HC Deb 29 November 1972 vol 847 cc561-84

10.0 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Sir Peter Rawlinson)

I beg to move, That the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.

Mr. Speaker

I take it that it would be for the convenience of the House if we discuss the following two Motions at the same time: That the Legal Aid (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved. That the Legal Aid (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.

The Attorney-General

That would be convenient, Mr. Speaker.

In the first two regulations paragraph 2 deals with the situation where there is a refusal of legal aid in view of the upper limit of capital and paragraph 3 deals with a person's contribution and disregard. By the proviso to Section 2 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949, amended by the Legal Aid Act 1960 a person may be refused legal aid if he has a disposable capital of more than £500 or such larger figure as may be prescribed and it appears that he can afford to proceed without legal aid.

Under Section 3 (1) of the 1949 Act, as amended, a person's contribution to the legal aid fund in respect of any proceedings may include, and be a contribution in respect of, capital not greater than the amount, if any, by which his disposable capital exceeds £125 or such larger figure as may be prescribed.

These proposals increase the maximum capital limit from £500 to £1,200 and increase the free capital limit from £125 to £250. Under the 1960 Act the regulations for increasing these amounts of disposable capital have to be approved by resolution of both Houses of Parliament. The figure of £500 disposable capital has remained since 1949, and the figure of £125 disregard on disposable capital has remained since 1960. The Legal Aid Advisory Committee which makes comments and recommendations in respect of legal aid reported in June 1972. I stress that this was an interim report as it is pending a thorough reappraisal of the whole of the capital and income limits now being undertaken by the Committee.

On the first of the two matters, the disposable capital limit, at present of £500, the Committee pointed out that to restore the limit to its original money value in 1949 the figure should be increased to £1,200. It went on to recommend that to allow for inflation the figure should be fixed at £1,500. The Government have decided that in the present circumstances, well known to the House, it would not be right to increase the limit beyond that warranted by the fall in the value of money since 1949; that is, to restore the value of £500 in 1949 to its current value, £1,200.

I emphasise that this upper limit is not an absolute bar to receiving legal aid. A person may receive legal aid if it appears that he cannot afford to proceed without it. If his maximum contribution is less than the estimated cost of the proceedings, legal aid can be granted, and that is the usual interpretation. Legal aid is usually granted if he has a capital limit of £1,200 and it is estimated that it will be an expensive action which will cost several thousand pounds. While his contribution may be £1,200, he will nevertheless be granted legal aid. Therefore, the limit is not of overwhelming importance.

The question of disposable income and capital is determined by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. There are disregards of furniture, clothing, trade equipment and tools, and of half the value of a person's house after deducting the value of any encubrances, plus £5,000, which the Assessment of Resources (Amendment) Regulations propose should be increased to £6,000. The first £150 on a life policy and any debts due to be repaid in a period of 12 months are also disregarded.

Moreover, the assisted person can keep from his disposable capital what has been described as the nest egg; namely, £125, which paragraph 3 of the Regulations suggests should be increased to £250. It was fixed at £125 in 1960. Translated into the money terms of today, it would be £210. The advisory committee suggested £325, but the Government propose £250, which is an increase in real terms of £40, comparing 1972 with 1960. The advisory committee suggested £325 because it is the limit at which capital is ignored for assessing supplementary benefit. However, under the Legal Aid Scheme, unlike the Supplementary Benefits Scheme, allowances are made for dependants. It is proposed in the Assessment of Resources (Amendment) Regulations to increase the allowances. It is proposed to increase the allowance for a first dependant from £75 to £125, for a second dependant from £50 to £80, and for any further dependant from £25 to £40.

As a result of the proposals in the regulations, the amounts will be lower for a single person than the supplementary benefit amount but higher for a married person. They will be even higher for a person with one child, who will get about £130, and for a person with two children, who will get about £170. It has been suggested that this is a fairer and better balance, taking into account the needs particularly of married people and those with dependants and children.

The advisory committee is carrying out a thorough reappraisal and, therefore, these proposals are only temporary, but I believe that they represent important improvements in the Legal Aid Scheme.

Sir Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

What are the present figures for disposable income? That is the other vital factor. If that is a fast one to bowl now, perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will give us the figures later, because they are the other half of the coin on which legal aid is based.

The Attorney-General

I do not have the figures now. I will obtain them and give them to the House. I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point. The question of capital has been, to a certain extent, more worrying than any other.

The second statutory instrument deals with the question of the extension of proceedings. It is proposed to extend legal aid to proceedings before a Commons Commissioner in England or Wales. Scotland is not troubled with this matter.

