HC Deb 26 October 1954 vol 531 cc1889-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Kaberry.]

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

May I first offer my congratulations, which I am sure will be shared by the whole House, to the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General on his appointment to his present high legal office. We all know from experience the very great talents which he will bring to bear. I suppose I can say that with some authority, because I sat opposite him for some 15 or 16 sittings of the Committee stage of the Landlord and Tenant Bill upstairs when he commended and defended with great charm and skill what I thought were some quite outrageous propositions. Nevertheless we wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman every success in his present office.

I must say, in apology to the Attorney-General, that my title for this evening's debate is not quite accurate. I make reference to bringing into operation Part II of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949. I had overlooked the fact that the Section dealing with advice centres, which I am eager to see established, is contained in Section 7 of Part I. I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that Amendment. I informed his office yesterday that I proposed to include that matter in my representations this evening.

I think the Attorney-General will appreciate that there is a very widespread desire and hope that the remaining parts of this very useful Act will soon be implemented. There have been a number of indications about this recently. I notice there were four Questions yesterday on the subject, and I gather from the not very forthcoming reply that at least the matter was under earnest consideration.

Some time ago the National Council for Social Service called a conference of those interested in giving legal advice and in close touch with social problems. As a result of the conference a memorandum was prepared, which I gather went to the Lord Chancellor. It also made very urgent representations for something to be done to bring the remaining Sections into operation.

Then at the recent Labour Party Conference at Scarborough a resolution was unanimously accepted urging that these remaining Sections be brought into force. I mention it in particular not only because it was unanimously accepted, but also because it happened to be moved by the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, which is the second largest co-operative society in the United Kingdom, with a membership of more than 360,000 persons. In their experience there is a very great need for the scheme. From such inquiries as I have been able to make, even in the serried ranks which are usually behind the right hon. and learned Gentleman but not at the moment, there is a good deal of support for something being done to bring in the remaining parts of the Act.

At present legal aid and assistance under the 1949 Act is limited to assistance in certain criminal cases and in the High Court. I know from my own limited experience, and also from information supplied to me by colleagues of mine who are much more experienced, that this scheme has worked very well, and that it has brought a large measure of justice and satisfaction to those with small and moderate incomes because proper advice and representation have been made available to them for the first time in our history.

I suppose there have been some cases of abuse, but I am told by those who administer the scheme that on investigation there has been, in fact, very little misuse indeed. Unfortunately, as in other matters, if there is a case which is open to some stricture that gets all the publicity. There was an instance not so very long ago in which I think it was the Lord Chief Justice who said that it was a case in which legal aid ought never to have been granted. It was some squabble about gifts between husband and wife. He added that that was not the fault of the certifying committee. Of course, the first criticism was reported, but the second remark was not.

In this connection we should remember that there is a safeguard in the operation of the scheme which would apply to the remaining Sections as it applies to the others. In any case where assistance is required it is subject to scrutiny and investigation by members of one or the other branch of the profession. This scheme seems to have worked very well, and is really a great safeguard against abuse.

The problem now is to get assistance for cases in the police courts and in the county courts, and to back that up with an adequate national system of advice centres throughout the country. I suppose the police courts and the county courts deal with some 98 per cent. of all litigation in the country.

The county courts are really the great social courts for masses of people. There it is that the problems of their wills, their homes, their inheritances, their nuisances and many other matters are dealt with. Of course, the police courts, apart from the other matters with which they deal, are the matrimonial courts for millions of our fellow countrymen, and yet it is precisely in those courts, where the overwhelming mass of litigation goes—those courts touching so nearly the family and the home—that there is no assistance or advice available.

Let the House just think of some of the types of cases in which, I think anyone who is familiar with them will agree, advice, and often representation, is highly desirable. Apart from the common law cases there are cases obviously affecting family life under the Married Women's Property Act, the Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, the Guardianship of Infants Act, the Acts relating to adoption, and the Inheritance Act, 1938. Voluntarily and often involuntarily people are involved in cases under those statutes, and even though the sums involved may not be large the very nature of the legislation is such, it seems to me, that skilled advice is generally indispensable not only for speedy remedy but also for justice.

Then there are all the cases which arise out of accidents and the abolition of the doctrine of common employment. This has added a great deal to the litigation which is bound to arise. Some of it, I know, goes to the High Court, but a quite considerable amount can and ought to be dealt with in the county court where it could be dealt with if the remaining parts of the Legal Aid and Advice Act were in operation.

There has been a great growth of the statutory Regulations dealing with safety, which I am glad to see; but again, representation is often almost indispensable if confidence is to be created in the minds of those involved and full justice done. There is now also, of course, a whole series of actions that arise before tribunals in connection with pensions and insurance and rents. I am quite sure nobody will quarrel with me when I say that in those actions skilled advice and very often representation ought to be available.

