HC Deb 03 February 1993 vol 218 cc317-9
10. Sir Russell Johnston

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has had from lawyers in Scotland with regard to fees charged for legal aid work; and if he will make a statement.

12. Sir David Steel

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received on proposed reductions of legal aid in Scotland.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates have been informed of my right hon. Friend's intention that, to assist in overall control of public expenditure, no increase should be made in legal aid fees in Scotland in 1993. Both organisations have made representations against that proposal.

My right hon. Friend has received a number of representations about the Government's proposed changes to the eligibility criteria for legal aid in Scotland from the Law Society of Scotland, consumer interests, solicitors firms, Members of Parliament and members of the public. Those representations are being carefully considered.

Sir Russell Johnston

Is the Minister aware that his reply confirms the deep disquiet about the fact that the Government are proposing that anyone above income support level will be excluded from access to the law? Is it correct that people on invalidity benefit, sickness benefit and unemployment benefit will be excluded and that the sliding contributory scale will be scrapped? If so, who but the rich will be able to afford justice?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

People on income support levels of income will continue to receive free legal aid and advice and assistance. Eligibility will continue to be based on an individual's disposable income. When the issue was discussed in Standing Committee in 1989, I mentioned that the total figure for legal aid at that time was £54 million. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), with characteristic directness, said: That is a hell of a lot of money."—[Official Report, Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, 19 April 1989, c. 4.] The sum has increased enormously since then.

In 1991–92, the total figure for legal aid was £86 million. This year, it is expected to be about £104 million, and in the planned expenditure we have an anticipated increases in legal aid by a further 40 per cent. over the next three years. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the changes is to maintain free access to justice for the most needy while asking those who can afford it to pay more.

Sir David Steel

Which of the Minister's figures apply to criminal legal aid and which to civil legal aid? Does he recognise that what the people in Scotland find most offensive about the proposed cuts is that they are being tacked on to the proposed cuts in England and Wales? The legal aid system in Scotland has proved most cost-effective because it is different and more efficient. Does the Minister accept the basic proposition that justice denied to ordinary people through cost is injustice and not justice at all?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because these measures do not extend to criminal legal aid in Scotland. It may be within his recollection that it was the late Willie Ross who tightened up the rules relating to criminal legal aid and took action to curb the rise in legal aid unless cases were of exceptional length or complexity. The current measures do not extend to criminal legal aid in Scotland.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

I do not know whether I must declare an interest, but I do so. May I remind my hon. Friend that criminal legal aid was provided for in the 1959 Act and introduced into England, but was not introduced into Scotland until 1964 for absolutely specious reasons. The tort of legal aid is that it deprives all but the poorest and the richest from going to justice at all. These proposals will increase the number of people who cannot afford to go to justice and who will have to pay towards it if they do. Furthermore, in my brief forays into the English courts as counsel I have found that the English legal aid provisions are vast compared with the Scottish equivalent. What does my hon. Friend intend to do about that difference?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I have to tell my hon. and learned Friend that those measures relate to civil legal aid. In the main he is a criminal lawyer, although on occasion he has dealt with civil cases. I stress that legal aid is estimated to have increased by 50 per cent. this year and the aim is to take action to control the growth in legal aid expenditure, while ensuring the continuation of reasonable access to it for the most needy. The numerous representations that we have received are being carefully considered.

Mr. Gallie

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the finance required for the rise in civil legal aid assistance in no way compares with the rise in criminal legal aid assistance? Does he also acknowledge that the performance of the courts in recycling people due to inefficient and ineffective sentencing policies means that the same people are soaking up legal aid funds time and time again?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I am glad that legislation reflecting my hon. Friend's question—giving prosecutors a right of appeal against sentences that are too lenient—has gone through Parliament as a result of widespread support. That will help to avoid any need for recycling, as my hon. Friend puts it.

Mr. McFall

Can the Minister honestly argue that it is consistent with the values of a civilised society that from 1 April no one earning more than £42.50 per week—the basic income support level—will be entitled to free legal advice and assistance? What does the Minister say to James Cowie—a registered blind person from Glasgow—who last year, through that scheme, was able to convince the courts to allow him access to his children in care? Will the Minister agree to meet James and myself to explain why James Cowie and up to a million other Scots will be denied invaluable assistance from 1 April? Does the Minister not agree that if justice means anything it means access to the courts?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I am seeing the hon. Gentleman at an official meeting in a few minutes, so we can discuss arrangements then. On eligibility, I should make clear to him that we estimate that 45 to 55 per cent. of households would be eligible to civil legal aid, and that 20 to 30 per cent., would be free of contributions, which is a significant figure. A total allocation of about £104 million is to be spent on legal aid this year, which is also a substantial figure.

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