As I have told the House in answer to Questions, considerable study and research is being conducted by the Nuffield Foundation and other bodies into the question to which tribunals should be extended legal proceedings. There may be certain tribunals where those appearing would reap greater advantage by having a person other than a lawyer representing them. It is hoped that the advisory committee will consider that question next year having had the advantage of the research by the Nuffield Foundation and other bodies.

There are a number of important reasons why legal aid should be extended to proceedings before commons commissioners. It may seem improbable to select commons commissioners, but this is a clear case and an important one for a limited number of people. First, in proceedings before commons commissioners there is a real need for legal representation. The long task of registration has been completed and we have reached the stage when objections should be taken before the commissioner who will confirm, modify or reject.

This can be of vital importance, especially to upland farmers or small holders who rely on common grazing for upkeeping their livestock. Matters which come before commons commissioners and which are important to the smallholder and upland fanner are very recondite in law. For instance, is it common land? Was the land subject to rights of common or manorial waste? Ancient grants and manorial records may arise and need to be examined. Even the medieval principle of levancy and couchancy might have to be argued. Apparently the number of animals which a commoner may be allowed to graze on common land can be limited to the number he can support on his own land in winter.

All these are complicated matters, although they may appear to be somewhat improbable. They are important matters, as also are the questions of prescription, abandonment or mergers. It would be impossible for the smallholder or farmer to argue any of these matters satisfactorily before a commons commissioner.

Second, apart from these technical and difficult points of law, if legal aid is not given now it will be too late, because this is a once-for-all operation for commons commissioners. The operation will be completed in six years. It is estimated that this aspect of legal aid will cost only £20,000 spread over those six years and will apply to only a few people. Nevertheless, the persons affected are entitled to have these matters brought before the commons commissioners; and their general livelihood and smallholding will depend upon the decision arrived at.

It is important to have a legal aid, thirdly, because the decision of the commons commissioner is a final one with only a limited right of appeal to the High Court.

For these reasons, it is fair to extend this small amount of legal aid to the small number of people involved in these proceedings before the advisory committee has the advantage of the results of the Nuffield Foundation Research with respect to other matters.

To answer the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones), the limit of disposable income is £950.

In general, 157,864 legal aid certificates are granted each year in England and Wales. Some 12,622 certificates were granted in Scotland, and the cost—

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, North-West)

In terms of the legal aid certificates granted, in how many cases has a contribution to be made by the individual to whom the grant is made?

The Attorney-General

I cannot say exactly how much the contribution would be. I should have thought that it would be a considerable amount out of the figure of 157,000 certificates.

The cost to the Exchequer is £12,145,000 in respect of England and Wales and £1,362,000 for Scotland. Of those sums civil claims account in England and Wales for £9,433,106 and in Scotland £883,357. These are substantial sums, and it is right to remind the House that the lawyers participating in the service carry out this work with a 10 per cent. deduction of costs taxed on a com- mon fund basis. The figure used to be 15 per cent. and is now 10 per cent. That is the contribution of the legal profession to the legal aid service, and we should not forget that contribution.

These proposals afford limited but important changes and bring about improvements in the general scheme. I hope that the House will accept them.

10.17 p.m.

Sir Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

The Opposition welcome these regulations so far as they go, but in our view they do not go nearly far enough. Legal aid costs still represent only about one-thousandth part of the total of public expenditure. That seems to represent what the community is now prepared to spend directly to assist citizens to obtain access to a whole range of legal services. It covers the need to obtain compensation for personal injury—and we discuss this matter tonight in the shadow of our earlier discussions about thalidomide victims; it also covers dissolution of broken marriages and the cost of representation in serious criminal proceedings.

In terms of civil claims with which these regulations are directly concerned, the present situation is far from satisfactory. The position is highlighted in a remarkable report by the Legal Action Group, a report which I invite the Attorney-General to consider when the opportunity arises. The report was published in October of this year and is entitled "Legal Advice Centres: An Explosion." It points to the inadequacy of the present legal aid and advice arrangements which have resulted in the appearance of 61 part-time centres to fill the present void in available legal services. These centres have sprung up in the last year or two on the initiatives of solicitors, barristers, social workers and university law teachers working voluntarily in the centres, and they have sought to fill the gap.

