HC Deb 19 July 1977 vol 935 cc1549-53

11.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

I beg to move, That the draft Legal Aid, Advice and Assistance Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved. The main purpose of the order is to introduce the £25 or "green form" legal advice and assistance scheme into Northern Ireland. The green form scheme was introduced in Great Britain in 1973 and has proved successful in making legal advice and assistance available to persons of limited means. I am sure hon. Members will welcome the order, which will bring the legal advice scheme in Northern Ireland broadly into line with that provided under the Legal Aid Act 1974 for England and Wales.

11.39 p.m.

Mr. Norman Miscampbell (Blackpool, North)

The order exemplifies the slowness with which legislation in Northern Ireland is brought into line with that for England and Wales. As early as 1971 it was first thought desirable to make legal aid legislation in Northern Ireland compatible with that in England and Wales. This matter featured in the last Queen's Speech at Stormont before that Assembly collapsed. The Act for England and Wales was passed five years ago, and this order seeks to bring the Northern Ireland situation into line with that existing under that Act for England and Wales.

We welcome the fact that the £25 limit is now to be made available in Northern Ireland. The Minister himself used the phrase "broadly in line with the English situation". There are clearer distinctions between what happens in our own courts and what is happening in Northern Ireland. Not least, perhaps most importantly—the other matters are perhaps more technical—is that a very much higher degree of legal aid is granted in the courts in Northern Ireland. As many as 90 per cent. of applicants receive legal aid in Northern Ireland whereas the figure for England and Wales—it is a matter of controversy between counties—is between 40 per cent. and 60 per cent.

Equally important is the fact that in Northern Ireland no attempt is made to assess the means of the applicant. However, I notice that under Article 6 attempts are being made to ensure that persons who make application for legal aid and provide the courts with information which is manifestly wrong can be pursued thereafter and recovery can be made. In England and Wales this is done as a primary matter. An applicant's means are considered before he is given a legal aid certificate.

That brings me to the last point which I wish to query with the Minister. It has been the practice in the northern courts that when solicitors are on the premises or in the precincts of a court—this applies to both civil and criminal legal aid—a magistrate is able to ask them whether they will represent the person appearing who is before them. I understand that this is a great advantage in that it ensures that the case is adequately presented and perhaps, to put it mildly, a bit of sense is knocked into the person appearing before the court because he gets the advantage of advice there and then.

Under the new Section 7A(4)(c) a court has to be satisfied that an application for legal aid in respect of the proceedings has not been made previously and been refused. Will the Minister comment on this alteration? Do the Minister and his Department feel that where an application has previously been made and refused and this has not been disclosed to the court, this is an abuse which should be ended?

With those few words, I can only say that the order, as the Minister said, brings the law on legal aid in Northern Ireland broadly into line with that which exists here. In so doing we welcome it.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) did not intend the House to accept the literal meaning of the word "collapse" when he said that Stormont had collapsed. It is much more accurate to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) once said, that it did not jump but was pushed. It was certainly removed by an Act of this House.

I do not think that the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North was very much happier than I was on that occasion. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) was even less happy with the situation. I would not accuse the Government Front Bench of doing more than passively permitting the action to be taken. I do not think that the Front Bench was wildly enthusiastic.

Mr. Miscampbell

Perhaps I should have said that support was removed from it.

Mr. Molyneaux

With fatal consequences, and those consequences are with us tonight. That is really the reason why we are engaged in this type of operation at this late hour. It is also the reason why the process which has been foreshadowed in the previous two short debates—namely, that of reviewing the law and bringing it into line with Great Britain—will have to be embarked upon sooner or later, and, in our view, the sooner the better.

Although I do not claim to have much knowledge of legal matters and I always strive to keep as far distant from the legal profession as possible, since I find the friendship of lawyers somewhat expensive from time to time, I feel that this draft order is taking us in the right direction. We have all encountered examples in our constituency work of cases where the benefits conferred by the order would have helped greatly in providing resolution of the difficulties of many of our constituents. I hope that the order will make possible the resolution of a great many problems which hitherto have confounded all of us who have tried to give advice from the point of view of laymen.

Now that we are set, on this day of all days, on a course at long last to bring Northern Ireland in all respects into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, we give our support to the order, which, in its own limited way, at least takes a step in that direction.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Concannon

I thank the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) for his remarks.

I think that I have two matters to answer, both of them raised by the hon. and learned Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). First, he asked why it had taken so long to introduce this scheme into Northern Ireland. I think that he virtually answered his own question by saying that this was a measure which the Assembly was deeply involved in when it was dissolved, kicked or pushed—hon. Members sitting in different parts of the House describe it in various ways. It was decided to proceed by Order in Council, and the opportunity was taken to update certain other aspects of the legal aid scheme. To do that, we had to have consultations with bodies such as the Law Society in Northern Ireland, and this caused some further delay.

The hon. and learned Gentleman was right in thinking that I said that the order brought the position in Northern Ireland broadly into line with that provided in the Legal Aid Act 1974 for England and Wales. There is one aspect in the order which differs from the original £25 scheme, and the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head. Section 7A (4) enables a court in certain circumstances to authorise a solicitor to assist a person who is party to proceedings. Experience of the operation of the corresponding provision in Great Britain has shown that on some occasions this facility has been misused by solicitors to represent a client in proceedings where an application for legal aid had been made and had been refused. Subsection (4) (c) of Section 7A will, it is hoped, prevent such abuse. A similar change is to be made in Great Britain.

Mr. Miscampbell

Can the hon. Gentleman indicate the legislation by which such a change is to be made? I looked hopefully in the legislation which is before the House at the moment but I was not able immediately to identify it.

Mr. Concannon

This is one of those cases where we are leapfrogging ahead. When we were discussing these matters with bodies in Northern Ireland, we also discussed it with the appropriate bodies in England and Wales, and we were advised that it would be better to take this line now, otherwise we would have to catch up again in the near future. This is a case of our leapfrogging and, if and when it comes, the law in Great Britain will, for a change, have to catch up with the law in Northern Ireland instead of vice versa.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Legal Aid, Advice and Assistance Order 1977, which was laid before this House on 5th July, be approved.