HC Deb 19 April 1978 vol 948 cc432-4
9. Mr. Dempsey

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will establish an incomes test for applicants for legal aid in criminal cases; and if he will make a statement.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Harry Ewing)

My right hon. Friend has no plan to do so. The difficulties of devising any such test for our system of criminal legal aid are discussed in the 1960 Guthrie Report on criminal legal aid.

Mr. Dempsey

Is my hon. Friend aware that under the present provisions a salaried official can have all his legal expenses paid, even after conviction in the High Court, while he is earning a salary of £300 a week, yet one of my constituents earning £30 a week had to pay the court expenses arising from an action concerning a breakdown in his marriage? In view of the fact that we are pledged to eliminate such gross social inequalities, are we not, in this case, perpetuating one rather than terminating it?

Mr. Ewing

I would not pretend to my hon. Friend that there are not some difficulties in the present legal aid system, and there appears to be some injustice when someone who is very wealthy and is earning a substantial amount of money can have legal aid. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and myself are very well aware of the difficulties that exist in the present legal aid system, and the seeming inequalities, but the complexities of sorting that out ought not to be underestimated. Nevertheless, we take account of what my hon. Friend has just said.

Mr. Rifkind

Is the Minister aware that in contrast with criminal legal aid, inflation has so restricted entitlement to civil legal aid over the last five years that legal aid in civil cases has in reality become the Cinderella of the welfare services? Does the Minister recognise this problem?

Mr. Ewing

I am sure that the hon. Member recognises the difference in granting aid in civil cases, as distinct from criminal cases. My view is that there is a lot to be said for the way in which we consider applications for legal aid in civil cases. I shall note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I do not think that he or I should give the impression that the obtaining of legal aid in civil cases has become more difficult. It has not. It is anything but that.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Will the Minister take on board the fact that if the sheriffs were, for instance, given discretion to impose a contribution by an accused person towards the expenses of his defence, it might enable the eligibility range in the incomes test, as applied to such cases, to be extended and, therefore, more people to be given a chance of some help in these matters, which are of very great importance to them?

Mr. Ewing

The variety of questions that we have had on this subject indicates the difficulty of devising a test of means. That is the point that I was seeking to highlight when answering my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey). But all the points that have been made will certainly be considered—not now, but certainly at a later date.

Mr. Fairbairn

I wonder whether the Minister will consider the fact that the civil legal aid system results in a person who has made savings from his income and, therefore, may have very modest capital being punished as compared with someone who has spent his income. Will the Minister also consider the new Act of Adjournal, which in summary cases forbids the solicitor to make a plea of guilty or not guilty because it is assumed that the solicitor does not put forward, for legal aid reasons, the plea that the client would genuinely wish to be put forward?

Mr. Ewing

I shall certainly consider the hon, and learned Gentleman's second point. But the first point, about modest means, is precisely the point that I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie. There is a difference between modest means and wealth. It is getting the balance right that is the difficulty in devising a test of means.