The commentary upon them in this most valuable report is this: The problems of running a centre on part-time voluntary lawyers' services are immense, and centres freely admit that their service is a mere patch tacked over some of the bigger holes in the tattered garment of the Legal Aid Scheme. Their major failings are: lack of a comprehensive service, and lack of continuity. It gives me no satisfaction as a lawyer to draw these matters to the attention of the House, but it is against that background that the right hon. and learned Gentleman puts before us these somewhat inadequate proposals.

Although the illusion persists that legal aid is free, a man has to be very poor to obtain free legal aid or advice today. Under the regulations as now proposed, to qualify for free legal aid in order to undertake civil proceedings, which may be vital to him or his family, his disposable capital must not exceed £1,200 and he must have a disposable income not exceeding £950. The proceedings which he wishes to institute may relate to matters of great importance to him—divorce matters, serious accident cases, matters like the thalidomide cases, breaches of contract, matters affecting his conditions of employment or any other non-criminal matter, subject to certain exclusions such as that of libel.

The words "disposable capital" in the regulations refer to what a man is calculated to have left after certain deductions are made. I looked again tonight at some of the regulations governing the financial limits for legal aid. They have been described as of "hideous complexity", and that they certainly are; but the part of them which has given us on this side of the House great concern is the provision for deductions related to the value of the dwelling which the would-be litigant may possess.

Rule 9 in the second schedule to the governing rules provides: Except as is provided in the next succeeding paragraph of this rule, in computing the amount of capital of the person concerned, there shall be disregarded, in respect of the value to him of any interest in the dwelling in which he resides, any sum which might be obtained by him by selling that interest or borrowing money on the security thereof Then there follows this paragraph: There shall be taken into account one half of the amount by which the value of the dwelling, after deducting therefrom the amount of any encumbrance charged thereon, exceeds £5,000. I understand from the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that has been increased to £6,000.

With today's sky-rocketing of property values, when even a small and miserable house in a. poor area may command a selling price of £7,000, £8,000 or even more, a serious problem is presented to, for example, elderly would-be claimants who may have paid off their mortgages but who may be excluded by reason of the regulations from obtaining legal aid because the net capital value of their dwelling-house is over £6,000.

What is to happen to them? No one would suggest that they ought to be turned out of their homes so that they may be enabled to fight what may well be a perfectly legitimate and desperately serious civil action. Therefore, I hope that in the review which is to take place—it is at least reassuring that these regulations are only interim measures—these elements of deductions governing what amounts to disposable capital will be basically re-examined.

Another factor which will not have escaped the attention of the House is that when legal aid falls to be considered when applications are made, the income of the spouse is added to that of the applicant, thus making the low scales that we are considering even more stringent.

We shall not vote against the regulations tonight as they offer some improvement. Nevertheless, we submit that the proposals in the regulations covering both England and Scotland are insufficient to cope with present needs. The first part, raising to £250 the amount of disposable capital which cannot be called upon for a contribution towards legal aid, is in our view far too low. It is interesting that the Supplementary Benefits Commission rightly disregards the first £325 of capital when assessing supplementary benefits.

I noted with interest today that back in April this year the New Law Journal suggested that the figure should be raised to" £500. That would indeed seem a modest figure. It is most disappointing and deplorable that the Government have decided not to recommend the somewhat higher figure suggested by the advisory committee.

For people with disposable capital above £1,200, no legal aid whatever is to be available. This will have the effect of leaving a large number of our citizens who may have perfectly good civil claims too rich, if that is the right word, to qualify but too poor to take the risk to go it alone in the courts.

The Attorney-General

I pointed out that even though the contribution limit may be up to £1,200, legal aid would not usually be refused if it was estimated that the action in which the applicant was involved was expensive and likely to cost several thousand pounds. Therefore, it is not a complete barrier.

Sir Elwyn Jones

It would have been interesting if the right hon. and learned Gentleman had given us an indication of the number of cases in which that discretion had been exercised and what amounts had been involved. My information—it may be that my hon. Friends have more specific information—is that the discretion is not generously exercised. Indeed, it would be surprising if, bearing in mind the content of the regulations, the discretion were exercised with generosity. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman can reassure us with statistical figures of the percentage of cases in which discretion has been exercised, that will certainly to some extent qualify my concern about the effect the regulations will have. However, I fear that they will show that the discretion does not amount to a great deal.

Therefore, despite the modest improvement effected by the regulations, I submit that it is only if a man is extremely poor or rich that he will be able to afford a civil action. There will be one law for the rich and the very poor, but injustice or potential injustice for the man in the middle. That is why we confess to our disappointment at these figures.

