HC Deb 05 November 1979 vol 973 cc187-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

11.12 pm
Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

The report of the Royal Commission on legal services, which was published on 3 October, is the most comprehensive and thorough investigation of legal services ever undertaken by any Commission. I join in the tributes paid to Sir Henry Benson and his colleagues. I have never been able to understand why the Commission was set up in the first place—by a previous Government—but I warmly congratulate it on its work.

I am indebted to the Attorney-General for his being here, tonight, since I want to discover the Government's reactions to a number of questions—bearing in mind, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman said on 30 October, that a period of consultation and reflection is required before any definite decisions can be made.

Do the Government accept in principle the tenor of the report? Without accepting every recommendation, are they prepared to say that, prima facie, the report has paid tribute to the administration of justice and the standard of both sides of the profession—although there are matters which require improvement and investigation with a view to providing a better, speedier and more efficient service to the public, who require a comprehensive legal service, to the profession itself and to the taxpayer?

Already the influence of the report has been felt in certain directions. Following its publication the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, said at the recent conference of the Law Society in Jersey that he believed that everything should be done to reduce the backlog and length of cases in the courts and to speed up the rate at which cases went to court, because the problem was crying out for a solution. He supported the Law Commission's recommendation to simplify and speed up civil court procedures.

Again, since publication the Lord Chancellor has set up an inquiry into how proceedings in the Chancery division of the High Court can be speeded up and made cheaper. He has appointed a High Court judge, Mr. Justice Oliver, and a Mr. John Woolf to head a small committee to recommend measures to expedite proceedings in the Chancery division. All this is thoroughly healthy and good.

Because the report is complicated, I ask the Attorney-General whether the Government are prepared to consider producing a discussion paper, narrowing the issues and dividing them into those matters which involve increased public expenditure and those which do not. There are many immediate improvements which could be made without the use of additional public funds. I realise that once extra public money is required—as it is in a number of cases—different considerations may arise.

Are the Government prepared to encourage, in effect, public and parliamentary discussion of those recommendations by producing a document, as the previous Government did in relation to the Phillimore report on the law of contempt, setting out the issues, with a view to promoting public discussion?

In a short debate of this kind it is impossible to deal with many of the topics that arise, but I suggest that one of the most urgent recommendations of the report that should be considered urgently by the Government is that dealing with the various administrative changes that could be made without expenditure of vast sums of money and without the complicated processes of consultation. Consultations have already taken place with the various bodies, such as the Law Society, which made recommendations to the Commission in the first place.

I refer to the question of conveyancing, which appears in chapter 21. There has been a lot of ill-informed and ignorant criticism of conveyancing in general and of the legal profession by people who know nothing of the technicalities. If anyone is foolish enough to conduct his own conveyancing on his own house, he is perfectly at liberty to do so.

The Royal Commission's recommendation preserves the right of the "do-it-yourself" conveyancer but makes certain recommendations to reduce the legal costs, none of which involves vast expenditure and all of which are eminently sensible. I refer particularly to the question of employing only one solicitor between the vendor and purchaser when there is no apparent conflict of interests, thereby saving a good deal of money.

I refer also to the recommendations at the end of the chapter—a dozen or so of them—all sensible and all of which go further to protect the interests of the lay client, without costing money. For example, this can be done by submitting a bill to the lay client or solicitor before fees are deducted from the money received on behalf of the client and by encouraging building societies and solicitors to ensure that mortgagees are not represented separately from vendors or purchasers unless there is a conflict of interests. Other sensible measures to protect the public, save costs and simplify procedures could be introduced in the near future. I have not time to dwell on that at greater length.

I draw the right hon. and learned Gentleman's attention to the administration and financing of legal aid in civil cases. I shall not tonight deal with the question of legal aid in criminal cases because that is a separate, big subject upon which there has been ample public discussion at various levels. The administration and financing of legal advice in civil cases, which is featured in chapters 12 and 13 of the report, give rise to a host of recommendations. Many of those recommendations would be relatively simple to implement and would not cost much money.

