HL Deb 12 November 1975 vol 365 cc1950-3

[Nos. 33 and 33A.]

Schedule 4, page 58, line 40, at end insert— ("Where an owner, lessee, or occupier of land comprised in an order made under this Act has made and not withdrawn an objection to such order, he shall be entitled to legal assistance and representation under the Legal Aid Act 1974 for the purpose of making representations at any public local inquiry held for the purpose of considering such objection.")

The Commons disagreed to this Amendment for the following Reason:

Because it would involve a charge on public funds, and the Commons do not offer any further Reason trusting that this Reason may be deemed sufficient.


My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist on their Amendment No. 33, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 33A. The effect of the Amendment carried in your Lordships' House was to give an objector to a compulsory purchase order the right to legal aid for the purposes of making representations at any inquiry into the order. We discussed the matter in a good deal of detail, and I hope I may deal with it briefly on this occasion. There are a number of points of principle to be made against the Amendment.

First, it would be anomalous to provide legal aid for representations at public inquiries into compulsory purchase orders under the Bill, but not for inquiries into orders under other compulsory purchase orders. Secondly, it is important that the question of legal aid for representation at all forms of statutory inquiry should be considered as a whole, and there are many aspects to be examined in depth; for example, there is the probability that the availability of aid for legal representation could change the whole character of local inquiries from relatively informal proceedings to the formality of a court of law and could lead to more, and longer public inquiries. Also, it may he wondered whether legal representation is necessarily appropriate where the issues are almost entirely concerned with policy and merits, rather than matters of law; and whether legal advice and assistance in the preparation of an objector's case, which is already available to those within the limits of eligibility under the green form scheme, is not adequate.

It should be borne in mind in considering this matter that the inspector conducting the relevant inquiries will do his best to assist objectors and to ensure that their representations come across properly. Too little has been said previously about the role of inspectors at public local inquiries. In discharging their responsibilities, they have earned much praise and little criticism and there have been many tributes to their efficiency and impartiality. I believe that any suggestion that the small man who cannot afford a lawyer's fee for representation against an authority which can employ the best advocacy at the public expense is gravely prejudiced, and underrates the good sense of the inspector, who is not without experience and who will have developed an instinctive appreciation of where the heart of an objection lies, and will not be over-impressed by the range of legal or other professional advocacy arrayed against the objector who is conducting his own case.

I should also remind your Lordships that full legal aid is not available under the legal aid legislation for representation before any statutory inquiry; nor, indeed, is it available for any tribunal apart from the Lands Tribunal and Commons Commissioners. I have studied sympathetically and have much regard for the report of my Legal Aid Advisory Committee which recommends that legal aid should be made available for tribunals. Unhappily, in the present economic situation, in which public expenditure must be limited rather than added to, I am afraid that it would not be practicable at this point of time to implement their recommendations. We are very much in the field of priorities so far as the legal field is concerned, there are the priorities created by the serious unmet need for legal services in many neighbourhoods, and I have commissioned a full-scale study into that problem and expect to receive its results in the very near future. We shall then be in a better position to assess the priorities and decide how funds should best be allocated.

I can say that it would not be cheap to extend legal aid to compulsory purchase order inquiries under the Bill. It is not possible to give an exact estimate of what is would cost, because one cannot foresee how many inquiries there will be or how many people will be making objection. But it would not be an inconsiderable amount. After all, there are other priorities calling urgently for public expenditure, to remove squalid housing, old and inadequate hospitals and medical services, and old schools, and there is pressure for wider social security benefits. All these are knocking at the door and one must keep a sense of proportion about the priorities, much as I, as a lawyer, would naturally like to give top priority to the extension of legal aid. Therefore, looking at the matter as a whole, we feel that to select one area alone of statutory inquiry—namely, compulsory purchase orders—for a special provision for legal aid would not be satisfactory, and I hope that for the reasons I have given the House will not insist on this Amendment. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth not insist on their Amendment No. 33, to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 33A.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I am glad that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor gave a much fuller explanation than is given in this schedule before us. I should have hoped, if he believed, as I do, that in principle legal aid was right under this Bill, that he would have taken the opportunity to try to find a way to meet this Amendment, if not at the moment then at least when the Bill is fully operational. It is deeply disappointing that he has felt unable to do so. With regard to the Reason that it would involve a charge on public funds, of course I accept that it would cost money. But it will be very interesting to see, when by this time next week we have heard what is contained in the gracious Speech, what the Government decide are their priorities on spending money and why this is not among them.


My Lords, it would be most improper if I were to give a forecast of what may be the contents of the Queen's Speech, and the noble Baroness must contain herself in patience and expectation.

6.43 p.m.