HC Deb 19 January 1998 vol 304 cc684-5
31. Mr. MacShane

If he will take steps to allow all qualified lawyers rights of audience in all courts. [21475]

32. Mr. Mackinlay

What reforms he is proposing in the rights of audience before the courts. [21476]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

The Government are not satisfied that all of the current restrictions on who may exercise rights of audience in the courts are in the public interest, nor are we satisfied with the current procedures for granting or extending those rights. We will announce our detailed reform proposals on the subject in due course.

Mr. MacShane

Did I hear my hon. Friend aright? Is he saying that the last great closed shop monopoly of the professions, that of the barristers, is about to be reformed, and that my constituents who complain that their solicitors have not been allowed to take their cases into all the court areas into which they wish to have them taken will now be allowed to do so? Is this modernising Government about to reform the last great Tory restrictive practice?

Mr. Hoon

I must make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no statutory bar on solicitors appearing in the higher courts; it is the Law Society's own rules that prevent them from exercising rights of audience in those courts unless they have the Law Society's higher courts qualification. It is obviously open to the Law Society to amend its rules if it wishes, but the Government are dissatisfied with the complex, bureaucratic and slow procedures that currently affect rights of audience, and we are determined to reform them.

Mr. Mackinlay

What does my hon. Friend intend to do about the Bar Council, which has been dragging its feet on introducing the necessary mechanisms to allow barristers employed by the Crown Prosecution Service to appear in the courts? Is that not yet a further example of the restrictive practice referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), which is exercised by people who are trying to increase public expenditure unnecessarily? The CPS has trained and professionally qualified barristers who are not allowed to appear in the courts because their brethren want the rich pickings from those courts.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He has highlighted one of the underlying reasons why we believe it is necessary to reform the present arrangements. I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend's suggestion, but the matter is not entirely in our hands. Employed solicitors were granted limited rights of audience in the higher courts in February last year. I, for one, find it surprising that the Bar has not yet made a formal application to the Lord Chancellor for employed barristers to be given the same rights as employed solicitors. We would welcome such an application.

Mr. Garnier

Has the Minister given any thought to the effect that the Government's proposals to change the legal aid system and the tax system with reference to the legal profession will have on the number of qualified lawyers remaining in practice and available to appear in the courts? Will not the changes that the Government are ramming through mean that there will be fewer lawyers in practice to assist the least well off and the needy? Does he not realise that he is not reforming Clement Attlee's welfare system but dismantling it?

Mr. Hoon

I am interested to note the hon. and learned Gentleman's use of the expression "ramming through". The proposals were first announced in October last year. We said that we would consult on them before issuing a consultation document, which is likely to be published at the end of February. Thereafter, we will consult on the proposals in it and listen carefully to the representations that we receive. Perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman is simply not used to the idea of a Government who listen to the reactions to the consultation documents they publish.