HC Deb 17 March 1998 vol 308 cc1092-4
32. Mr. Flynn

What new proposals he has to improve the accessibility of legal aid. [33186]

Mr. Hoon

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government plan to modernise the legal aid scheme. Our proposals were debated in the House on 21 November last year. He also knows that, in my statement to the House on 4 March this year, I announced the first stage of the modernisation plans. We aim to promote access to justice for everyone through the wider availability of conditional fee agreements. We shall also begin to focus legal aid on priority areas of social welfare that are of particular concern to the most needy in our society.

Mr. Flynn

Is it not intolerable that the legal aid system, which costs the country a fortune, is completely worthless to the great mass of people? It provides aid to only two groups: rightly to the very poor, but very unjustly to millionaires. How will conditional fee arrangements provide access to justice for the great majority of the people who are excluded by the legal aid system that we inherited, which is unfair, unjust and thoroughly discredited?

Mr. Hoon

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The existing legal aid scheme fails almost everyone. It certainly fails the great majority of people who pay for it through their taxes, because they are not financially eligible for it. They cannot go to law for fear of the considerable legal costs that they might face. By extending the availability of conditional fees, we create the opportunity for everyone, rich and poor alike, to go to court regardless of their financial position.

Mr. Garnier

Is it not clear that the Lord Chancellor's announcement last October was an example of economic illiteracy and social division? Does the Minister accept that early-day motion 961, signed by 66 Labour Back Benchers, demonstrates that they have lost faith in his Department's ability to improve access to legal aid? They want his Department abolished. Why are they wrong?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear that questions on the organisation of the Government are solely for the Prime Minister.

The October statement announced our determination to consult as widely as possible. We have consulted widely. We have published a further consultation document, which allows the hon. and learned Gentleman a total of six and a half months to give his views. That is a reasonable way in which to take forward new policy.

Dr. Lynda Clark

Are we considering targeting some funds on the industrial tribunal system, which has long been excluded from all forms of legal aid? Given that some complex cases go before such tribunals, could some money be so targeted for important cases?

Mr. Hoon

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her practical and constructive suggestion. The traditional legal aid scheme has failed the great majority of our people. It has failed those who are not financially eligible, but it has also failed those with certain sorts of cases, especially those concerned with employment and social security. It is important that, as we bear down on the cost of legal aid, we use the savings that can be achieved to direct scarce taxpayers' resources into areas of law such as social welfare, employment and social security law. That is a constructive way in which to approach the proposals.

33. Mr. St. Aubyn

If he will list those non-governmental agencies with which the Lord Chancellor and the Parliamentary Secretary have held discussions about the consequences for access to justice of his proposals for legal aid reform. [33187]

36. Mr. Gray

If he will list those non-governmental agencies with which his Department has held discussions about the consequences for access to justice of his statement on proposals for legal aid. [33190]

Mr. Hoon

There have been discussions at ministerial or official level with the Law Society, the Bar Council, representatives of the insurance industry, the Consumers Association, the National Consumer Council, Action for Victims of Medical Accidents, the Legal Action Group, the Personal Injury Bar Association, the Society of Labour Lawyers, Law For All, the Law Centres Federation, the Advice Services Alliance, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, Justice, Liberty, the Public Law Action Group, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Federation of Independent Advice Centres, Shelter and various local law societies and law firms. The hon. Gentleman might like to know that I met 13 of those groups last week in separate meetings to discuss the proposals in our recent consultation paper, many for the second or third time.

Mr. St. Aubyn

One of the colleges of law is based in my constituency, and I have also consulted the many firms of solicitors in Guildford. Is the Minister aware of the deep disquiet at his Government's proposals to take away legal aid from people with personal injury cases? How can he possibly defend taking away that right to justice from people when they are at their weakest and need it most?

Mr. Hoon

I had not hitherto been aware of the deep disquiet in Guildford, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for communicating it to me. To judge from my meetings last week, most of the groups were pleased that the Government had listened and that our proposals were a practical, constructive way in which to ensure access to justice for the great majority of people. I hope that solicitors in Guildford will eventually recognise that.

Mr. Gray

Why has the Minister spent less on consultants to advise him on his reforms of the legal aid system than the Lord Chancellor has spent on wallpaper?

Mr. Hoon

We have certainly used consultants, and those consultants have been invited to look at the financial implications of our proposals for individual firms of solicitors. In due course, we will publish the results of those consultations, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the emerging findings make it clear that there is absolutely no reason why solicitors should not take forward cases on a conditional fee basis, thereby securing access to justice for the great majority in our society.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that the current perceived wisdom is that the overall result of the redirection of legal aid to housing and social security cases, and the growth of contingency fees will be that more people receive greater assistance and gain greater access to the law?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. It is certainly the case that the Government are determined to control the cost of legal aid so that we can transfer scarce taxpayers' resources to meeting the needs of the poorest in our society. The present legal aid system fails in that. Only by controlling the traditional legal aid system shall we be able to provide advice and assistance to those who have problems with employment, social security, housing and so on.

34. Mr. Loughton

What plans he has to meet representatives of the National Consumer Council to discuss his Department's plans to reform legal aid. [33188]

35. Mr. Randall

What plans he has to meet representatives of the National Consumer Council to discuss his Department's plans to reform legal aid. [33189]

Mr. Hoon

I and my officials have had a number of meetings with representatives of the National Consumer Council. I met them most recently on Wednesday 11 March to discuss our plans to promote greater access to justice. We shall have further meetings as and when necessary.

Mr. Loughton

If the Minister has had those meetings, he will be aware that law firms are dropping the offer of legal aid in droves. Does that not represent a double whammy? The Government are denying access to justice to many thousands of ordinary people while undermining many law firms that are already reeling from the prospect of penal taxation on work in progress.

Mr. Hoon

I have not had the slightest indication that any law firms are not providing legal aid. They are certainly not doing so in droves.

Mr. Randall

Does the Minister agree with many consumer groups that conditional fees will deny access to justice to many people?

Mr. Hoon

I do not agree. In the meetings that I have just described—productive, useful meetings with both the National Consumer Council and the Consumers Association last week—consumer groups recognised that we had listened to the various problems that they had identified. They were pleased that we had produced a measured programme of modernisation which would achieve a legal aid system of which we could all be proud, but which would guarantee access to justice for everyone in our society. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order. Conversations are too noisy at the moment.

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