternative savings of £384 million—£34 million more than the Government’s proposals would save—while protecting all civil and family legal representation?

Mr Djanogly: Various alternatives have been suggested by the institution that the hon. Lady mentions and by many others during the consultation. The question is whether they would work and whether they would deliver the required savings within the spending review period. The main proposal of the Law Society, which she mentioned, is an alcohol levy—a penny on your pint to pay for lawyers.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I am glad that the Minister is actively listening on this issue—[ Interruption. ]We will see, won’t we? Under his proposals, someone with a debt case who faces homelessness will be eligible for legal aid, so why should someone facing homelessness in a case of unlawful eviction not also be eligible?

Mr Djanogly: Those are the sorts of issues that we have been considering very carefully through the consultation process. It is very important to realise that even after our reforms we will still be spending £40 million on housing legal aid, for example, and £6 million with debt, so it would be wrong to say that we are abolishing those areas of law. We are looking to get better value and to make sure that the money goes towards helping the vulnerable.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Minister will have noted a great degree of consistency in the submissions on the proposed changes to legal aid, with concerns expressed about family law, debt and housing law, medical negligence and cost-shunting on to other Departments. He has confirmed that the consultation on legal aid has been a genuine listening exercise. Can he confirm that many of the points expressed by organisations such as the Law Society and the CAB have been heard and, critically, will be acted on?

Mr Djanogly: All of the submissions have been heard and are being considered very carefully—I can assure my hon. Friend of that. As for whether we put them all into place—that is unlikely, but we will consider them all and where we need to change our proposals, changes will be made.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): I recently met Langleys Solicitors, a firm based in my constituency, which feels that the recommendations about reductions in the provision of legal aid combined with the recommendations from Lord Jackson’s report on civil court reforms will seriously undermine access to justice and the rule of law. What assurances can my hon. Friend give to Langleys, my constituents and me that the Government’s reforms will not make it more difficult for ordinary people to have recourse to the courts to right wrongs?

Mr Djanogly: I have to be up front with my hon. Friend and say that less money will be spent on legal aid, which means that fewer people will have access to legal aid. The important issue is that we direct scarce resources to the most vulnerable, and that is exactly what we will be doing by prioritising those whose security and liberty is at risk and those whose homes are at risk of immediate repossession.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I was fortunate to secure a debate on legal aid last week in which I and others had the opportunity to go through some detailed concerns. Sadly, the Minister ran out of time in which to respond; I trust that he will respond to us all in writing. He implied then that there would be changes to the original proposals. Can he confirm that now, and what will they be?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that a letter has been sent to my hon. Friend, so he should get it shortly. As I said in the Adjournment debate, which helpfully enabled hon. Members to put their points across, issues that were raised then are being looked at carefully by the Government. We will assess those and some of them may have implications for our legislation in due course.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Secretary of State has accepted Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations on civil litigation reform. He said they were “very attractive” and he was “impressed” by them, so why is the Minister ignoring the report’s recommendation that the Government make

“no further cutbacks in legal aid availability or eligibility”

because

“The legal aid system plays a crucial role in promoting access to justice at proportionate costs”?

Mr Djanogly: Legal aid does play a very important part in access to justice, which the Government support. Lord Justice Jackson was looking at civil costs, and in that context he looked at legal aid. On that point, as in various other instances, we did not agree with his recommendations. What we will put forward in legislation is a total all-encompassing package. The shadow Minister will appreciate that we consulted on public and private funding at the same time so that those who wanted to respond could do so in the context of both.

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Legal Aid (Immigration)

Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): How much his Department spent on legal aid for cases concerning immigration in the latest period for which figures are available. [55682]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Legal Services Commission’s gross operating expenditure on asylum and immigration legal aid in the financial year 2009-10 was £90 million, of which about £26 million was for immigration matters.

Simon Kirby: Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to reduce the amount of money spent on legal aid for immigration cases is to resolve those cases as promptly as possible, and that, had we not inherited an immigration system in crisis from the Labour party, the costs would be lower already?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend is quite right. The best way to reduce the amount of money spent on immigration legal aid is to retain taxpayer funding for serious issues only. Our current view is that most individuals involved in immigration cases, such as those applying for study or work visas or making citizenship applications, should not require legal aid to resolve their issues.

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Topical Questions

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): Earlier this month, the foetal anti-convulsant litigation against Sanofi Aventis was discontinued after six years’ preparation. The claimants and their families have been denied their day in court because legal aid funding was withdrawn at the last moment. Will the Minister say what funding arrangements will be available for multi-party actions in future so that such families are not denied access to justice?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The funding of clinical negligence cases in this country is about 50:50 between legal aid and conditional fee arrangements—in other words, private funding. We believe that when people have the opportunity of private funding, they should take that option. In looking at our proposals for reviewing privately funded litigation, we are taking clinical negligence cases on board and are moulding our proposals to help those who want to take such cases.

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Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): Does the Minister agree that justice is best dispensed through a network of local courts, such as that at Lowestoft in my constituency? Will he provide an assurance that, following the recent round of closures, there are no plans for further rationalisation and that every effort will be made to sustain the existing network of magistrates courts?

Mr Djanogly: I believe that justice is best dispensed through a network of courts that is efficient and well-utilised, and that provides the facilities that are expected of a modern courts system, particularly for victims and witnesses. I confirm that there are no current plans for further rationalisation.

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Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Legal aid to take family cases to court will in future be available only when domestic violence is an issue. Otherwise, couples will be expected to go to mediation. However, mediation may not be appropriate where there is a high degree of conflict, even when domestic violence is absent. What consideration is the Minister giving to how such cases will work after legal aid is removed?

Mr Djanogly: We are studying that issue very carefully through the consultation. We believe that mediation, as a cheaper, quicker and less stressful alternative, is normally the best way to go, but there will be circumstances in which it is not appropriate, domestic violence being one of them. We are considering the definition of domestic violence carefully.

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