As Members of Parliament conducting our weekly or fortnightly "surgeries" we all know of many instances of the grave anxieties that our constituents face. In one case of mine a woman working in a hospital fell on a wet floor. She and her husband were at work. There is advice that they may have a good cause of action, but they do not qualify for legal aid, and the risk of going ahead and the consequent disaster in the event of losing the action and having an order for costs made against them creates a situation in which it is thought more prudent not to assert the claim. That is the kind of case with which we are all familiar and which, as a lawyer, it gives me no satisfaction to recount.

I beg the Government to look again at these figures and encourage a review in the very near future. I trust that the next time an advisory committee reports the Government will, at the least, give effect to its recommendations and will not cheesepare on them in the miserable way they have done in relation to the figures in these regulations tonight.

These regulations also apply to Scotland, and I am comforted to think that sitting eagerly behind me seeking to catch the eye of the Chair is the Shadow Lord Advocate, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray), who will no doubt have something to say about the Scottish provisions, and it will surprise me if he disagrees with the criticisms I have made of the regulations as they apply to England.

I was intrigued by the special selection for inclusion for legal aid, proceedings before the commons commissioner but, having heard of the intricacies of levancy and couchancy, which is a daily topic of conversation in West Ham, I am not entirely surprised that legal aid is deemed to be necessary to deal with these recondite matters which the Attorney-General trips off his tongue with that expert knowledge of these matters which we know he possesses.

However, it is a strange selection bearing in mind the far more deserving cases before other tribunals. I have in mind in particular the whole realm of welfare benefit tribunals where decisions vitally affecting the interests and financial position of a large number of our fellow citizens are taken and before which they must go unassisted.

Our verdict is that these regulations should have been far better, but we have to take them for what they are worth. Accordingly, we shall not oppose them tonight but we declare our grave disappointment that they are far below what the advisory committee recommend and far below the needs of the current situation.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

I share the welcome which the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) has given to the increase in the limits for legal aid, and I do so without a number of the reservations which the right hon. and learned Gentleman put forward. It is always possible when public funds are made available in the interests of social welfare to say that an increase or the availability is not enough. That, however, is a matter that has to be considered in the light also of the requirements of the public purse and I think it is pertinent to remember when we are considering the legal aid system and the moneys that are made available for it that this is a matter in which this country leads the world. Certainly in most Continental countries people are amazed at the extent to which, out of public funds and through the good will and resources of the legal profession, we help the litigant.

We also aid foreigners who bring deserving cases here. It is with some pride that I recall some years ago myself representing an impecunious French citizen who was suing an Englishman in our courts—[An HON. MEMBER: "Shame."] I am astonished that the word "Shame" should be uttered in this connection. This is something of which we should be proud. The whole costs were in the end recovered from the Englishman, who had mown the man down in his car and had for many years evaded service. Justice was done in the end, and it is something of which we should be proud.

I should like to say a work of appreciation for the work done by legal aid committees in the granting of legal aid certificates. I served for many years on an area committee and I am in great admiration of the voluntary work done by solicitors and barristers, who are often instrumental in seeing that the upper limit does not prevail where it is plain that the costs would exceed it.

There are no doubt defects in our system. It does not cover many deserving cases whose need is often looked after by voluntary bodies. I am not at all sure that public money could not be made available with great advantage to help voluntary organisations like Cambridge House, the Mary Ward Settlement and the other legal advice bodies. I see you looking a little impatient, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and perhaps I am going outside the rules of order. Perhaps you would just permit me to add that public money made available in this way would be a very important prop to our system of legal aid and voluntary help.

I welcome the financial improvements in the legal aid system which the regulations bring about.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. Ronald King Murray (Edinburgh, Leith)

I would echo the guarded welcome to the regulations which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) gave on behalf of the Opposition. The only thing which can be put on the credit side is that these proposals are interim only. I hope that means that we shall have firm proposals breaking new ground in the near future.

I do not want to embarrass the Attorney-General if he does not have the figures at his fingertips now, but the House would be interested to know the increase in expenditure that will result from the three sets of regulations. I am naturally more interested in the expenditure for Scotland, but the House would, I am sure, be interested in figures in all three cases. It is possible to make a guess, based on the figure for total expenditure which the Attorney-General gave. It is obvious that if these regulations are making up for the loss of value resulting from inflation, one can guess fairly accurately the sort of expenditure involved.

