HC Deb 11 July 1994 vol 246 cc662-3
43. Mr. Steen

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what plans he has to review the legal aid programme in civil cases.

Mr. John M. Taylor

The Lord Chancellor's Department is conducting a fundamental review of expenditure. That will cover expenditure in publicly funded legal services.

Mr. Steen

Is the Minister aware that the House is greatly concerned about the number of people who clearly should not receive legal aid under the civil list, as they have no right to do so, but who receive large sums of taxpayers' money to pursue or defend actions? Will the Minister ensure that an immediate review is conducted into the number of people receiving legal aid for civil cases when they should not be doing so? The public purse should not be paying for it.

Mr. Taylor

The Lord Chancellor's Department is conducting a fundamental review, which will cover the areas to which my hon. Friend refers. The issues that he raises are of great importance. As Members of Parliament, we all have a part to play in encouraging our constituents to complain if they think that there is a case where legal aid has been unmerited. Anyone can complain to the Legal Aid Board, and I would encourage people to do so.

Mr. Vaz

Will the Minister take the opportunity to deplore the action of Messrs Simmons and Simmons, the solicitors acting on behalf of the Sheik of Abu Dhabi, who have written to the Legal Aid Board to prevent former BCCI employees from obtaining legal aid? Is not it wrong that solicitors acting for a foreign Government should seek to deny British citizens the right to legal aid?

Mr. Taylor

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the solicitors' profession is independent and self-regulating, but there are mechanisms for complaints about solicitors' work and the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with those mechanisms.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

I understood that legal aid was given only to those who required assistance and who could not afford litigation without it. I find it astonishing that in England it can be given, with impunity, to millionaires. Will the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General consider the matter, because it is a wrong on the public that the poor should pay for the rich to litigate?

Mr. Taylor

Anyone litigating in the English courts is entitled to legal aid, regardless of nationality, subject to a test of means and of the merits of the case. The Legal Aid Board is required by regulation to disregard in its means assessment of an application for legal aid all assets that are the subject matter of the dispute. That is because those assets cannot be considered the resources of the applicant while the ownership is in dispute. I am aware of the cases that have caused great concern. The Legal Aid Board is looking into them, and so will the Lord Chancellor and I.