HC Deb 19 January 1998 vol 304 cc687-8
36. Mr. Mitchell

What assessment he has made of the likely use and effectiveness of conditional fees in England and Wales. [21480]

Mr. Hoon

By the end of 1997, at least 34,000 conditional fee agreements had been made, half of them in the past 12 months. That shows that, throughout the country, conditional fee agreements are not only an established way of funding litigation, but providing a means of access to justice for people who, in the past, were denied it.

Mr. Mitchell

As that is a comparatively small use of conditional fees since their introduction from Scotland and as there is no indication from those figures, or from any research that anyone has seen, that such arrangements can protect the less well-off in compensation cases as well as legal aid can protect them, why does not the Lord Chancellor rethink his proposal to replace legal aid in compensation cases with conditional fees and run the two systems side by side for a period, so that we can study the effects and benefits of both systems instead of taking a leap in the dark?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend and I have debated this subject on a number of occasions, so I shall spare him the repetition of detail that I have set out previously. As I said earlier, the Government are determined to consult, in detail and in depth, about the proposals. I emphasise that, from that wide consultation, we shall not exclude any category of case that would be unlikely to attract a conditional fee agreement.

Mr. Hawkins

Does the Minister accept that, although conditional fees have been introduced only recently, there are considerable concerns that we could be going down the same road as courts in the USA and that a class of ambulance-chasing lawyers might start to grow here? In his further consultation, will he take seriously into account those concerns, which have been expressed by many people both inside and outside the legal profession?

Mr. Hoon

Of course I shall take them seriously into account, but I hasten to remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the Government he supported that first allowed conditional fees to be introduced. Although my memory does not serve me fully, I assume that he expressed similar concerns at the time of their introduction. Conditional fees have been outstandingly successful: some 34,000 fees had been taken forward under conditional fee arrangements by the end of last year, but that statistic disguises the fact that the rate of use of conditional fees is increasing month by month.

Mr. Burnett

In his speech to the Law Society in Cardiff on 18 October last year, the Lord Chancellor said that he intended to co-ordinate these services"— those of citizens advice bureaux— under a coherent scheme which will provide a service to the whole public which is both easy to access and to understand. Citizens advice bureaux fill a huge and increasing void in the provision of legal advice to individuals, and a number of bureaux have taken a great deal of time and trouble to prepare and submit applications for legal aid franchises. Why have the Government withdrawn funding for the western area citizens advice bureaux franchise?

Mr. Hoon

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the funding of citizens advice bureaux is primarily a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry. I am, however, keen to see their involvement in providing legal and other advice in the not-for-profit sector out of available funds. There has never been any promise of funding to any particular citizens advice bureau other than through the franchising process; that exercise is currently under way. There is no suggestion that any specific funds have been withdrawn from any organisation.