Earlier this year, in the good old days of a Labour Government, with the approval of the Conservative spokesman in the House of Lords, Lord Rawlinson, the former Labour Lord Chancellor introduced measures to make legal aid available to more people in civil cases by raising the financial limits. That was a move in the right direction. However, many disadvantages are suffered by people who require legal aid. A non-legally aided defendant is still at a grave disadvantage when he wins a case against a legally aided plaintiff. It is grossly unfair that if a non-legally aided defendant wins a case he may lose financially because he is unable to recover costs from the person who is legally aided and fails in his action.

Such anomalies are discussed in the report and recommendations are made. I urge the Attorney-General to consider those recommendations and to express the Government's preliminary views on them. All these subjects are important. One cannot say that one is more important than another. I deal with them in the order in which they occurred to me.

The question of legal representation before administrative tribunals must be reviewed. Under successive Governments there has been an enormous increase in the work of tribunals. This is discussed in chapter 15 of the report. Tribunals are growing in number almost daily. Their quality varies, sometimes in accordance with the personality of the chairman. There is a case for ensuring that persons appearing before administrative tribunals are entitled to legal representation out of public funds if they cannot afford their own representation. At present there are many anomalies.

In some tribunals, no legal representation is allowed without the tribunal's permission. Before other tribunals, legal representation is allowed but not through the legal aid fund. Other tribunals do not allow legal representation of any kind even though important questions of law and fact, or mixed law and fact, may be involved.

The Royal Commission has much to say about that. I ask the Government to consider the first recommendation in particular. On page 174 of volume one, the report states: The procedures of all the main tribunals need to be reviewed; this should be undertaken by the Council on Tribunals"— which already exists and has many distinguished members— under the general oversight of the Lord Chancellor. This is urgent. The tribunals are becoming increasingly more active daily and many cases take far longer than they should because those who appear before them are not legally represented. There are many other recommendations dealing with tribunals, none of which appears to involve vast expenditure of public money.

The feeling exists, rightly or wrongly, that lay clients do not have any redress if they feel that the solicitor's bill that they receive is excessive. At present there is a system of appeal by taxation to the Law Society, provided that that is pursued within a certain time. There are further appellate procedures after that in relatively rare cases if the lay client takes the trouble to pursue them.

It is felt that solicitors and the Law Society are inexorably intertwined and that it is no use appealing to the Law Society on an issue of costs from a solicitor because the Law Society will tend to back up the solicitor. That is an unfortunate impression, because I feel that the Law Society gets tough with its own kind if it thinks that a solicitor has gone wrong. However, that is not the impression among the public generally, especially among those, of whom there is no shortage, who complain about lawyers.

The dissatisfied litigant who wishes to blame a solicitor does not appreciate the tough machinery that exists to enable the Law Society to deal with its own kind. It may be that the Royal Commission's recommendations dealing with what are called lawyers' charges contain many sensible proposals that the Government should consider closely to allay the fears of the public.

Linked with that is the issue of complaints against solicitors. Again the feeling exists, rightly or wrongly, that the Law Society is not independent when dealing with such complaints. I disagree. I think that the Law Society, on the whole, deals very well with solicitors who go wrong. The difficulty is to persuade the general public that that is so.

The Attorney-General is well aware of the anxieties that exist at the Bar about the future of the profession. He is close to the Bar, and, as the leader of the Bar, knows of the problems that are troubling the profession. We have before us a good and careful report that contains many recommendations. Sooner or later the Government must tackle the basic problem. If we want a good legal service, the Government must be prepared to provide the money for it.

