HC Deb 25 April 1977 vol 930 cc718-9
33. Mr. Ovenden

asked the Attorney-General what was the cost of legal aid in civil cases at 1977 prices over the past five years.

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Peter Archer)

At current prices, the cost of civil legal aid for each year commencing with 1971–72 was as follows: £15.6 million, £18.6 million, £16.9 million, £17.5 million and £18.6 million. The figure for 1976–77 is not yet available but is expected to be about £21 million.

Mr. Ovenden

Will my hon. and learned Friend accept that those figures reflect the failure of the incomes scale to keep pace with inflation, which has resulted in a smaller proportion of the population being eligible for legal aid? Is he satisfied with the situation where the only people who qualify for maximum legal aid are those living on incomes just above supplementary benefit level and that, to qualify for legal aid at all, people must have incomes well below the average industrial earnings? Will he take urgent action to remedy the situation without waiting for the Royal Commission?

The Solicitor-General

I would not dispute what my hon. Friend says. Over the last 25 years there has been a disturbing reduction in the proportion of the population who qualify for legal aid. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is well aware of this, and as soon as finances allow he proposes to do something about it. It is fair to add that meanwhile the financial limits for legal aid are raised annually to keep them in line with increases in supplementary benefit, and the disposable capital limits were raised in November 1976 for the first time since 1972.

Mr. Costain

Is the Solicitor-General satisfied that these funds are being properly used? I drew the Lord Chancellor's attention to a letter from a constituent of mine, Miss James, who won a case and was awarded £125 damages for repairs to her house. The legal costs which she incurred were £495; she was allowed only £260, which means that she was £200 out of pocket, and no damages were awarded to her. Is there not something wrong with the system if a claimant can win a case and be £200 out of pocket, thanks to legal aid?

The Solicitor-General

I have no knowledge of the facts of that case. I imagine that the kind of matter which the hon. Gentleman has in mind is one of those at present being considered by the Royal Commission.

Mr. Molloy

Can my hon. and learned Friend say whether it is incumbent on solicitors to inform clients of their rights under legal aid? If it is not, will he consider making it compulsory that all solicitors should tell all their clients what their rights are under legal aid and how they should apply for it?

The Solicitor-General

Certainly a solicitor would normally explain to a client whether he was entitled to apply for legal aid, and I would expect that to happen.