HC Deb 18 December 1995 vol 268 cc1218-20
29. Mr. William O'Brien

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what recent representations he has received in respect of the reform of legal aid. [4665]

Mr. Jonathan Evans

More than 180 responses to the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper have been received from a wide range of interested parties, including the legal profession and consumer bodies. Their comments and suggestions are being analysed and a series of meetings with some of the major respondents has been taking place.

Mr. O'Brien

When considering any reforms of the legal aid service, will the Minister have regard to balancing claims for civil action and claims for criminal action? Money is being spent on defending people who have offended against society rather than on those who have been offended against by society. In my constituency, many people wish to apply for legal aid to defend themselves against actions by quangos such as the health service and those employed by those quangos, or by private companies, but they are denied that opportunity because of the lack of resources.

Will the Minister ensure that any reforms undertaken help to balance the position and help people who have been offended against by society? Will he also consider allowing specialist views to be obtained by people who have a housing or health grievance or who are victims of crime? There should be more balance to help innocent people who wish to pursue a claim through the courts.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Gentleman should note that the Green Paper that is the source of the consultation exercise is entitled "Legal Aidhouses—Targeting Need". That is primarily the focus of the exercise. We are seeking to ensure access to legal services within an affordable legal aid budget.

May I take issue with one remark by the hon. Gentleman? He suggested that there was a lack of resources. Surely he is aware that the legal aid budget has more than quadrupled in the past 10 years. Expenditure on legal aid is 14 times higher than when the Labour party was last in office. In those circumstances, there is no question of there being a lack of resources; it is a matter of ensuring that resources are targeted correctly, and that is what the consultation exercise is all about.

Sir Anthony Grant

In considering any reform of the legal system, will my hon. Friend bear in mind, first, that there is far too much litigation? We do not want to become like the United States, which is rapidly turning into a lawyers' paradise. Secondly, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the increasing injustice being done to people who are just above the limit for legal aid but not necessarily well off, who can be blackmailed by those receiving legal aid?

Mr. Evans

Let me deal with my hon. Friend's second point first. He is absolutely right, and, as he will know, that very point is highlighted in the Lord Chancellor's consultation document. It has been the subject of public concern, and has also been raised by many hon. Members. We must examine ways of dealing with the difficulty.

As for my hon. Friend's substantive point, it is also important for us to find alternative ways of resolving disputes. My hon. Friend will be delighted to learn that the Lord Chancellor's Department hopes to publish, early in the new year, a document outlining the alternative forms of dispute resolution. We hope to devote considerable attention to that document. Although we shall always need the courts, and a structure allowing disputes to be resolved in that final venue, anything that we can do in the meantime to end disputes on the basis of keeping legal costs to a minimum and enabling the issues to be distilled into just a small number of issues must be worth while.

Mrs. Dunwoody

If the Minister wishes to keep legal aid costs down, will he undertake a detailed examination of the number of cases in which, after a legal aid certificate has been granted, no actionhouses—or very little actionhouses—is taken by the legal firm concerned for at least 12 months? Will he consider the effect of that on the overall costs of legal aidhouses—quite apart from the fact that it does not deliver an adequate system of justice to those of our constituents who need it most?

Mr. Evans

I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware that all legal practitioners have a professional duty to ensure that they deal with cases with due diligence. As one who was in practice, however, I recognise that in a number of cases practitioners may fall short of fulfilling that duty. If the hon. Lady knows of such instances, they should be drawn to the attention of the professional bodies concerned.