HC Deb 06 February 1984 vol 53 cc597-8
61. Mr. Chope

asked the Attorney-General why the contributions made by defendants towards the cost of their own criminal legal aid have fallen over recent years; and if he will make a statement.

The Solicitor-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

The decision whether or not to make a contribution order in each case lies within the court's discretion. It is, therefore, not possible to be certain about what factors have influenced courts' individual decisions. In order to achieve greater consistency and efficiency the Lord Chancellor has introduced new arrangements, which will become effective from 1 March 1984.

Mr. Chope

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. Does he think that the new regulations will go some way to increase substantially —to about 10 per cent. for instance—the contributions made by people on legal aid, which remains at a paltry figure of less than 1.5 per cent?

The Solicitor-General

There is a prospect of that. When a order is made for contributions from income, payments will be required forthwith instead of at the end of the case as at present, when enforcement is much more difficult. We expect that contribution revenue may well be doubled by the measure.

Ms. Harman

Is not the real reason why the courts are ordering a smaller amount to be paid by convicted defendants towards their costs that an increasing number of people appearing before the courts are unemployed? Do not the Government's own figures show that the new scheme will recoup only about £3 million, without taking into account administrative costs? That is only a small sum for the Government to recoup. How can the Government justify it when weighed against the injustice that it will inevitably cause because some defendants do not take up the offer of legal aid in criminal cases as they fear that they will not be able to keep up with the contributions?

The Solicitor-General

The most that can be said is that the courts have to order such contribution as appears reasonable, having regard to the defendant's resources and commitments. A wide variety of circumstances can lead the courts to make or refuse an order. Because there is some evidence that this jurisdiction has not been exercised entirely consistently, the Lord Chancellor is introducing the regulations to which I have referred.

Mr. Lawrence

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the largest problem about criminal legal aid is that often the wealthiest defendants—the fraudsters and the drug conspirators — have their costs paid to an enormous degree? Does he agree that that is an abuse of the use of taxpayers' money? Is my hon. and learned Friend also aware that during the passage of the Legal Aid Bill 1982, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Sir I. Percival) tabled an amendment which gave the registrar power to require the details of a defendant's means and to appoint an expert to examine those details if the need should arise? What use has been made in the last 18 months of that provision, and to what effect?

The Solicitor-General

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. There are well-founded suspicions that people who could well afford to pay for their defence have been getting away with it at the expense of the taxpayer. The provision introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Sir I. Percival) is embodied in the regulations that take effect on 1 March. That will enable the courts, as distinct from the DHSS, to make the type of inquiries to which my hon. and learned Friend refers. I hope and believe that it will lead to a considerable improvement.

Mr. John Morris

Will the Solicitor-General assist the House by confirming or denying whether this miserable sum will be raised by taking into consideration child benefit and the wages of innocent wives?

The Solicitor-General

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should make it clear whether he wishes to resile from the criterion that the sum should be "reasonable" having regard to resources when an order for legal aid is made. If only a small sum can be raised—I agree it is and will remain a small proportion of the total cost of the scheme—I should not wish us to depart from the "reasonable" criterion. The regulations will provide that the means of a spouse shall be taken into consideration. That is a long-standing practice and I think that it is proper.

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