§ Mr. Jonathan Evans
The same statutory tests of means and merits apply to all legal aid applicants, regardless of domicile. Provided that an applicant meets those tests, legal aid is available for most matrimonial proceedings, other than most undefended divorce petitions conducted before the courts of England and Wales.
§ Mr. Steen
What can be the justification for offering legal aid to fathers who abandon their wives and children and go abroad, having never given their children or wives a penny piece in maintenance? Those fathers not only demand legal aid, but receive it wherever they live in the world. Our taxpayers are paying for fathers who have abandoned, and refuse to look after, their wives and children. Does my hon. Friend support that?
§ Mr. Evans
The general view that has been taken is that, if tests of means, legal merits and reasonableness are satisfied, legal aid should be available for proceedings before our courts. As part of the review of legal aid for the apparently wealthy, the Lord Chancellor considered issues such as the nationality of applicants. On that occasion, the majority of responses received by the Lord Chancellor asked for the system to remain as it is, which is why he announced last year that the structure would remain unchanged.
§ Mr. Olner
The Lord Chancellor must know that, in cases such as that which the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has just raised, legal aid is available for anyone who comes here and invokes The Hague convention, especially in cases of child abduction. Legal aid is not available for our citizens when they go abroad for the same purpose. It is time that the Government looked into that important area of equality.
§ Mr. Evans
I have said that the issue of nationality has been examined, but the question that the hon. Gentleman raises turns on the availability of legal aid in other jurisdictions. Some legal aid is available through some countries, but I share his concern about the specific cases that he has raised with me in meetings recently. If we are able to assist, the hon. Gentleman knows that my door is open and that I shall endeavour to be of assistance.
§ Mr. John Marshall
My hon. Friend will be aware that, in the recent Sony case, legal aid of £500,000 was given to a German who had paid no taxes in this country. Is not it scandalous that individuals who live abroad, pay no United Kingdom taxes and never intend to pay any United Kingdom taxes should be eligible for legal aid in this country?
§ Mr. Evans
I understand my hon. Friend's concerns but, as I have said, the matter was the subject of a review by the Lord Chancellor last year, and the vast majority of respondents felt that legal aid should continue to be available. However, as my hon. Friend well knows, I share his concern about the wider issue—the availability of legal aid to people who appear to be wealthy, and appear to be beyond the means test. The changes that will begin to operate on 1 June will, I think, prove helpful in the effort to deal with some of the cases that have come to public attention.