I echo what was said by the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve). I hope that funds at least as great will be set aside by the Government for the support of legal aid centres and their establishment where they do not exist at present.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

We have just listened to four excellent speeches from four hon. and learned Gentlemen, all of whom have an interest and do not have to declare it. I declare that I have no interest except that one day, God forbid, I may have to ask for assistance under the scheme.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) said that West Ham would not be affected by the third set of regulations. However, he forgets Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats, which may well be covered when we have the travelling cattle which have created many problems. Who knows whether the regulations may be of assistance concerning them?

Sir Elwyn Jones

On the contrary, I said that West Ham talked about nothing but levancy and couchancy.

Mr. Lewis

My right hon. and learned Friend is correct.

I am interested in how the scheme works and how the proposed increases will operate. I cite one of hundreds of cases. A policeman known to have a good record had a son, who had never been in trouble previously, who was charged with an offence concerning fireworks. He was found innocent. The policeman could get no legal aid. He was landed with costs of about £300, which he could ill afford. Not so long ago, however, a man named Sewell murdered a policeman and was convicted. He is now in prison. He claimed and got free legal aid, but it is alleged in the Press—it has not yet been denied—that he has £20,000, £50,000 or £150,000 in ill-gotten gains.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. I hope the hon. Member will bear in mind that this is a very limited debate. It concerns only the increases which are mentioned in the regulations.

Mr. Lewis

I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am explaining that at present the man I have mentioned cannot get legal aid although he has a clear record.

The Attorney-General explained about disregards, capital assets and income. I was about to explain that a man known to have £150,000—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The regulations have nothing to do with criminal cases.

Mr. Lewis

I tried, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ask the Attorney-General when he mentioned special cases and total costs. I was about to ask how it was hat one man got legal aid while another, man, completely innocent—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Can the hon. Member explain to the Chair how this is in order?

Mr. Lewis

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I understand it, the first set of regulations increases the amount of legal aid if a man has a disposable income or capital of more than £1,200.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

But not in criminal cases.

Mr. Lewis

I quoted a particular criminal case to illustrate what was happening at present. I was explaining that people with criminal records and large sums of money can get free legal aid for non-criminal cases.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have allowed the hon. Member considerable latitude. I hope he will now come within the bounds of order.

Mr. Lewis

Surely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am only emphasising the point made by the Attorney-General. The regulations state that: a person may be refused legal aid if he has a disposable capital of more than £1,200. Why is it that accused persons with disposable assets well in excess of £1,200 receive legal aid when more deserving cases do not get it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That has nothing to do with the regulations. Their whole point is whether the amounts should be increased and, if so, by how much. That is what hon. Members may discuss.

Mr. Lewis

Surely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I can take up points made by the Attorney-General. He referred to the increased cost. He explained that total costs were about £12 million, that about £9 million was attributable to civil cases in England and Wales and that about £2 million was attributable to Scotland. What has happened to the odd £1 million? Is it needed to meet the additional costs of the scheme consequent upon the Attorney-General's proposal to extend the limit to £1,200 in disposable assets?

I am not prepared to agree to the regulations to increase that limit to £1,200 because I do not believe that the scheme is being operated properly. It would be wrong to increase the limit because that would increase also the burden on the taxpayer. If the Attorney-General wants to increase the limit to £1,200, he must assure me that the scheme is being operated properly. I do not believe that people with disposable assets in excess of £1,200—or £1,200,000 for that matter—are prevented from benefiting from the scheme.

When I seek to question the right hon. and learned Gentleman about this he does not give the answers, and when I write to him he refuses to take action. Now, after many months, he is unable to tell me how much legal aid has been granted. Has he considered reducing the expenses of running the scheme? Has he considered reducing the amount lawyers get from refresher briefs? Do they get refresher briefs? Are we sure that there is not too much wasted time in the courts?

My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the thalidomide case. It has been going on for 10 years. The others present in the Chamber are all lawyers, with one honourable exception, and they and I know that the longer a case takes, the more money the lawyers get. It would be regarded as very strange if my dockers claimed a £500-a-day refresher for each day they held up the loading or unloading of a ship. It might be a good thing to cut down the length of time which so many cases take. I suggest that it might be done by cutting instead of increasing the lawyers fees the longer a case goes on. That would be an incentive to the lawyers to get on with the job. The legal fraternity can act with great speed when it wants to and can be equally slow when it wants to be slow. The case of the AEUW and the National Industrial Relations Court was settled overnight, but I am still waiting for the details of costs after 12 months in other cases.

