§ 34. Mr. David Atkinson
To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department when it is proposed to introduce fixed fees for criminal legal aid.
Mr. John M. Taylor
Standard fees have been in operation for some criminal legal aid cases in the Crown court since October 1986. It is proposed to introduce a standard fee system later this year for most criminal legal aid cases heard in the magistrates court. An independent survey is to be conducted to give guidance, not least on the evaluation of standard fees.
§ Mr. Atkinson
Will my hon. Friend confirm that his Department's decision to introduce fixed fees was arrived at before the recent cases of miscarriage of justice came to light? Will he give an assurance to the House that any recommendation by the royal commissioners against the decision will be immediately honoured?
The proposals for standard fees—I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I correct him—were first mooted in 1987 and the Lord Chancellor has said that they will be cost neutral to the profession when they are introduced. I personally share the view that standard fees reward those who can do the work proficiently and with dispatch. The present system of payment by the hour or by the item can fall down by rewarding the slow and inefficient and penalising those who operate concisely, effectively and well. That cannot be in the public interest and it cannot be in the interest of taxpayers. We must remember that in every case, although the taxpayer does not appear as a party on the face of the action, sure enough, the taxpayer is involved.
§ Mr. Morgan
I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on his appearance at the Dispatch Box. Will he confirm that one of the ways in which to defray any additional costs which may arise from the change in the system of reward for criminal investigations could be to reform the green form system of paying legal aid as well, as the present system is wide open to the defrauding of the taxpayer by a small minority of bent solicitors? Does he also agree—this is the Lord Chancellor's responsibility—that the slowness of the investigations branch of the Legal Aid Board and the antiquated nature of the computer is holding up all the fraud squad investigations into the small minority of solicitors who have been exploiting the system in the past few years?
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that I was studying his written question on this very subject this morning. There are some 27 cases of fraud on green form and, clearly, that is totally unacceptable. On the other hand, I gather than the hon. Gentleman's complaint related to computer delays may not be found to be substantiated. Certainly, there are cases of fraud and that is quite unacceptable—as, indeed, is the total amount that we are paying on legal aid at the moment. I should like the House to know that gross expenditure on all legal aid was £1.15 billion in 1991–92—a third more than in the previous year and more than twice the gross expenditure four years ago, in 1987 –88.