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Legal Aid Reform Debate

3rd February 2011

Jonathan Djanogly responds to a debate on the proposals to reform legal aid and underlines the principle which is to ensure access to justice for all.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I congratulate the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) on securing this important debate, in which we have heard many excellent contributions.

It has been helpful to hear first-hand from those who have contributed today, but before responding to some of the specific issues raised, of which there were many, I would like to reiterate the rationale and context of the reform proposals. I should say at the outset that the Government strongly agree with the views expressed by many Members today that access to justice is a hallmark of a civilised society, and that the provision of legal aid, in a targeted, focused and sustainable way, is a key part of ensuring appropriate access to justice. So I say to the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) that our aim is to direct our scarce resources towards helping the most vulnerable.

As hon. Members will know, the Government have pledged to reduce the budget deficit to deal with the acute financial crisis and encourage economic recovery. The Department has to reduce its budget by £2 billion by 2014-15, and legal aid, being one of just three big areas of spending in the Ministry of Justice, needs to make a substantial contribution of £350 million to that reduction. However, the need to make savings gives us the impetus and urgency for change and provides us with the opportunity radically to reform a system that, in many cases, needed reform anyway. To that extent, I agree with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that our policy cannot simply be determined by how we deal with the deficit.

In June, we announced that we would be taking a fundamental look at the legal aid system. Our aim was then, and remains now, to create a stable and sustainable system that ensures access to public funding in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in our society and the efficient performance of our justice system. This also reflects the aim of creating a more efficient legal aid system as set out in the coalition Government document. Since the modern legal aid scheme was established in 1949, its scope has been widened far beyond what was originally intended. By 1999, legal aid funding was available for virtually every type of issue, including some that should not require any legal expertise to resolve.

Mrs Grant: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Djanogly: I would love to give way, but with so many points having been made, I cannot. I apologise.

I believe that that has too often encouraged people to bring their problems before the courts even where the courts are not best placed to provide the best solutions, and discouraged them from seeking simpler, more appropriate remedies. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on her excellent article this afternoon.

Indeed, the scheme now costs more than £2 billion a year, making it one of the most generous schemes in the world, even taking jurisdictional differences into account. We need to understand that, even after the proposed reforms, we are still going to have one of the most expensive schemes in the world. The previous Government made many attempts to reform legal aid, conducting more than 30 consultations since 2006, but the changes were of a piecemeal nature and failed to address the underlying problems. Rather than continue with this "cut and come again" approach, we have gone back to basic principles to make choices about which issues are of sufficient priority to justify the use of public funds, subject to people's means and the merits of the case.

The Opposition's general position on legal aid is staggeringly inconsistent and opportunistic. Labour appears to be backing down on its commitment to support legal aid reform. In an article on Left Foot Forward, the shadow justice Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), wrote:

"It is nonsensical...to cut these long established public services."

The article seems to reveal a split between the shadow Justice team and its party leader, who said at a recent press conference that with regard to the reductions in legal aid

"Labour has shown it is ready to make difficult cuts which we believe are necessary for the long term health of our economy."

Its leader was, of course, reiterating the promise made in the 2010 Labour manifesto:

"We will find greater savings in legal aid".

It also contradicts the statement of the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) offering support to the Government when the reforms were announced last year. He said:

"Let me be clear: had we been in government today, we, too, would have been announcing savings to the legal aid budget. That is a reality that we all have to acknowledge."-[ Official Report, 15 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 663.]

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Djanogly: I think I do have to give way on this one.

Mr Slaughter: I think the Minister does, now that he has read out the central office briefing. I urge him either to read the shadow Lord Chancellor's article in the Solicitors Journal today, or even my speech in Westminster Hall before Christmas, which he would have heard had he turned up for it. If he does, he will see exactly where we would make the cuts and that we have made it clear throughout that we would not cut essential social welfare legal aid.

Mr Djanogly: I am pleased to hear some clarification of what the Opposition are not going to do; perhaps the hon. Gentleman will come back to the House to tell us what they are going to do, so that we can take a view on where they are coming from on this issue, because they have been thoroughly unimpressive to date.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Djanogly: No, I will not.

The proposals in our consultation paper take into account the importance of the issue at stake, the litigant's ability to present their own case, the availability of alternative sources of funding and alternative routes to resolving the issue, as well as our domestic and international legal obligations. I should also point out that the consultation is still open, and that I am therefore here to listen to hon. Members' views rather than to agree or disagree with any particular view.

We propose to focus financial support, and legal advice and representation, on those who need it most. The proposed reforms involve significant change to the scope of legal aid funding. Having said that, I should make it clear that we are not proposing any changes to the scope of criminal legal aid, and that legal aid will also still routinely be available in civil and family cases in which people's life or liberty is at stake, or in which a person is at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home. For example, I can confirm to the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) that we plan to retain legal aid for asylum cases, but not for immigration cases, except when the person is in detention.