Will the extra money involved in these regulations enable people to claim legal aid in road offence cases such as speeding? People are known to get away with being pulled up two or three times for speeding without being taken to court. But most of my constituents cannot afford lawyers when they are pulled up and cautioned for motoring offences. I hope they will be within the new limit and will be able to get assistance.

I hope that the Attorney-General will consider the case of an innocent person who is compelled to defend himself in court but will still be below the new limits in the regulations and will not get legal aid. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that this is an interim measure and that another will come later. He should ask his advisory committee to examine the possibility of the innocent person claiming and getting his costs so that he is treated as fairly as some of the big company directors who deliberately pass over their assets to their wives or other relatives and go bankrupt in order to be able to take advantage of legal aid. One can read of such cases in the Press almost any day. I hope that the Attorney-General will tighten up and prevent abuse of the scheme in this way by these wealthy sharks who are phoney company directors.

10.54 p.m.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, North-West)

I sometimes wonder, when listening to my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis). whether, if the House were well stocked with doctors, he would accuse them of having vested interest every time they voted in favour of improving the National Health Service. Some of us believe that the importance of justice in this country is crucial—

Mr. Arthur Lewis

So do I.

Mr. Janner

—and that the importance of legal aid is to ensure that justice is available to all, irrespective of their wealth.

The most important point made in the debate so far was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones), who said that at the moment justice is available for the rich and for the poor but not for the man in the middle. The object of all improvements in the legal aid scheme should be to make justice available where it is not available. To the extent that the improvement in the regulations does that, I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North will approve of them.

We all recognise the defects in the legal aid scheme. The most essential is that the bulk of ordinary working people earning a decent living are unable to obtain free legal aid. In many cases they are unable to obtain legal aid at all. They may have a perfectly good case, but if they are faced with a rich company they cannot afford to fight it. If they are faced with a legally-aided plaintiff, again they will be unable to defend themselves. That may be equally serious.

The injustice moves in both directions and it is to conquer that injustice that all improvements such as those proposed this evening should be directed. The test of the improvement is whether it is sufficient and whether it goes far enough in the right direction.

We are concerned with two statutory instruments. The first is financial, and the second deals with individual tribunals. The second does not even meet the criterion set up by the advisory committee, which is to provide advice which I presume is meant to be followed. There is little point in having someone to offer advice if it is intended to flout that advice. That is what the Government have seen fit to do. They say, "We all know the current position". That is not good enough, because as a result of the advance we are moving back to where we were in 1949. That is hardly a tribute to the efforts being made to provide justice for the people in the middle. We want to move forward so that the people can get justice which is not available at present.

The increase is parsimonious and mean. I hope that "interim" means that there will be a further advance very shortly. Perhaps the Attorney-General will be good enough to define "interim" so that we know what he has in mind. There can be an interim order which lasts for one day, one which lasts a week and one which lasts the life of the Government which may be rather longer than we hope. However, if the Attorney-General defines "interim" we might sleep a little better.

The other matter concerns me even more. We have advanced into another tribunal, but the advance is so petty and so limited as to be scarcely worth making. My constituents do not have the infinite advantages of the people who live in West Ham. For a start, they are not represented by the hon. Member for West Ham, North. They have no Epping Forest, although they do have Abbey Park, where Wolsey died. But that is about it. There is no common land that I know of, and my constituents will gain no advantage from the order.

However, there are two main areas where I regret most deeply that the advance has not been made. The commons commissioner is almost unheard of anywhere outside West Ham. The national insurance commissioner, on the other hand, is a man of crucial importance, particularly on a day when the House has been considering the thalidomide children.

I appeared before the Chief National Insurance Commissioner on 17th October on behalf of a little boy called Jimmy Martin who has no legs and only one arm. Such cases normally take a short time, but the commissioner informed us that it was the first occasion where there had been an argued case on the correct meaning of the law as set out in the regulations. By definition, the people who need legal aid most are those who can least afford to pay for lawyers. By definition, the person who has to ask for an order to receive £4.60 or so a week cannot afford to engage counsel and cannot afford a solicitor either, so he appears with neither before a commissioner who is of infinitely greater importance than the commons commissioner.

The Jimmy Martin case ran for a day instead of a few minutes or a few hours. Instead of judgment being given on 17th October, it was reserved, and today the decision has still not been given.

Second, of all the tribunals to choose from, why pick the commons commissioner, when we know that in the tribunals set up to administer the compensation for unfair dismissal under the Industrial Relations Act there is no legal aid and people must appear without help? To give preference to these regulations is ludicrous.

