HC Deb 10 November 1997 vol 300 cc573-5
34. Mr. Yeo

What recent representations he has received regarding the availability of legal aid. [13461]

Mr. Hoon

I regularly receive representations from right hon. and hon. Members and the public about the availability of legal aid. Since my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor's announcement on 18 October about the changes we propose to the rules on availability of legal aid for money claims, my officials have met the chairman of the Bar, the president of the Law Society, insurers and other professional and consumer interest groups.

Mr. Yeo

As the Government's proposals are likely to result in a substantial increase in business for the insurance industry, will the Minister tell the House with which insurance companies he has had discussions about those proposals and how many of them were financial contributors to the Labour party?

Mr. Hoon

A number of discussions have taken place with a variety of insurance companies. We are interested in ensuring the widest possible availability of insurance at the best possible price for the users.

Mr. Kidney

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the legal profession has made recent representations in favour of a conditional legal aid fund rather than the Lord Chancellor's preferred option of conditional fees arrangements? Will he confirm that the crucial difference is that a legal aid fund would pay for disbursements in a case along the way, such as court fees and expert fees, much more than the insurance premium mentioned under the conditional fees arrangement? Does my hon. Friend agree that many poor litigants would be unable to find those sums of money to fund their cases in the future?

Mr. Hoon

These are matters on which we are consulting. We are receiving representations from the Bar and the Law Society, as well as the views of insurance companies, on the affordability of the proposals. We will take all those matters into account to ensure that no one is unfairly excluded from the courts.

Mr. Burnett

When the Minister was in private practice and he first scrutinised the papers of a case and considered its merits, did he ever advise a client—other than those involved in personal injuries case—that he had a better than 75 per cent. chance of success?

Mr. Hoon

Of course, in those days I was not required to make such an assessment of a case; therefore, I never did. However, if the hon. Gentleman is referring to the proposal made by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor that a case should attract a 75 per cent. chance of success before it should be granted legal aid, I can say only that it has been necessary to reach that test because of the failure of lawyers, over a long period, to satisfy adequately the existing test, which is essentially a 50 per cent. chance of success. We firmly believe that there is absolutely no reason why the taxpayer should have to support litigation that someone would not take forward privately.

Ms Abbott

Is my hon. Friend aware of the widespread concern about Government proposals on changes to legal aid, especially about whether poorer litigants will be able to afford the up-front costs of insurance and various medical fees for reports in medical negligence cases? Recent remarks by my hon. Friend seem to suggest that he thinks that solicitors will simply absorb those costs, but is that likely, given that many practices are not in a position to cross-subsidise legal aid or contingency work with lucrative private work?

Mr. Hoon

I have said that one of the solutions to the problem which my hon. Friend set out is that lawyers themselves could absorb those up-front costs. Most lawyers are in private practice and most businesses are required to expend a certain amount of capital-in this context, we are talking about time and some disbursements-before being able to achieve a return on their investment. I have suggested that that is one of the options, although, as I have already said, there are clearly others available.

Mr. Garnier

The Labour party policy document "Access to Justice", which was published just before the election, stated that conditional fees were not expected to make a significant improvement to access to justice and that they were little more than a gimmick designed to mask the state of the legal aid scheme. Was the Labour party wrong then, or is the Minister wrong now?

Mr. Hoon

We have had the benefit of academic research into the use of conditional fees. That research demonstrates that, in the approximately 28,000 cases so far agreed under conditional fees, there has been a remarkable success rate. We are happy to base our policy on the results of that academic research.