HC Deb 17 May 1993 vol 225 cc15-6
35. Mr. Cohen

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what assessment he has made of the effect of changes in legal aid eligibility arrangements upon the number of women seeking injunctions to restrain a violent partner.

Mr. John M. Taylor

Almost half of all households are now eligible for civil legal aid. A woman seeking an injunction against a violent partner would have her means assessed separately from those of her partner and for this reason may be more likely to qualify than the overall eligibility figure suggests.

Mr. Cohen

May I tell the Minister of a constituent of mine whose violent partner was pestering her but who could not get an injunction because, although she had low earnings, she just fell outside the new legal aid limit? The police told her that they were limited in their actions because they did not have an injunction to enforce. Is not this a serious loophole in the new legal aid limit? Does not that mean that many women at risk of assault will be without court protection? What will the Government do about that?

Mr. Taylor

I do not think that the House would expect me to comment on an individual case. Civil legal aid is available, with a contribution, to up to 48 per cent. of households and very generous allowances are made in the determination of disposable income. The amended regulations provide that, from 12 April, attendance allowance, disability living allowance, constant attendance allowance paid as an increase to a disablement pension and any payment out of the social fund will be disregarded in the calculation of disposable income for advice and assistance. If the hon. Gentleman wrote to me about the case in point, I would gladly receive his letter.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my hon. Friend tell the House by how much expenditure on legal aid has risen since 1979? Am I right in saying that it has increased 10-fold since then?

Mr. Taylor

In 1979, legal aid covered about 900,000 participants and that figure has now gone up to 3.1 million. In the past four years, the cost of legal aid has doubled and it now stands at £1.1 billion. Contrary to all that is being said about legal aid being cut, it is set to go on rising significantly over the next three years, and the number of participants receiving legal aid is set to rise from 3.1 million to 4 million.

Mr. Maclennan

Is the Minister aware that the position of women who have been subjected to violence and have had to come before the courts was brought home with stark and appealing directness at the Conservative party conference in Scotland by that courageous woman—who was described as "Judy"—who highlighted the difficulties that people in those circumstances face? Did the Minister notice in particular what she said about the desirability of having a female member on each appeal court Bench? Will he give some help on that?

Mr. Taylor

I should like to reflect on the second and rather specific point raised by the hon. Gentleman. As to the first point about women's vulnerability in court, the Lord Chancellor and I are sympathetic towards that matter, as we are towards the vulnerability of children in court and in cases involving their parents. A court can be a hostile, unnatural, awesome and frightening place for people who have experienced fear and trouble already. The process must be made more congenial to people and every sympathy for their needs must be shown.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that the eligibility alterations have affected one class of women above all others—women who are working wives and mothers and who have a separate income, which now means that they are not able to obtain legal aid? Very often, children are involved. Will the Minister for once accept that people are being hurt by his Department and his Government?

Mr. Taylor

No one should imagine for a minute that the Lord Chancellor and I considered the recently necessary application of discipline to the legal aid budget with any joy; rather, we did so with a very heavy heart. Nevertheless, the cost of legal aid is set to go on rising. It is available in civil cases to 48 per cent. of the community, and there is no upper limit in criminal cases. As a spokesman in the House of Lords said, our system of legal aid remains almost certainly one of the most generous in the world—that was said by a spokesman for the Labour party.