I have spoken of matters that do not require money, and now I shall talk about matters that do require it. The scale of fees at the Bar is wholly inadequate in 1979, taking the past five or six years of inflation. There has been no increase in professional fees in the face of inflation. The profession has voluntarily reformed itself in many respects. I know of no other profession or trade that has voluntarily abandoned the two-thirds rule and voluntarily abandoned various practices that were considered contrary to the public interest. It is rewarded by having lower fees now than six years ago. Naturally, I disclose an interest. There have been representations to successive Governments about the appallingly low standard of fees at the Bar. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is mindful—I know that he is—of these considerations.

I know that the Attorney-General has not had time to consider the report in depth, but will he say whether he is sympathetic to my suggestion that a discussion paper should be issued; whether he is sympathetic to setting out a list of recommendations that could be implemented in the near future that do not require the expenditure of public money; and whether, in the long term, he will do everything in his power to persuade the Government to make more public money available to maintain the quality of legal services, which cannot be maintained without that being done?

11.30 pm
Mr. David Mellor (Putney)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for allowing me a little of his time to make a contribution to this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) on raising this topic and on having dealt as moderately and effectively as he did with the recommendations of the Royal Commission. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman sits on the Labour Benches in splendid isolation and that we conduct this debate in the absence of any legal spokesman from the Opposition, which strikes me as rather extraordinary.

I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman said. I compliment him particularly on what he said about the level of fees at the Bar, although one must declare an interest. I agree also with what the hon. Gentleman said about conveyancing. I regard the outcry against present conveyancing practice as extraordinary. In support of that statement, one has only to look at the average transaction and compare the level of the solicitor's fee with that paid to the estate agents.

I should like to raise two points for the consideration of my right hon. and learned Friend. The first is with regard to law centres. I think that we are all grateful to the Royal Commission for its balanced views on law centres. It has reiterated, first, that the purpose of law centres is to offer legal advice in areas where there is a shortage of solicitors, and not otherwise.

Secondly, the Commission has made clear that the role of law centres is to offer legal advice, albeit biased towards advice on social security and such matters. The Commission has made it equally clear that it is not the role of law centres to become centres for what they term community work but what many of us, particularly on the Conservative Benches, would term political agitation.

The Commission has made it plain that that is not the purpose of law centres, and the fact that that has been said lends strength to the position of the council in my borough of Wandsworth, which, although it spends the most money of any local authority in England on law centres—about £150,000 a year—has had to contend with law centres which are not content to deal merely with the areas within which it is thought they should operate but have gone far too much into the area of agitation, to the extent that their ability to carry out their basic legal service has been damaged.

I compliment the Royal Commission also on what it said about professional staff at law centres, reiterating that while they may work outside either of the professions they nevertheless have to adhere to professional standards and must be subject to the same control by professional bodies as the rest of us are when working in conventional legal practice.

The only point about law centres on which I take issue with the Royal Commission is on its recommendation for a central agency. I suggest that that is not in keeping with our views on quangos. There is no reason why there should not be sensible local control of a law centre, just as there can be sensible local control of so many essential local services, of which this is but one.

My next point relates to legal aid. I appreciate that funds are not readily available—it would be irresponsible to suggest that they are—but the whole subject of legal aid and administrative tribunals has to be considered with the greatest care. When my right hon. and learned Friend made his statement last week, he was kind enough to indicate his basic sympathy with the idea that legal aid should be extended, and I hope that within the lifetime of this Government it will be possible for something to be done about that.

11.34 pm
Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for allowing me about one minute of his time in which to make a brief contribution. I, too, wish to make a few remarks about law centres, but I proceed on the basis of the maxim that where there is a right there is a remedy. In a Utopian society, everybody would have access to legal services. Sadly, that is not the position in the country at present, simply because there are those, particularly on the civil legal aid side, who for financial reasons cannot go to law or who are inhibited from so doing.

I welcome what has been said by the Royal Commission: We believe that the principle to be observed is that legal aid should be available to all but that above minimum levels the contribution to be sought should increase by reference to the size of the individual's resources. The contribution assessed should be such that it will not place an undue financial burden upon him. I believe that there is a great need for an increase in law centres. The matter is dealt with in the report. I do not have the time now to quote the references which I should have liked to quote, but it is all in the report for the reading. It has been endorsed by the Lord Chancellor's legal aid advisory committee.