Apart from the cases arising out of accidents and before tribunals and affecting the family, there are problems affecting the home. Everybody knows that the Rent Acts comprise one of the most complicated branches of our legal system. Judges of the Appeal Court are continually complaining that they do not understand the Acts.

I cannot remember now who it was, but one learned judge said that this complicated mass of verbiage was harrying judges to an early grave. Having regard to the average length of life upon the Bench I am not certain that the latter part of the remark is correct, but there is no doubt about the uncertainty in this branch of the law, and it does affect the homes in which the people live. If there are difficulties for judges the House will realise the need for help for the layman. These matters come before the county courts, and, as I said earlier, those are the very places where no skilled, professional assistance is available.

The Government have added very considerably to the complication of the Rent Acts by the recent Housing Repairs and Rents Act and by the Landlord and Tenant Act, which deals with relations under the leasehold law. There are certain remedies available to tenants and to landlords, and there are poor landlords as well as rich landlords. I feel that the rights of a great many of them may go by default unless help is available to them.

There are a great many people who have to be persuaded that there is nothing terrifying in going to a county court to get a matter settled. If they cannot get the expert and accurate advice that is necessary a great deal of injustice inevitably arises. I feel sure that most people will agree that that is true.

I have tried to make a calculation of the number of people who will he involved if the remaining Sections of the Act are brought into force. I am not suggesting that every one of these will be engaged in litigation, but, having regard to the income limitation on those who can apply, there are probably about 16 million people who would be entitled to benefit from advice and assistance if they needed it. I very much hope that we shall hear from the Attorney-General tonight something which will give this considerable section of the population some hope for the future.

The scheme is sometimes called free legal aid but it is not free legal aid except in a relatively small number of cases, because, according to the Schedule to the Act, people are expected to make their own contribution to the costs. That is another reason which I hope will persuade the Government to take the plunge.

At present, for the vast majority of the kind of cases which I have been discussing—family cases, matrimonial cases dealt with in the police court, the question of homes dealt with in the county courts and accidents—very little other assistance is available. I salute, as I am sure we all salute, the work which has been done in the past by what is called the poor man's lawyer and by the legal aid centres. There are only two of these centres remaining in the whole of London. They do magnificent work.

Cambridge House is one in the constituency which I represent in another place, and I know it very well. There they deal with some 4,000 cases a year, but by their rules they are not allowed to deal with any one who has an income of more than £4 a week. The two legal aid centres in London, the Mary Ward Settlement and Cambridge House, are together dealing with about 8,000 cases which come within this limited income range.

They are most deserving cases, including widows, deserted wives and unemployed persons, but they form just a fringe of the cases in which assistance ought to be made available. So highly does the L.C.C. think of their work that, although it is not a direct responsibility of the L.C.C., the council has made available some funds to keep these two centres going in the hope that it will not be too long before a national service of advice is made available.

Nevertheless, as was shown at the conference called by the National Council of Social Service, whole areas in the country have no assistance available at all. There are great towns with not a single place to which a poor litigant can go for advice. I am sure that that defect fills us all with remorse.

I am told that the cost of implementing the remaining parts of the scheme would be about £1 million—that is to say, £1 million in Government grant in addition to that contribution which the litigants themselves make according to their incomes. I do not want to make any misleading comparisons with the cost of an aircraft carrier—£12 million or whatever it may be—but is it fair to say that, with a national income of more than £12,000 million and a Budget of more than £4.000 million, £1 million which would ensure a measure of justice to a wide section of the population cannot be found? Personally, I do not think the reasons given justified the previous failure to implement the later Sections of the Act in 1949. I am certain, however, that the same excuse ought not to be put forward today.

If it is a question of deciding priorities, then I suggest that, as a first step, the legal advice centres should be introduced, because a great many of the troubles and worries which afflict these people could be solved by competent profesional advice and without litigation. A speedy decision ought to be made, because I am told that it will take three or four years to organise a system of that kind, even if a decision were given at once.

I do not know whether any other hon. Members wish to intervene, but I wish to give them time if they want to do so, and also give plenty of time to the right hon. and learned Gentleman to reply. I will, therefore, say in conclusion, and I do not want to appear pompous in saying this, that I believe that there is much in our British system of justice of which we can all be proud. Its defect has been that it has not been equally available to everyone, and has depended upon the resources and advice for which one can pay. It has been said by one famous judge, that justice is available to the public in the same way as the Ritz Hotel is available, and on the same terms. That is not in keeping with the social climate of 1954.

I hope that we shall hear that further and decisive steps will be taken to bring advice and assistance to millions of our fellow countrymen who are, at least in part, denied it at the present time.

