HC Deb 14 May 1970 vol 801 cc1646-53

1.0 a.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Elwyn Jones)

I beg to move,

That the Legal Aid (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th May, be approved.

These Regulations, which are made under the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949, extends the facilities of the Legal Aid Scheme to all proceedings in the Lands Tribunal. It is a significant occasion because it is the first time that legal aid has been extended to a tribunal as distinct from the ordinary courts. It is a step recommended by the Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee. As the committee pointed out, the Lands Tribunal is far more akin to a court of law than are other tribunals. Indeed, it is only perhaps for reasons of convenience and cheapness that its work is not performed by the Chancery Division of the High Court. Had that been the case, legal aid in this respect would have been available for these proceedings for the past 20 years.

The jurisdiction of the Lands Tribunal concerns the citizen closely in a number of matters of importance to him. It is mostly concerned with land valuation, for example, compensation for compulsory acquisition of land. Then there are rating appeals and the assessment of betterment levy. But it is perhaps because it may adjudicate the price of a property which a leaseholder is seeking to enfranchise under the Leasehold Reform Act, 1967, that there has been most pressure for legal aid to be extended to it.

These matters may affect anyone, rich or poor. Some, like proceedings under the Leasehold Reform Act, are apt to affect the poor more frequently than the rich. The Government agree with the advice of the Advisory Committee that though few will qualify on financial or other grounds in applications for renewal or modification of restrictive covenants, capital gains tax, betterment levy and the like, there seems no reason to exclude the possibility.

I am sure that the House will agree that it is right that the facilities of the Legal Aid Scheme should be made available to those in these proceedings so that they may have the help of a solicitor and counsel and, in appropriate cases, expert witnesses such as valuers, who may be particularly necessary in proceedings in the Lands Tribunal. I am happy to announce to the House that this is but the first of a series of improvements to the Legal Aid and Advice Schemes which the Government propose.

As soon as possible regulations will be laid before the House increasing the financial limits for legal aid, legal advice and for claims short of litigation. At present, as the House knows, legal aid is available to those with incomes of £700 a year or less, after making prescribed deductions and allowances. It is proposed that the limit should be increased to £1,000. At present, the limit for free legal aid is £250 after similar deductions and allowances. It is proposed that that limit should be increased to £350.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Attorney-General cannot discuss Regulations that it is proposed to bring in. He may discuss only these Regulations.

The Attorney-General

I agree, Mr. Speaker, but this is linked in a sense with the Regulations that the House is considering in that those who will benefit from them will do so as a result of the introduction of the proposals which I am indicatinig will follow. If you would allow me a little indulgence to deal with the concluding part of what I was saying, I shall be grateful.

The Government would have liked to give effect to the proposals of the Legal Advisory Committee for a completely new system of legal advice and assistance which has come to be known as the £25 scheme, because under it anyone with the financial limits will be able to walk into a solicitor's office and get £25 worth of work from him without more ado. But that needs legislation and, unfortunately, the parliamentary timetable does not permit the introduction of the necessary Bill this Session.

Therefore, the Government propose to make interim improvements to the Legal Advice and Claims Schemes on the lines recommended by the Advisory Committee in 1968. The existing advice scheme will be available to those with £9 10s. a week after making deductions and allowances, instead of £7 10s. a week, and the allowances and fees to those giving advice will be improved. The allowances for the claims scheme will similarly be improved.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will make similar changes in the Legal Aid, Legal Advice and Claims Schemes for Scotland.

The total cost of these proposed improvements will be about £1,550,000 in a full year. The present proposal to extend legal aid to the Lands Tribunal will cost about £150,000.

The assessing of income and capital is done by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. The inquiry into whether the case is a reasonable one to bring—this must be established before legal aid is granted—is done by committees of barristers and solicitors under arrangements made by the Law Society. They are also charged with the general running of the scheme. This they have done with considerable success for the last 20 years. As the Advisory Committee said in a recent report— No alternative method of controlling assisted litigation would, in our view, be so effective. None could be so economical. I fully share this view and would like to take this opportunity to thank the Law Society and the legal profession for the work they do for legal aid.

I am confident that the House will welcome these Regulations, extending the Legal Aid Scheme, as they do, to an area of particular importance to the householder and often of much complexity and accompanied as they are by the helpful announcement I have made about the increases in the financial limits for legal aid.

1.6 a.m.

Mr. Reginald Eyre (Birmingham, Hall Green)

These improvements are greatly welcomed. I support the words used by the Attorney-General when he explained the need in present circumstances for legal aid to be available in the very complicated matters relating to capital gains tax and betterment levy under the Land Commission and also to matters under the Leasehold Reform Act. I stress that in every case that legislation is unnecessarily complicated. It is distressing that much of it impinges upon small people who need legal aid in the conduct of their affairs. It is an extraordinary thing that there is this complicated legislation, much of it related to a form of taxation, affecting small house owners adversely.

I welcome the fact that help will be given to such people to enable them to deal with these complicated matters, but must express my strong view that in many cases it would have been better if the legislation had been simpler so that there would have been no need for these complexities to arise.

The Attorney-General referred to the procedure which is to be followed in investigating applications. I should like an assurance that the present system of checking applications will be tightened, because there is great public concern about the recent case affecting Mr. Will Owen, a former Member of the House. The lay public are bewildered by what happened in that case.

Mr. Speaker

Order. With due respect, I do not think that the Will Owen case had anything to do with an application to the Lands Tribunal.

