HC Deb 25 February 1971 vol 812 cc1065-7

3.44 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I beg to move, That the Legal Aid (Scotland) (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th February, be approved. I should like to start by commending the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Murray) for his tenacity and patience in waiting with me until this late hour to debate this Order. May I give my personal thanks to him for giving me his company on this occasion. I shall be very brief in moving the Regulations, but I do not minimise their importance.

As the House knows, the Lands Tribunal for Scotland begins its work next Monday, 1st March. The Tribunal was set up to carry out functions under the Conveyancing and Feudal Reform (Scotland) Act, 1970, and also, at the same time, to take over functions that were prescribed in the Lands Tribunal Act, 1949. Those functions have hitherto been discharged by independent arbiters. In these circumstances, it is clearly desirable that people should not be inhibited from applying to the Tribunal by their inability to afford legal representation.

In England, legal aid has been available for proceedings before the Lands Tribunal since 1st June last year. In the Regulations, we are carrying out the declared intention of the previous Government, for which I give them credit, to apply the same measures to Scotland as soon as the Scottish Lands Tribunal was established.

An important fact to which I would like to draw attention is that in Scotland as against England, the Tribunal has additional functions concerning feudal land conditions and allocation of feu-duties. In the Scottish situation, therefore, it is all the more necessary that legal aid should be available to those who require it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made the Regulations. All I would add is that the conditions on which a person will be entitled to legal aid will be exactly the same as those applying to civil proceedings in the courts.

I apologise to the House for being brief, but I am sure that I will be forgiven for that. I shall be glad to answer any questions that may be put to me. I hope that the House will welcome this Measure, which is, perhaps, modest in some respects but contains an important extension to the scope of legal aid schemes.

Mr. Ronald King Murray (Edinburgh. Leith)

I thank the Minister for his kind words, and for my part I commend his fortitude. We on this side welcome the Regulations, not least for the reason, hinted at by the Minister, that they implement a decision taken in principle by the Labour Government. Although the Lands Tribunal for Scotland will come into existence or be born on 1st March. it was conceived a considerable time ago —I think, in 1949—so we have to welcome a 21-year gestation.

I hope that the Government will not stop at this but will sympathetically consider the extension of legal aid facilities to other realms. I think in particular of a realm which is not far removed—the ordinary valuation appeal courts. Obviously, the ordinary citizen is there very much at a disadvantage compared with his opponent, the rating authority, and he is faced with a maze of highly technical, intricate and artificial law. I always feel that in those cases the ordinary litigant is very much at the mercy of the assessor.

The stock reply which Governments, of either party, make when faced with requests for extension of legal aid facilities is that they are sympathetic and will reconsider the position when the economic situation permits. Of course it never quite permits of an extension. I stress and suggest, however, that the quality of mercy should not be strained and that justice in particular should be done, even when the purse strings are a bit tight. It is then even more important to do it.

Until, however, the Government can undertake a comprehensive review of legal aid—which, I hope, they will carry out in the not too distant future—in the interests of economy as well as of justice, we can only welcome what we have got.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Legal Aid (Scotland) (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations, 1971, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11 th February, be approved.