HC Deb 01 April 1996 vol 275 cc18-9
33. Mr. Ainger

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department how many solicitors have been prosecuted for attempting to defraud the Legal Aid Board in each of the last three years. [21925]

Mr. Evans

The number of concluded cases where solicitors have appeared at court charged with offences of fraud or attempted fraud against the Legal Aid Board in the past three years are as follows. In 1993–94, three cases; in 1994–95, no cases; in 1995–96, two cases. In addition, 19 cases are currently under investigation by the prosecuting authorities or are awaiting trial.

Mr. Ainger

Does the Minister accept that that may well be the tip of an iceberg, especially in view of the number of complaints that pass through my constituency surgery about the quality of service provided by solicitors? Is it not about time for us to ensure that the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau starts acting more like the General Medical Council, for example, with clear powers and an independent role? My constituents perceive that the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau is merely a mechanism by which solicitors investigate themselves. We should have a far more independent element in order to retain people's confidence in the system.

Mr. Evans

My response earlier that 19 cases are currently under investigation by the prosecuting authorities or awaiting trial tends to run against the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said. Between 1990 and 1995, about 4,600 investigations have been undertaken of solicitors or of assisted persons, but decisions as to whether there should be prosecutions in individual cases must remain that of the individual prosecuting authorities.

Mr. John Marshall

Does my hon. Friend accept that, increasingly, the Legal Aid Board is regarded as a soft touch by unscrupulous solicitors and unscrupulous litigants?

Mr. Evans

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the legal profession, whose members, for the most part, behave with the utmost integrity, must take on board the message that those individual solicitors, small in number, who are engaged in improper activity must be rooted out and dealt with. I confirm to my hon. Friend that the Government are determined to do that.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the Minister have the figures for disciplinary proceedings instigated against solicitors acting in legal aid cases? Is he aware that there is considerable dissatisfaction among senior officers of the Legal Aid Board? Some solicitors are not doing their job properly and wasting a large amount of public money, as well as giving a very bad service for that reason.

Mr. Evans

As I said earlier, it is certainly the Government's view that we could be targeting legal aid expenditure very much better than we are doing at the moment. That is the philosophy that underpins the Government's approach to consultation about taking forward changes to the legal aid structure. At the same time it is important to draw a distinction between cases in which one is dealing with disciplinary proceedings against individual solicitors and allegations of fraud. Cases in which fraud may have taken place must clearly remain in the hands of the individual and independent prosecuting authorities.