We shall willingly vote the commons commissioner into the legal aid field tonight, for the benefit of those who wish to take advantage of that tribunal. But it is ridiculous to leave out of account the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who need representation of the most humble kind before the industrial tribunals. Just a few weeks ago the Government admitted that some 73 per cent. of all cases to reach an industrial tribunal for compensation for unfair dismissal fail. In other words, the employers, who can afford to be represented by lawyers, win, and the employees, who receive no legal aid when they appear before tribunals infinitely more important than the commons commissioner, fail. It is a very unfair order of precedence that the Government have set.

Three reasons were given by the Attorney-General. The first was the speed of final decision, the fact that a matter will be finished shortly, and that unless legal aid is granted soon it will be too late. That argument applies equally well to Jimmy Martin's family. They can only make their application now. If they wait too long the boy will be grown up, like the people waiting for council houses who die before they get them.

The second reason was that there was a very limited right of appeal. The right of appeal from the national insurance commissioner, so far as I know, does not exist, so there is even greater need there.

The third reason is that it is a limited field. So are those in great need.

We can apply to the areas of real need precisely the same criteria as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has applied to this recondite, strange area of both legal and physical country, the commons.

I hope that the Government will direct their attention to the areas of real human need where legal aid may be as essential as a doctor is to a sick person, and that they will do so very soon.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

We must welcome any increase in the legal aid limits. If we took the more reserved attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) and successfully opposed the regulations, even fewer of the dockers of West Ham would be able to bring legal actions when, for example, they suffered personal injury on the roads.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

My hon. Friend will understand that I was not opposing the regulations, but it would appear that I had to oppose them in order to get in order.

Mr. Lyons

The regulations are helpful, and we are grateful to the Government for producing the increases. The real question is whether the increases are great enough. Anyone dealing with individuals bringing or resisting actions without benefit of legal aid knows that discussion of costs plays a large part in deciding whether to continue proceedings or to accept an offered settlement.

Often, results occur which are not just but are the result of lack of funds of the person bringing or resisting the proceedings. It will still be the case, after this new measure becomes law, that people who could not be regarded as rich by any stretch of the imagination will not be able to obtain legal aid.

I was recently attending a trial in South-West Africa on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists. I know that that was a criminal trial and that these orders do not relate to criminal proceedings, but in South and South-West Africa legal aid procedure in civil and criminal proceedings is rudimentary. The result is that people who have been injured and make a civil claim and those who resist criminal proceedings have great difficulty unless some outside source is prepared to put up funds for defence or for prosecuting a civil claim.

In Britain it is right to say, as the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) said, that we can take pride in the legal aid scheme because it goes further than the schemes in other countries, while there are countries with no schemes at all.

One does not want it to be said, as an hon. Member opposite said outside in circumstances attended by great publicity, that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor and that one can buy justice. That was a remark which, in respect of criminal proceedings, was totally false, totally untrue.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

It is true.

Mr. Lyons

In the civil field, curiously enough, there is one law for the rich and poor—both can defend and bring civil actions—while it is the man in middle area who is discriminated against. The orders go only a small part of the way to secure that gap in the law and end that injustice.

One would like to know what estimate is being made of the numbers of extra people who will be brought within the legal aid net by the increases proposed. I have pleaded that one reason why we have not heard a suggested estimate is that the numbers will perhaps not be too great.

I should like to say a final word on the esoteric subject of the commons commissioner, about whom I am entirely ignorant. I always thought that couchancy was something to do with medieval tournaments and the insignia carried on medieval shields, but it is something appropriate for every citizen of West Ham to discuss, if it is discussed nowhere else.

I echo the remarks of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Greville Janner) when he referred to other tribunals to which the Government are not proposing to extend legal aid.

One feels that the commons commission has been chosen simply because there are few cases, even in West Ham, for that august body and that it will not cost a great deal of money to provide legal aid for it, whereas, in relation to cases of unfair dismissal, and in relation to cases before the national insurance commissioner, to introduce legal aid, necessary and advisable as it may be, will cost the country a more notable sum of money. It seems, therefore, that the Government are less reluctant to introduce it in the other case. One can only hope that those who have lost their jobs wrongfully, or allegedly wrongfully, will have an opportunity to get proper advice and secure a remedy for any wrong done.

Subject to those comments, I welcome the regulations.

11.10 p.m.

The Attorney-General

I suppose it will be said that I am biased, but the speech which I enjoyed most was that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve). Not only did he unreservedly welcome the regulations, but he spoke sense, and reminded us that this is a service of which we are entitled to be proud. Those who first introduced it, members of the party to which the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) belongs, can take pride in having done so. We have extended the scheme thereafter. I do not imagine that we would ever do without it now, and we all want to improve it and ensure that it is as fair as it is possible to make it.

