HC Deb 09 November 1999 vol 337 cc879-80
31. Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)

What is the role of private practice solicitors within the Community Legal Service. [R] [96376]

34. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

What the role is of private practice solicitors within the Community Legal Service. [96381]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock)

The Community Legal Service will deliver the entire range of legal advice and assistance services, including representation, outside those delivered by the Criminal Defence Service. Private practice solicitors will be at the heart of the Community Legal Service, which will be a partnership between the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. They are essential to the success of the local networks of legal services that are being set up, and they will ensure the maximum possible coverage for the Community Legal Service, to the benefit of the public.

Mr. Darvill

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved appointment to the Front Bench. Does he agree that private practice solicitors are essential to the development of the Community Legal Service, and that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Society should ensure that all private practice solicitors are aware of local initiatives, such as the advice providers' forum in the London borough of Havering?

Mr. Lock

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. He is correct to say that it is vital that private practice solicitors should be involved in the Community Legal Service. Solicitors and the Law Society have been involved in the Government's plans from the earnn0iest stages. There is a reference to them in paragraph 3. 3 of the consultation paper, and Law Society representatives are serving on the quality task force. In addition, solicitors are serving on many of the 50 pioneer partnerships establishing best practice for the Community Legal Service up and down the country. We welcome the constructive role that solicitors are playing in making the service a reality.

Ms Keeble

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. How will his Department ensure that private practice solicitors who work for the Community Legal Service will provide a high-quality service? How will he ensure that solicitors co-operate fully with the voluntary sector so that people may receive advice and help at the right level?

Mr. Lock

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. Under the traditional legal aid system, the quality of advice received could vary from excellent to appalling. Under powers in the Access to Justice Act 1999, all solicitors who provide services to the Community Legal Service will have a contract. The Legal Services Commission will not enter into contracts with solicitors unless they have established that they can provide high-quality service. The days of paying for poor-quality legal services and subsidising dabblers and jacks-of-all-trades are over. Solicitors will have to co-operate within local partnerships to establish what needs they wish to provide and to make sure that services meet the highest priorities of their individual areas.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Minister is plainly keen to answer queries on the Community Legal Service as there are two identical questions on the Order Paper. Has he thought through the circumstances of typically rural areas such as my constituency, where a person might have to travel 35 miles to see a solicitor? How will the service work in reality?

Mr. Lock

The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the questions on the Order Paper reflect a wide interest in the Community Legal Service. He is right to raise the issue of rural areas. Under the traditional legal aid system, we had no way of targeting legal services or prioritising the needs of people in rural areas. There was no way to pay for legal services provided other than by qualified solicitors, although some of the best advice—on benefits, debt and housing, for example—can come from people who are not fully qualified solicitors. We hope to develop a Community Legal Service gateway to allow Internet access which will be particularly relevant to those who live a long way from a solicitor, or who are disabled. Various strategies are being developed, and I entirely agree that rural issues are important to the development of the service.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Will there be more or fewer rural magistrates at the end of the Parliament than at the beginning?

Mr. Lock

The hon. Gentleman does not understand the nature of the Community Legal Service if he links it with magistrates. The Government value magistrates and, as my hon. Friend said, decisions about magistrates and magistrates courts are made primarily under legislation that the previous Government passed, and that the hon. Gentleman supports. They are within the control of local magistrates courts committees.