HC Deb 20 October 1975 vol 898 cc25-7
38. Mr. Ashley

asked the Attorney-General what recent representations he has received about the operation of the legal aid system; and if he will make a statement.

The Attorney-General

On 16th October my noble Friend received the 25th annual report of his advisory committee, which contains a number of representations about the operation of the legal aid schemes. He is at present studying the report and will be very glad to consider any representations that my hon. Friend may wish to address to him.

Mr. Ashley

Why will not the Government allow legal aid to individuals appearing before tribunals? Over 130,000 people appear before them every year. Many of those people are poor, old, sick, disabled or unemployed. They are at a great disadvantage, as their powerful opponents can afford legal representation whereas these people cannot. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is a shocking state of affairs? Will he explain why, last week, the Lord Chancellor replied to me that although a working party is lookinig at the problem, he does not regard legal aid for people appearing before tribunals as a priority question?

The Attorney-General

I think that my hon. Friend has not completely followed what I said in a written reply on 16th October, when my hon. Friend raised this matter. I replied that my noble Friend had considerable sympathy with the recommendation on legal aid for people appearing before tribunals, but that he could not give priority to that provision, in view of the urgent need to improve legal services generally. I said that my noble Friend had commissioned a study into the problems of the need for legal services. That study is nearing completion. When the report is completed my noble Friend will review the whole position, including that of tribunals, after he has considered it.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Does the Attorney-General realise that apart from those who appear before tribunals unrepresented—which is a great handicap to them—many do not go before tribunals because they do not have the money with which to pay the costs?

The Attorney-General

I recognise that, and so does my noble Friend. However, this is only one part of the unmet need for legal services. Many matters are referred to in the report of the committee and further matters are being considered by the Lord Chancellor's Department at the moment. All those matters will be taken into account, so that the unmet need in those areas where it is most damaging can be taken care of.

Mr. Wiliam Hamilton

Is the Attorney-General satisfied with the machinery by which all the assets of those applying for legal aid are ascertained?

The Attorney-General

That is a different matter. It does not come within the responsibility of my Department or that of my noble Friend. A different Department deals with the ascertainment of means.

Mr. Lipton

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, as a result of the operation of the legal aid scheme, many cases are unnecessarily sent to Crown courts rather than dealt with in magistrates' courts, because in the Crown courts the defendant can get legal aid, whereas in the magistrates' courts he cannot?

The Attorney-General

How far that is true is a matter which has to be taken into account in the study of the unmet need for legal services to which I referred. I cannot quantify the number of cases to which my hon. Friend referred. I cannot at this stage say whether it is a matter which bears particularly heavily on the unmet need.

Mr. Lee

Is not the legal aid scheme working rather badly in relation to ordinary civil matters, apart from industrial tribunals? For example, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the case of a person of very limited means in my constituency, seeking to take an action for negligence against a hospital board—a matter in which considerable damages may be involved—being called upon to put down a deposit of £3,000 as a condition of legal aid—a sum which is far beyond his capacity to meet without total realisation of his assets, including the sale of his home? Does my right hon. and learned Friend regard that as satisfactory? If he does not, will he lean on the Lord Chancellor to ameliorate the position?

The Attorney-General

I do not know of the case to which my hon. Friend refers, but if he will send me details of it I shall have it looked into by the Department concerned. One of the matters which my noble Friend is considering—this goes to show the width of the unmet need—is the high contribution which has to be made by people at the top of the scale.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Will the hon. Member please raise his point of order later.