HL Deb 08 July 1969 vol 303 cc902-4

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Legal Aid (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations 1969, be approved. These Regulations implement the recommendations of my Advisory Committee on Legal Aid, of which the noble Baroness, Lady Emmet of Amberley, is the distinguished Chairman, that legal aid should be extended to certain proceedings in the magistrates' court and to proceedings partly for defamation. They fall into five groups, and they are each a small group of cases in which it is fairly obvious that legal aid ought to apply but, for one reason or another, mainly I think accidental, it does not.

The first is in respect of proceedings, partly in respect of defamation. Successive Governments have taken the view, with which my Advisory Committee agree, that it would not be a good thing to extend legal aid to proceedings for defamation. We do not want a great many actions brought on legal aid to decide who said what over the backyard fence; and so the existing Regulations exclude proceedings wholly or partly in respect of defamation. This wording has thrown up the sort of case which I think cannot have been contemplated at all: a man perfectly properly gets legal aid to bring a perfectly proper case, say for wrongful dismissal. The defendant then files a counterclaim alleging defamation. Thereupon the proceedings become proceedings partly in respect of defamation, so the unfortunate plaintiff loses his legal aid to bring his wrongful dismissal action. That is an obvious anomaly and should be cured.

The second kind of case is under Section 2 of the Children Act 1948, which empowers a local authority to pass a resolution vesting parental rights over a child in itself; for example, on the ground that the parents are unfit to have the conduct of bringing up their own children. For some reason, legal aid has not hitherto applied to this type of case. There are not many cases, but I think all your Lordships would agree that there are few more serious things which can be said of a parent than that he or she is unfit to bring up his or her own children, and for such a case proceedings in legal aid ought to be available.

Thirdly, there are two rather exceptional kinds of maintenance cases. Legal aid is at present available for obtaining or enforcing maintenance orders, but, again, I suspect, probably because nobody had thought of it, it is not available in two particular kinds of cases for subsequent variations where either the order has been made in the High Court but is registered in a magistrates' court, or the original order was made either in Scotland or in Northern Ireland and is registered in an English or Welsh magistrates' court. These Regulations would make it available to those cases.

Fourthly, the Supplementary Benefits Commission can bring proceedings under Section 23 of the Ministry of Social Security Act against persons who fail to maintain their dependants and where the defendants have claimed or been paid benefit by the Commission. Similarly a local authority which has provided accommodation for a person's dependants can bring proceedings against that person to recover the cost of having done so. Although these proceedings are closely analogous to maintenance proceedings, legal aid is not available in respect of them at present. These Regulations remedy that by making it available to those against whom these proceedings are brought.

Lastly, one can apply for an adoption order, either in the High Court, in the county court or in a magistrates' court. Legal aid is available in the High Court and in the county court, but not in the magistrates' court. There are cases where a parent or guardian wishes to contest an adoption order and the court is invited to dispense with that person's consent. These Regulations make legal aid available to both parties where the court is asked to dispense with consent under Section 5 of the Adoption Act 1958. I think most people would agree that while there may not be many of these adoption cases, particularly against the will of a parent, they are matters of great concern both to the prospective adoptors and to the parents, and that accordingly legal aid should be available in the magistrates' court as it is in the High Court and in the county court.

My Lords, the cost of these extensions is but little. The total cost of all five is estimated to be in the region of £2,670 a year, and that is all. The Order has already been affirmed in the other House and it has been examined by your Lordships' Special Orders Committee, who report: That the Draft Regulations do not raise important questions of policy or principle; That they are founded on the precedent of previous Regulations made under Section 1 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act, 1949; That in the opinion of the Committee the Regulations can be passed by the House without special attention. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Legal Aid (Extension of Proceedings) Regulations 1969, be approved.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.