But the public purse has to be considered. Hard is the path of Government and Ministers when they put to the House of Commons, admittedly modest, suggestions for improvement at a time when an advisory committee is conducting a study in depth which may take a little time, only to encounter the objec- tion that what we propose is mean and miserable. We have listened to what the advisory committee has had to say. It will deal with the whole matter of disposable capital and income, and I hope that before many months are past I shall be back here with something more, though, no doubt, it will again be said "But this is mean and miserable." It is the duty of an Opposition to take that attitude, I suppose, so that whatever proposal I make will be greeted with the same response.

We have taken what the advisory committee said with regard to disposable capital, that £1,200 would put it back to the 1949 position. In that respect an injustice will be corrected. I must say that, if injustice it be, it has been going on since 1949, and others would have been responsible only a few years ago. As regards disposable income, the figure we have taken will, we believe, give a fairer and more balanced position at this time of inflation when restraints are being imposed upon people and the report of the committee is being prepared.

The advisory committee reported that it had carefully considered the cost of the civil legal aid and advice scheme and was satisfied that it is administered economically and that continued care is exercised to avoid waste of public funds". As well as the work done by practitioners, there is the service performed by those who serve on the legal aid committees in the important task of making assessments and judgments for the granting of legal aid certificates. This also is important work, and they should be congratulated on it.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray) asked for the estimates. I can only tell him that the estimate of cost for the financial conditions regulations would be in the neighbourhood of £200,000 in England and Wales and about £20,000 in Scotland. In the case of the commons commissioners, it would be £20,000 over six years.

May I correct something which I said earlier? I said that 12,622 certificates had been issued in Scotland. In fact, that was the number of applications; 8,821 certificates were issued.

There is provision for legal aid centres to be set up under Part II of the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1972. The right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South has put before us the views and opinions of the Legal Action Group, which I will study. The need for legal aid centres will be kept under review by the Law Society and my right hon. and noble Friend's Department. The £25 scheme will come into effect in April, 1973, and it is hoped that this scheme will indicate where the need for legal aid centres is greatest.

I turn to the house property position. I have already said that it is proposed to increase the £5,000 disregard to £6,000. The advisory committee has been especially considering the allowances for house property. I hope that it will be realistic and will take modern prices and costs into account.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Greville Janner and the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) have referred to the question of the middle man. That is what the regulations are about—to help the middle man, perhaps only in a modest way. The hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) misconceived the purpose of the regulations, which is to make legal aid available to more people in prosecuting or defending civil actions. In any area in which fixed limits are set there will always be people who fall on the wrong side of the line and there is hardship. There will always have to be a line. The question is where to draw it.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I do not think it is a question of misconception. Perhaps I accentuated the position in order to show its unfairness. I am concerned about those in the criminal classes who can get away with it. Something better could, and should, be done for those in the middle class.

The Attorney-General

In order to stay in order I must deal with the regulations, and they are concerned with civil legal aid and not with criminal legal aid, which is another matter.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, North-West and the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South made play with the fact that we are introducing the commons commis- sioner, that esoteric gentleman, and the esoteric law upon which he will have to decide. I thought I made the position clear, but perhaps it was not clear enough. Legal aid will have to be granted in such proceedings. It is certain that it will have to be legal aid as opposed to any other form of aid because the law is difficult and complicated and it is impossible for a farmer or smallholder to argue it himself. Here is a clear case. None of the other cases is absolutely clear. The Nuffield Foundation and other foundations are doing very important and detailed research in this respect, and it would be foolish to rush in before we had their advice or before the results of their research had been put before the advisory committee. These matters will begin now, because registration is completed. Objections can be made. This is vital to a few people. It is a clear case, and we point to it and say that in this respect legal aid is necessary. We have therefore taken the opportunity to introduce the order to help those people.

Nothing can be more agreeable than for an Attorney-General as agent for the Lord Chancellor to be able continually to ask for increases, even if it means that the hon. Member for West Ham, North has his usual say about lawyers. It is agreeable to ask for increases and extensions of legal aid. They may be modest, but they are important and they will be useful. They will help those whom we wish to help.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.

Resolved, That the Legal Aid (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.—[The Attorney-General.]

Resolved, That the Legal Aid (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations 1972, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th November, be approved.—[The Attorney-General.]

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