10.27 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller)

I should like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) for his very kind observations about myself, which I greatly appreciate. When he said that some of the Clauses of the Landlord and Tenant Bill, as it was, were indefensible, I beg to differ from him, but I do appreciate the kind things which he has said.

The hon. Member has put forward a reasoned case for the expansion of legal aid and legal advice. As I listened to him, I was not at all sure that I did not make very much the same speech as he has now made when the Government which he then supported declared that they were not prepared to implement the full provisions of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949. I was, of course, unable to support my argument by the advantage of being able to refer to what must be an almost unique incident—a unanimous resolution at the Labour Party Conference at Scarborough.

I must say—and I was interested to hear that the hon. Gentleman really agreed with me—that the announcement —I think it was in 1949—that the whole scheme could not be implemented then was a great disappointment to me. I happened to serve on the Rushcliffe Committee, and my old colleague in the Temple, Mr. Moelwyn Hughes, then a member of the Socialist Party and a Member of this House also, served on that Committee. We presented a unanimous Report, the major features of which are now embodied in the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949.

That was an interesting Measure in its passage through this House, because the members of the Committee which dealt with that Bill were united in their endeavours to try to make it the best possible workable Measure. I am not suggesting that the Government of that day were wrong, having regard to the financial position of the country at that time, in not seeking to implement all the provisions of that Act. But the hon. Gentleman, who is now pressing for the full implementation of that Measure, is clearly recognising that a considerable improvement has, in fact, taken place in the financial situation of the country since 1951.

I was asked a number of Questions about legal aid yesterday. As I said then, the case for the extension of legal aid to the county courts is strengthened by the provisions of the Housing (Repairs and Rents) Act and the Landlord and Tenant Act. Although I fear it will disappoint the hon. Gentleman, I cannot acid anything to what I said yesterday. What I said then was that the position with regard to legal aid is being closely considered by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor at the present time.

There have, of course, been isolated criticisms of the legal aid system as it has operated up till now. One must expect some criticisms when a new scheme of this character is introduced, but, by and large, I believe that the recommendations of the Rushcliffe Committee, embodied, as they are, in the 1949 Act, are on the right lines and that these teething troubles will disappear.

The hon. Gentleman made out the case for the extension of legal aid to the magistrates' courts and the county courts and also for the extension of the advice system recommended by the Rushcliffe Committee. I would agree with him in that I regard all of those as important and as constituting an important social service, but if it came to a choice between the three of them I should have thought, speaking personally, that legal aid in the county courts should have priority over the institution of the advice system.

When I say that it comes to a question of choosing between the different possibilities, one must, of course, recognise that the full implementation of the scheme will involve a substantial extra burden upon the Exchequer. One may speculate upon the extent of that burden and one may seek to estimate it, but no one can deny that it will be a substantial charge upon the Exchequer; and in determining whether the money available, if there is any money available, can be spent on the implementation of this scheme, one must have regard to the other claims upon the Exchequer.

However, if, as I say, the choice has to be made between extending legal aid to the county courts or to the magistrates' courts or to the extension of the advice centres, I should say that legal aid in the county courts should have priority. I say that because it does not seem to me to be very helpful if we institute a legal advice system throughout the country and people are advised at the centres that they should take proceedings in the county court and then there is no legal aid system available to assist them to take those proceedings.

I fully recognise that the institution of the advice centres may lead to the diminution of litigation and the settlement of a lot of matrimonial disputes. There is a strong case for the imple- mentation of the Act as a whole—there was in 1949, and there is now—but, as I say, the whole matter depends upon what the cost is estimated to be and the other claims upon the Exchequer in respect of any funds which may be available.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the great work which is being done by the voluntary organisations. I must say that it was a most unfortunate consequence of the passage of the Legal Aid and Advice Bill, and of that Measure when it became an Act not being implemented in full, that the support of these voluntary organisations declined. That is very unfortunate, and from my knowledge of their activities I should like to pay my tribute to them for the great work that they have done in the past and are doing at the present time.

I am sure that those voluntary organisations are well worthy of public support. I wish that their scope covered a greater area of the country, but when the hon. Gentleman says that there are great towns in which no person can go for legal advice, I think that he is putting the position a little bit too high. I am sure he will recognise that in our provincial cities, even though there are no centres of the kind to which he has referred, a great deal of voluntary assistance is given by the lawyers who reside in those places. One hears nothing about it, but from my own knowledge I can say that in proper cases both members of the Bar and solicitors are not reluctant to give assistance without charge.

I hope that such service will continue to be given, but I hope, too, that we shall not have to wait so very much longer before we implement the full recommendations of the Rushcliffe Committee, embodied, as they were, in the 1949 Act.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-two Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.