HC Deb 13 March 1995 vol 256 cc556-7
24. Mr. Hawkins

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what further reforms are planned for the administration of legal aid; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. John M. Taylor)

Proposals for a fundamental restructuring of the legal aid scheme in England and Wales will be the subject of a Green Paper later in the spring.

Mr. Hawkins

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that the Lord Chancellor is proceeding with the consultation on "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy" so that my constituents will not be outraged in future by very wealthy people benefiting from our legal aid system? Will he also confirm that, as part of the same review, he is looking very carefully at proposals for franchising, which will improve quality control of the legal aid system to benefit those who are using it properly?

Mr. Taylor

Consultation on "Legal Aid for the Apparently Wealthy" has closed and we are assessing the results. I thank my hon. Friend for his forward-looking remarks about franchising and quality assurance. We are talking about quality assurance—ultimately—for the consumer and we are heartened by the number of solicitors applying.

Mr. Boateng

Does the Minister agree with the National Consumer Council that fear of costs is one of the biggest barriers to justice? If he does, how does he justify the fact that, even as we speak, his officials are actively considering increases for county court and High Court costs per day, making them some £200 in the county court and £500 in the High Court? How does that assist the ordinary litigant, the person of modest or medium means, who wants to bring an action before those courts? Is it not another example of the Government's denial of justice to those who most need it?

Mr. Taylor

I think that fear of costs is a deterrent to those who would go to law. That is not a novelty, but it may be as intense now as it ever has been. The county court fees to which the hon. Gentleman referred are visited rather irregularly for the purpose of review. It is some time since some of those fees were looked at, but the broad objective is that, as far as possible, the operation of courts should be self-financing, lest otherwise the taxpayer pays for other people's cases.

25. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will review the law on legal aid contributions by plaintiffs where defendants cannot be found to be served with papers or orders in proceedings.

Mr. John M. Taylor

I am not persuaded that there is any reason to change the regulations.

Mr. Hughes

Before I respond to that, may I tell the Minister how grateful were all the people who went to see him and his colleague the Lord Chancellor on Wednesday evening to ask for legal aid for the relatives of the Marchioness—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order. I am sure that it is very apt that the Lord Chancellor's Department should be paid such compliments, but they must be paid in writing, and not at Question Time.

Mr. Hughes

I apologise, Madam Speaker. I thought that it would be discourteous to proceed without—

Madam Speaker

Not at all. It is discourteous not to deal with the question in hand.

Mr. Hughes

On the question in hand, will the Minister look again at a policy which says that the plaintiff may be assisted to get an order—in this case, against a person who had been violent and who was obliged by the order to leave the former matrimonial home—and then, because the defendant cannot be found and the order cannot be served, be required to pay for a proceeding that becomes effectively null and void? That cannot be in the interests of justice and it must be something which the Minister accepts needs to be reviewed, not just in a single case but in the interests of prospectively hundreds or thousands of litigants who would otherwise be put off seeking action to protect themselves and their own security.

Mr. Taylor

I may be aware of the individual case concerned. In a case where emergency legal aid is granted in the belief that the applicant qualifies, and the applicant subsequently proves not to, the applicant must pay. As for the hon. Gentleman's irregular remarks, I heard them and I took them kindly.