HC Deb 11 July 1983 vol 45 cc595-7
50. Ms. Harman

asked the Attorney-General if Her Majesty's Government will bring forward proposals to extend the legal aid scheme.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

Assistance by way of representation was extended last December to applicants to mental health review tribunals and on 1 May this year to parents involved in child care proceedings. Full legal aid will be extended to parents involved in child care proceedings next April. Any further extension will have to depend upon the availability of resources.

Ms. Harman

Are not the Government ignoring the will of the House and breaking, if not the letter, certainly the spirit, of promises made to the House during the passage of what is now the Legal Aid Act 1982 by excluding from the draft regulations a right of recourse to those who have been refused legal aid in the magistrates' courts for cases to be heard in magistrates' courts? Is it not those cases in the magistrates' courts where the right of recourse is most important, bearing in mind the refusal rate in magistrates' courts and the past inconsistencies in the granting of legal aid in magistrates' courts?

The Solicitor-General

The hon. Lady was less than just in the preface to her question. The right of recourse conferred by section 6 of the Act in the first instance, it seems likely, will have to apply to cases where there is to be trial either way in the more serious cases. This is a major step forward and we shall have to see how the matter proceeds. It is also a major improvement on the position before the previous Government took office, and we shall have to see how it goes.

Mr. Fairbairn

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that in Scotland the public prosecution system costs less than legal aid for defence and that if the scrutiny and economy in that system were applied to the English system the inequity of those with modest savings having to pay a contribution out of capital to legal aid could be alleviated?

The Solicitor-General

Matters of prosecution and what changes may be desirable are for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I note my hon. and learned Friend's point, which is one about which he knows a great deal, as he frequently reminds us.

Mr. Dobson

What do the Government intend to do about the refusal of some local legal aid committees to allow social security claimants to obtain legal advice on the green form scheme? Is not advising them to seek advice from the DHSS as daft as telling the managers of an offshore fund to, seek tax advice from the Inland Revenue?

The Solicitor-General

I have seen the reports in two newspapers today, to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring. I know that my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has not had the opportunity to look into these matters. However, I can give a general assurance that legal aid is available, subject to means requirements, in respect of any matter affecting the bearing of any point of English law upon the individual. It is not necessary at this stage for me to say more.

Mr. Forman

Before considering any extension of the legal aid scheme, car my hon. and learned Friend tell the House how much is spent on legal aid, the latest figures, and by how much those figures have expanded recently?

The Solicitor-General

The cost of the criminal legal aid scheme has gone up over the past two financial years by about 12 per cent. in each case. For the year 1981–82 the cost of the total legal aid scheme embracing criminal and civil legal aid and the green form scheme was £169 million.

Mr. Archer

Will the Solicitor-General accept the congratulations of the Opposition on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box in his new office? As to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), will he go as far as to denounce the suggestion that the chicken should seek advice from the fox and invite his noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to write to legal aid committees suggesting that advice on the provisions of the many and complicated statutes relating to welfare benefit is at least as much a matter of English law as advice on corporation tax and income tax evasion?

The Solicitor-General

I am grateful for the kind words used by the right hon. and learned General at the beginning of his remarks. I do not think that I should say more before my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has had an opportunity to look into the matter. However, I can confirm that matters affecting entitlement to welfare benefit are matters of law to which the legal aid scheme is applicable and it would not follow, nor is there anything in the legislation so to suggest, that because advice for example, from a lay quarter may be available on a particular matter, legal aid would not be awarded in such a case.

51. Mr. Bermingham

asked the Attorney-General if he will introduce legislation to harmonise the granting of legal aid throughout England and Wales.

The Solicitor-General

On the assumption that by harmonisation the hon. Gentleman means consistency in the refusal or grant of applications, it is not thought that this would be achieved by legislation. It is, however, intended shortly to introduce regulations under section 6 of the Legal Aid Act 1982 to provide recourse against refusal of criminal legal aid by magistrates' courts.

Mr. Bermingham

While I welcome the answer in respect of criminal legal aid, does the Minister accept that the same problem is beginning to exist in certain areas over civil legal aid—the blue form scheme? Press reports today state that the same problems occur in the green form scheme, in that the different area committees take different views of what is and is not covered. Does the Solicitor-General agree that there ought to be equality in the granting of legal aid throughout the country?

The Solicitor-General

It is obviously desirable that there should be as much consistency as possible. The hon. Gentleman knows that where legal aid is refused, it must be refused by the general committee in an area and not by the secretary to the legal aid committee. If the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has any information that suggests that there has been inconsistency or unreasonable refusal, the best way to proceed is for them to write to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor.