HC Deb 26 January 1976 vol 904 cc25-7
44. Mr. Ashley

asked the Attorney-General whether he remains satisfied with the operation of the system of tribunals, especially in relation to the continued lack of provision of legal aid.

The Attorney-General

The operation of particular tribunals is a matter for the particular Ministers concerned. My noble Friend has already made it clear that he supports in principle the extension of legal aid to certain tribunals but that, in view of competing claims for expenditure, he cannot give it priority.

Mr. Ashley

How does my right hon. and learned Friend justify the remarkable fact that powerful organisations and individuals are allowed legal representa- tion before tribunals because they can afford it and yet poor people are denied legal representation under the legal aid scheme? In the interests of justice, will he either provide legal representation to poor people under the legal aid scheme or ban legal representation altogether at tribunals?

The Attorney-General

As my hon. Friend very well knows, my noble Friend and I are extremely anxious to provide a fair balance. We agree that the use of legal aid is a weapon with which that can be achieved. However, apart from tribunals, there are many other fields—I am certain from his many Written Questions which I shall be answering today that my hon. Friend will agree—which can claim priority. Denying all representation because we cannot deal with tribunals now as we should like is not an answer to the problem, because at tribunals it is a matter not merely of legal representation but of the use of expert witnesses and all kinds of other expenditure in which the richer can have an advantage over the poorer. My hon. Friend's suggestion of a ban on legal representation would be throwing out the bath water with the baby.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

As the whole purpose of the Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 was to enable people to take cases to law and as the number of cases before tribunals has increased enormously since then and many poor people have to resort to tribunals, will my right hon. and learned Friend use his best efforts to persuade the Government to bring cases before tribunals within the ambit of the legal aid scheme?

The Attorney-General

My noble Friend needs no persuasion about this. He is fully aware of and is greatly in sympathy with what my hon. Friends have said. However, at an early stage after my noble Friend's appointment he set in motion a study of the whole area of unmet need. He hopes to have the report on that very shortly. He will then be in a position within available resources—my hon. Friend must not think that they are limitless—to assess the important priorities and to take what action he can to meet them.

Mr. Percival

I think that the Attorney-General knows that the Opposition support the statement of principle which was the first part of his reply to the Question. I am sure that he knows that we accept that this is a question of competing claims within the legal aid system to increase the limits. However, can he give the House any estimate of what it would cost to extend legal aid to tribunals? Only if we have some idea of that can we judge the competing claims and their merits.

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for what the hon. and learned Gentleman said in the first part of his question and I fully understand the final part. This is precisely one of the matters that will necessarily arise in the survey of the unmet need for legal services, which I understand will be reported upon to my noble Friend within a very short time. As soon as this has been studied, we shall have the answer to that kind of question.