Mr. Eyre

But it had a great deal to with an application for a legal aid certificate, Mr. Speaker. An application was made based on income and capital. The ordinary layman cannot understand how that application came to be granted.

The Attorney-General

I dislike interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I think I am right in apprehending that that matter is being investigated by the court. The hon. Gentleman, with his well-known fairness, may think it better not to pursue the point in relation to that case.

Mr. Eyre

Naturally, I accept the Attorney-General's advice, because I have no intention of trespassing improperly upon that case. But the case has been reported. Although all of us would readily accept that help should be available in proper cases, it is necessary that great care should be taken to ensure in the expenditure of public money that the money is allocated only in proper cases.

There must be a strong assurance that the system will properly take these matters into account. People must feel that the system operates fairly. I realise that it must operate speedily on occasion, but there is need for an assurance that no grasping impropriety is exercised by applicants which would operate to the detriment of the public interest. Will the Attorney-General give an assurance that that side of the matter will be looked at, to reassure the public?

The Attorney-General

Certainly. It is being reviewed all the time. I think that the House agrees, on the whole, that the legal aid service, which the Labour Government introduced after the war and which we are extending now, has been an invaluable social service which has made the courts open to those who would otherwise have been denied a chance to assert their rights.

1.11 a.m.

Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) has given a somewhat tepid welcome to the Regulations. We on this side give them a cordial and unqualified welcome, and we thank the Government and my right hon. and learned Friend for introducing this important addition to the services available by way of legal aid.

In particular, those of us who fought the Opposition line by line on the Leasehold Reform Bill will give the Regulations a warm welcome. During the passage of that Bill, we drew attention to the great difficulties which might befall lessees who would not have the opportunities of having legal representation and advice on valuation and so on which would be likely to be available to landlords.

We pressed that some amelioration of this kind should be made. We are grateful to the Government for now making it. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members representing leasehold constituencies when I say that our constituents will be most grateful for it.

1.12 a.m.

Mr. William Wilson (Coventry, South)

All to often in cases involving leasehold reform or compulsory purchase orders by local authorities, practising lawyers are compelled to say to their clients, " You have a case here, but you cannot afford to fight it ". These Regulations will give to practising lawyers an opportunity to battle back at landlords and local authorities on their own terms. and for that reason they are to be widely welcomed.

1.13 a.m.

Mr. R. W. Brown (Shoreditch and Finsbury)

Much the same applies to cases under the Highways Act, 1961. It has become increasingly difficult for any person who falls over on the highway to take action against a local authority, because, under the legal aid system, assistance is refused according to a case decided in 1968. I hope that under the extension now proposed it will be easier for people to proceed against local authorities than it is at the moment.

1.14 a.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Stockport)

There are aspects of this matter about which it is no exaggeration to say that the two sides must agree to differ. As for the reasons which led to the need for this extension, I echo what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre). It is deplorable that people of humble means have been drawn into expensive and protracted disputes of the kind which come before the Lands Tribunal. It is the result of some of the very complicated legislation passed in the last few years. But we had the battle about that on the legislation itself.

The Government having passed it, and having created a situation in which people of humble means find themselves in difficulty if they do not have legal assistance in fighting their cases, we on this side are just as pleased as hon. Members opposite that the present Regulations will be of help to them.

I say no more about the Regulations. I suppose that that is all that is strictly speaking in order, Mr. Speaker. But as you permitted the Attorney-General the indulgence of saying something—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will learn from this, perhaps, the unwisdom of seeking an indulgence.

Mr. Percival

I would only say that I was a little sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman introduced a slightly political note when he referred to the legal aid system introduced by the Labour Government. Hon. Gentlemen wag their heads, and the Leader of the House is joining in this party point. I do not mind, because it enables me to make one, too. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Leader of the House wishes to make a contribution while standing instead of only sitting.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

I was merely saying that it was a fact that a Labour Government introduced the system.

Mr. Percival

It is a fact, but it is a pity when one political party seeks to make political capital in claiming credit for the fact.

This was a Measure introduced with the agreement of all parties and the cooperation of both parts of the profession. It is fair dos for the Labour Party to seek the credit to the exclusion of the Conservative Party, especially in the present climate, but it would have been more generous to bring everyone into the act. It was something in which everyone had a part.

I am sure that the Attorney-General will not mind my making a slightly political point here. This seems an extraordinary time at which to announce far-reaching changes which cannot be introduced this Session, and, therefore, probably in the lifetime of this Parliament, changes which the Government, therefore, may be quite unable to introduce, and which we cannot discuss because to do so would be out of order.

If what we all expect to happen does occur, this Parliament may shortly be replaced by another, and if the result is what we on this side of the House expect I can assure hon. Members that it will be our intention to extend the scope of legal aid as far as practicable. Whether that will be in precisely the form the right hon. and learned Gentleman has announced tonight, I cannot say, because we have only just heard what is proposed. But if, as I apprehend may be the case, the Government cannot implement the intentions they have expressed in the further announcement tonight, the public may rest assured that the Conservative Government will do something similar. At all events, it is our aim to extend legal aid.

I feel that we are very mean about the administration of justice. We tend to think that we must be careful about every penny spent in the administration of justice and legal aid. I think the other way. Of course, we should practise economy. Of course, we should make sure that money is well spent, but this is one field in which we should be very careful not to be mean. I am sure that there is scope for extending the benefits of this system.

I am happy, on behalf of this side of the House, to extend a welcome to that part of what the Attorney-General said dealing with the strict terms of the Regulations.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Legal Aid (Extension of Proceedings) Regulation 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 4th May, be approved.