HC Deb 13 March 1995 vol 256 cc559-60
29. Mr. Austin Mitchell

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will make it his policy to establish a public defender service.

Mr. John M. Taylor

No. That is not intended.

Mr. Mitchell

Given that the vicious curtailment in the coverage of legal aid and the inherent problems in dealing with that were pointed out last week by the National Audit Office and by the Public Accounts Committee, whose Chairman said that solicitors tend to

regard the citizen's right to legal aid as their own right to a blank cheque", would it not be sensible, save more money and bring justice to the great majority of our people if we established a public defender service to deal with criminal cases and if we financed a proper network of law centres to deal with civil cases? Would that not bring the power of the courts of justice to the great mass of people in a way that we are not doing now?

Mr. Taylor

I am very much in favour—as, I think, is the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng)— of involving within the legal aid system citizens advice bureaux and law centres. That is a very good idea. I am no more sanguine than the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about abuse of the green form scheme. We need the tightest possible controls to ensure that the system, which is intended to help people have access to justice, is used properly.

With regard to a public defender system, it is my experience that one of the best operations in the legal aid system is the courts' duty solicitor scheme, which seems to work well in practice. The idea of a public defender service has been canvassed from time to time, and the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the idea was canvassed in New Zealand, but rejected.

Mr. Alex Carlile

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the interests of justice—with particular regard to defendants—would be best served by having independent solicitors and independent barristers as defenders, as they would be practitioners serving no interest other than those of their client and the courts?

Mr. Taylor

The policy of the Government is that publicly funded legal services should be provided—in the main—through the independent private professions.

Mr. Jessel

In considering the future funding of legal aid, will my hon. Friend make certain that the Government do not attach excessive weight to the views of the two legal professions?

Mr. Taylor

I feel sure that we shall get to know those views, but the Lord Chancellor has a wider duty than to the legal professions. We shall look with the greatest possible care at the way in which legal aid is funded, and we shall ensure that the interests of the litigant and the defendant are foremost.

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