Legal aid will also be retained for debt and housing matters when someone's home is at immediate risk, and for mental health cases. It will still be provided when people face intervention from the state in their family affairs that could result in their children being taken into care, and for cases involving domestic violence, child abduction or forced marriage. We also propose that legal aid should remain available for cases in which people seek to hold the state to account by judicial review for the most serious claims against public authorities. We shall also keep it for cases involving discrimination that are currently in scope, and for community care cases where the recipients are often very elderly and vulnerable.

Many hon. Members raised the question of telephone advice. Although that will provide a gateway, it will not stop face-to-face advice being given when that is appropriate. It will facilitate the more effective sourcing of services and help the disabled. People will be able to ask to be called back, as is currently the case, so the cost would be low. I should like to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) that we believe the telephone advice will assist people in rural areas, and that language translation will be catered for, particularly for Welsh speakers. The service currently has a satisfaction rating of more than 90%, so we see it as a very good service.

We recognise that there will be some cases, even within the areas of law that we propose to remove from scope, that international or domestic law will require to be funded by the taxpayer, or inquest cases where there is a significant wider public interest in funding legal representation. We therefore propose a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. We also consider that the long-drawn-out, acrimonious nature of court proceedings too often exacerbates disputes rather than solve them. Alternatives often exist that are not only cheaper than rushing to court but faster and less contentious. So we will continue to provide funding for family mediation, to encourage people to use this more effective method to resolve issues between themselves, rather than using up precious taxpayers' money and the courts' time.

Of course, mediation is only one alternative to court proceedings. Work is going on across government to change our litigation culture and encourage alternative and less acrimonious dispute resolution. For example, the Government are currently seeking views on measures to achieve more early resolution of workplace disputes through ACAS conciliation, so that all parties have a chance to resolve their own problems in a way that is fair and equitable for both sides, without having to go to an employment tribunal.

Likewise, the Department for Education is looking into involving parents in early discussions and decisions about the special educational needs support that they need, so that they do not have to battle through the tribunal process. I think it was the hon. Member for Westminster North who said that 82% of appellants in SEN matters succeeded in their appeals. I should point out to her, however, that just 18% of parents are currently legally represented in those appeals.

On eligibility, we are not changing the criminal means-testing introduced by the previous Government. In civil cases, however, we believe that those able to pay for or contribute to the costs of their case should do so. This will help to ensure continued access to public funding, in those cases that really require it, for those who have little or no funds of their own. The consultation paper therefore includes the proposal that all clients with £1,000 or more of disposable capital should make a minimum £100 contribution to their legal costs, and that the capital of any prospective legal aid clients is taken into account when considering eligibility. We believe that this will encourage a greater sense of personal responsibility by giving clients a greater financial interest in the conduct of their case, as well as helping to discourage unnecessary litigation at taxpayers' expense.

Many Members, including the hon. Members for Makerfield, for Westminster North, for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) and for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), the right hon. Member for Exeter and my hon. Friends the Members for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), made points about the highly valued not-for-profit sector. Having frequently met the CAB, Shelter and other voluntary groups, I appreciate that the not-for-profit sector has particular concerns, but the important point is that this issue goes way beyond legal aid. Indeed, funding from legal aid represents a minority of many CABs' income-we believe only about 15% of CABs' income comes from legal aid-and many do not receive any legal aid income at all; the three CABs in my constituency receive no legal aid money, for example. That is because the basic role of CABs is to give general advice, not necessarily legal aid advice, as they have been allowed to do only for the past 11 years. The problem, however, for those that do give legal advice is that legal aid funding will often merge with other funding streams. CABs are funded mainly by local councils and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills centrally, and removing one stream could have a knock-on effect, but that does not make it wrong for us to be unwilling to pay legal aid for general advice.

The reality is that the funding streams have been in conflict for years, and effort and services have been duplicated and resources wasted, although the previous Government never sorted this out while their money machine was pumping away. We have recognised this problem, and I am pleased to be able to say that we are working closely with the Cabinet Office-based Office for Civil Society, which will look at this important issue across Government. To answer a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), I should say that transitional funding may be available.

We certainly see an important role for not-for-profit organisations in the advice sector. The coalition Government support such organisations, including CABs, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said, we hope that local government will share our view that they play an integral part in civil society. I am also happy to look at the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley).

The hon. Members for Makerfield and for Westminster North, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye and others spoke about welfare benefits. We recognise that some people find publicly funded legal advice and advice on welfare benefit matters helpful. However, the user-friendly nature of the tribunal means that appellants can generally present their case without assistance. More particularly, the issues raised are normally ones that should be dealt with by general advice, not legal aid. When I visited a law centre recently, I was shocked to hear that local benefits officers were sending people to the law centre for advice on what benefits they could claim. This is a bizarre situation, and it is not going to be solved by throwing legal aid money at the problem.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Djanogly: I am afraid to have to tell hon. Members that I have run out of time.

This debate will continue, as will the consultation. I can honestly say that we are looking forward to receiving the consultation responses of Members and all other respondees.

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