The one point upon which I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to comment is whether we have not reached the stage where we should have some form of central funding of law centres as distinct from the situation which has prevailed up to the present. My right hon. and learned Friend, in a recent parliamentary answer, said that about seven law centres were funded by the Lord Chancellor's Department, 13 by the Department of the Environment under the urban aid scheme, and 11 through other agencies. That is, perhaps, an unsatisfactory state of affairs. I hope that at some stage we shall see some form of central funding which also takes cognisance of the fact that the local community should participate in the workings of its own law centre.

11.36 pm
The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) for taking his opportunity to discuss this report so soon after its publication. I am grateful to him for the way in which he dealt with the points and I shall certainly ensure that his helpful comments are considered when we come, as we must, to consider the report and consult about it.

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that time has not been wasted. Last Wednesday the legal services conference met. Its members included members of the Bar, the Law Society, citizens advice bureaux, the Law Centres Federation, even the Trades Union Congress. It made substantial progress. It was a constructive meeting. It is already reporting the progress that it made to the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee. So we have already started the process of consultation.

In the very few minutes available to me, I wish to say that it can be fairly said that the cri de coeur of the hon. Gentleman was that there should be a discussion paper. Having read all four volumes of the report, I wonder whether we need any further paper at this stage. The report provides ample material for discussion. What all of us have to do is encourage discussion. It may be that there will come a time, before any final debate, when the Government, in a statement either by me or by my noble Friend in the other place, will identify the problems and the views that they have taken. However, I should have thought that there is all the material needed in this very full report to encourage discussion. In fact, discussion is already taking place, involving not only those concerned in the law but those in the House and outside who criticise the lawyers. As we all know, there are plenty of those.

I have been asked whether the Government accept the tenor of the report. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether we accept the report as a whole, my answer is that it is impossible for me to say at this stage. A great deal of consideration and consultation is necessary. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether, for example, I accept the unanimous report so far as it concerns fusion, the answer is "Yes". If he is asking whether I accept that part of the report which deals with the backlog of cases, the delay and the advisability of speeding up procedures, the answer is "yes".

The hon. Gentleman is well known at the Bar as being someone who does not waste time in court. The report makes a point about prolixity. He and I would take common cause here in saying that anything that shortens speeches and tends to eliminate tedious cross-examination will be welcomed, not only by those who have to sit and listen to them but because of its effect in saving public expenditure. Those sorts of things do not need money, simply a bit of persuasion and a bit of encouragement from solicitors, judges and others. I often wonder whether the Court of Appeal could not be a little more outspoken in its support of judges who stop the same question being asked five times, rather than never coming out in criticism of those judges who allow the same question to be put in varying different ways, going on and on, not only to the boredom of everyone present but at great public expense.

To seek to distinguish between those recommendations in the report which require public expenditure and those which do not is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman said or as was put to me during questions after my statement last week. It is not simply a matter of saying that a particular recommendation involves no public expenditure and that it can therefore be dealt with at once. Many of them still require consultation. Hon. Members should consider the result of the recommendations upon conveyancing, which the hon. Member for Blyth and I both believe to be sensible. They have caused a tremendous uproar. It would be wrong for us to seek to implement those at once without holding consultations or giving those who disagree an opportunity to be heard.

I have always thought that there are problems for the successful litigant who is not legally aided coming up against a legally aided opponent. That matter is under consideration. It is, in a way, a form of blackmail, and it is something that we must consider.

It is worth remembering that in the 11 years up to last year criminal legal aid had risen from £2.6 million to £26 million. The number of cases had increased by about 60 per cent., but the total expenditure on those cases, whether due to prolixity or to further complication, and bearing in mind the huge increase in crime in that time, had risen by about 10 or 11 times. Those matters must be considered carefully.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.