HC Deb 25 November 1964 vol 702 cc1406-10

10.1 p.m.

The Minister Without Portfolio (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I beg to move, That the Legal Aid (General) (Amendment) Regulations, 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th November, be approved. These Regulations have been made by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor under Sections 1 and 12 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949, but they do not come into force unless approved by a Resolution of each House of Parliament.

Those Members who are familiar with the operation of the Legal Aid and Advice Act will be aware that legal aid is now available in substantially but not quite all of the various proceedings listed in Part I of the First Schedule to the Act. Subsection (3) of Section 1 gives power to make Regulations varying and thereby extending the proceedings in connection with which legal aid may be given. Under Section 12 of the Act this power is exercisable by the Lord Chancellor and the Regulations are subject to the affirmative Resolution procedure. This is the first occasion on which an Order has been made extending the operation of legal aid to a class of proceedings not referred to in the Schedule to the Act, and, therefore, it requires just a word of explanation.

These Regulations will authorise the grant of legal aid in cases in which a child or young person is brought before a court as being in need of care, protection or control. This follows a recommendation contained in a Report of the Ingleby Committee on Children and Young Persons which reported in October, 1960, the relevant paragraphs being 247 to 252. The matter was subsequently considered by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee which, in its thirteenth report, which is for the year 1962–63, strongly recommended the desirability of legal aid being available for the parties in care and protection proceedings.

The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee pointed out that the lack of legal aid is apt to place both children and their parents at a great disadvantage in some of the cases coming before the juvenile courts. These cases, as the House will appreciate, are of great importance since the court's decision may well result in families being permanently or temporarily broken up. Both children and parents in a number of these cases, owing to their poor education or agitated state of mind, are sometimes quite incapable of properly putting their case, and it follows that in some cases, if a party is not represented, an important piece of evidence or argument may be missed.

Quite apart from this, the Committee pointed out that in some cases if a party is not represented it may appear to him, if not to the court and the children's officer as well, that justice is not being done. It will be appreciated that the provision of legal aid in cases of this kind may well result in avoiding the unnecessary removal of children from their parents. These cases affect not only the liberty of the subject, but also the expense falling on local authorities.

The Law Society has intimated that, notwithstanding the volume of legal aid work which it is already administering, it will be able to undertake the relatively small load of additional work involved if these Regulations are made. There are some 9,000 proceedings annually of all the types referred to in the Regulations and it has been estimated that in practice legal aid would not be granted to more than 500 of these cases. The cost of extending the scheme is not thought likely to exceed £34,000 a year, which is not substantial in relation to the total grant for legal aid now running at £5¾ million.

Perhaps I should add a word to explain Regulation No. 3 with its reference to "authorised summary proceedings". It often happens in cases of this kind, involving care, protection or control, that a legal aid certificate is required by a defendant or respondent as a matter of urgency. The authorised summary proceedings under the Act and under the Regulations made under the Act enable the Secretary of the Legal Aid Committee, if satisfied that a prima facie case exists, to grant a certificate on his own responsibility without waiting for a meeting of the Committee. I commend the Regulations to the House.

10.7 p.m.

Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)

I will not detain the House for more than a few moments. The first thing that I should like to do is the agreeable task of congratulating the hon. Gentleman upon his appointment as Minister without Portfolio and to wish him happiness in his office, about the exact extent and nature of which we are wholly in the dark.

As we do not know how much staff the hon. Gentleman has or what he does, we cannot embark too deeply upon his prospects of happiness. I hope, nevertheless, that the hon. Gentleman will enjoy discharging his duties, such as they may turn out to be. We also welcome him on his first appearance at the Box and thank him for explaining the Regulations so clearly to the House.

We certainly welcome the Regulations. They represent a useful and most happy extension of legal aid in a field in the magistrates' courts in which it is necessary. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about the need for legal aid in cases concerning the care and control of children whose future, like that of the whole of their family, may be fundamentally affected.

These Regulations were almost wholly prepared and got ready when my noble Friend the previous Lord Chancellor was in office. They only just missed being brought in before the end of the last Parliament and we are very glad to see that they are the first measure of law reform to be brought in by the new Government. For that reason, we give them an additional welcome. We all remember being told, as lawyers, that the first three months of the new Government would consist of measures of law reform while the major measures of the new Government were prepared. The Prime Minister said this to the League of Labour Lawyers. We note that these Regulations, prepared by our Government, are the sole production to date.

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

I should like to join in the salutations to the Minister without Portfolio and also to welcome the Regulations. It is extremely important that in cases which are covered by the Regulations the courts should have before them all available material relative to the matters which they have to consider. One of the difficulties which have been experienced by the courts undoubtedly was that in considering the issues involved, when there was no legal representation and no opportunity for those who would otherwise be appearing to collect the necessary material to assist the court, they have been considerably handicapped.

I, for example, have found, in cases dealing with juveniles which come for appeal, that a great deal of material comes before the appellate court which is not available at first instance and which enables the whole matter to be considered in a new light. These new provisions will certainly enable the juvenile courts to consider the matter, as they will be equipped with all the necessary material to come to a right and proper decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Legal Aid (General) (Amendment) Regulations 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th November, be approved.