HL Deb 14 November 1978 vol 396 cc663-82

3.21 p.m.

The LORD CHANCELLOR rose to move, That the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1978, laid before the House on 1st November, be approved. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations increase the financial limits for legal aid in civil proceedings and for legal advice and assistance in civil and criminal matters. There are corresponding regulations for Scotland and these stand in the name of my noble friend Lord Kirkhill. What I have to say applies to both sets of regulations.

It has become the practice in recent years for the financial limits for legal aid and legal advice and assistance to be increased annually in line with increases in supplementary benefits. In that way, the limits keep pace—at any rate, to some extent—with the rate of inflation. These regulations, which I move today, are a holding operation. I intend to make further regulations in the earlier part of next year, which will make significant and urgently needed improvements to the financial conditions for legal aid, advice and assistance and will bring a far larger proportion of the population within the Legal Aid Scheme.

Turning to the regulations which are at present before your Lordships, the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1978 increase the lower income limit (below which a contribution from the litigant is not payable) from £760 to £815 a year, and the upper income limit (above which legal aid is not available) from £2,400 to £2,600 a year. Both limits relate to a person's "disposable income". This is arrived at after allowances have been made for dependants and deductions made for necessary expenses such as income tax, rates, rent and so on.

The regulations also increase the lower capital limit (below which no contribution is payable) from £340 to £365, and the upper capital limit (above which legal aid is normally not available) from £1,600 to £1,700. I have also made other legal aid regulations, which are not subject to Affirmative Resolution, and which will come into force at the same time as these regulations, increasing the allowances for dependants when assessing disposable capital. This will mean that the upper capital limit of £1,700 will be further increased to £2,080 for a married person with two children.

The Legal Advice and Assistance (Financial Conditions) (No. 2) Regulations make corresponding changes for legal advice and assistance. The upper disposable income limit for legal advice and assistance is increased from £48 to £52 a week, and the disposable capital limit from £340 to £365. I have also made two other sets of legal advice and assistance regulations, which are not subject to Affirmative Resolution, but which come into force at the same time. They raise the lower disposable income limit for advice and assistance from £23 to £25 a week, make consequential amendments to the scale of contributions for legal advice and assistance, and increase the allowances for dependants when assessing the disposable capital limit. With the new allowances, the disposable capital limit for a married person with two children will be £745.

As I said—and I now emphasise—these regulations are no more than a holding operation. I am preparing a package of significant improvements to the financial conditions for legal aid. I am not, unfortunately, in a position to be precise about the details of my proposals at this stage, but I am in a position to give the House their broad outline. The extra cost of the improvements I have in mind, which will gradually increase to a maximum of about £6 million a year, is within the public expenditure plans announced by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 9th November.

The cost of legal aid is, of course, already substantial. Despite the very low limits which have been imposed upon it by financial stringency the cost of civil legal aid has, in fact, risen from £26 million in 1975–76 to something in the region of £38 million in 1977–78. To this must be added the cost of criminal legal aid in magistrate court cases, which falls on my vote. This has risen from £14 million in 1975–76 to around £20 million in 1977–78. Finally, there is legal aid in the Crown Court which falls on the Home Office vote and which is now in the region of £23 million.

Even in its present reduced state—which I admit to be the case—the civil legal aid scheme is of immense value to a large number of our fellow citizens, who without it would not be able to enforce or defend their legal rights in the courts. It covers a vast area. Last year, the number of claims submitted by solicitors in respect of advice and assistance given by them to members of the public was in the region of 323,000. So far as legal proceedings are concerned, over 147,000 legal aid certificates were issued in 1977–78. Over 20,000 of them were for non-matrimonial proceedings in the High Court. Although legal aid—but not, of course, advice and assistance under the Green Form scheme—has been restricted for undefended divorce, legal aid remains available for contested matrimonial proceedings and over 57,000 legal aid certificates were issued for matrimonial proceedings in the High Court and county court in 1977–78. A further 16,000 certificates were issued in respect of county court proceedings and 53,000 in respect of matrimonial proceedings in magistrates' courts.

The package of improvements which I intend to introduce next year will substantially increase the coverage of the legal aid scheme. It is designed to ensure that such resources as are available go first to those in greatest need. Here I have in mind those on low earnings, families with low incomes and pensioners. I am very conscious of the hardship which the present low limits have caused in these areas, and I am determined to do all I can to end this hardship. At the same time, and consistently with this principle, a very determined effort will be made to reduce the present complexity of the financial conditions for legal aid, and to simplify the present complicated and expensive system, of legal aid assessment.

The construction of the package is not unlike the construction of a mini-Budget First, the Budget strategy has to be decided —and I have just outlined mine; namely, to help the most needy—and then it is necessary to consider what adjustments can be made to the "regulators" in order to achieve it. The regulators in this case are the upper and lower limits, capital and income, and the amount taken by way of contribution. In making adjustments, it is necessary to take account not only of current earnings but also of the pattern of welfare benefits and the operation of the complex discretions and disregards used in the assessment of income and capital. Work is still proceeding on these complex matters and I will be giving the full details later. I must ask your Lordships for forbearance in the meantime.

At present I can say, however, that comprehensive and significant improvements to the financial conditions for legal aid will be introduced in the early part of next year. The basis of the package will be a substantial increase in the lower (free legal aid) limit which will not only assist those in greatest need, but also permit a start to be made in the simplification of legal aid assessment procedures. It will be accompanied by appropriate increases in the allowances for dependants in order to ensure that the improvements do not discriminate in favour of those without families.

It is not enough to be eligible for contributory legal aid; the applicant must also be able to afford the contributions asked. Accordingly, the measures improving eligibility will be accompanied by an appropriate reduction in the amount, in the percentage of contribution to be asked of assisted persons. At present this cannot be changed by regulation. Legislation is required. Accordingly, it is intended to include in the Legal Aid Bill, referred to in the gracious Speech, a regulation-making power enabling me to make regulations adjusting the amount of contribution to be called for. This power is an important part of my proposals. If changes in the amount of contribution taken cannot be made, further adjustments would have to be made to the lower (free) legal aid limit in order to ensure that those just outside the free limit were not required to pay more than they can afford. The Bill, therefore, is an integral part of my proposals. I am hoping to introduce it before long, and I hope that it will get a fair wind.

My proposals also include a corresponding increase in the upper (eligibility) limit corresponding with the increase in the lower (free) limit. This is designed to bring back a large number of households who have ceased to be eligible for legal aid. There will also be substantial increases in the lower (free) and upper (eligibility) capital limits, possibly in line with the minimum recommendations in the report of the Financial Provisions Working Party to my Legal Aid Advisory Committee. Finally, there will be corresponding appropriate increases in the limits for advice and assistance—the Green Form Scheme.

This package is without prejudice to the consideration in due course by the Government of whatever recommendations may be made by the Royal Commission on Legal Services. The Royal Commission will be reporting on a number of important matters affecting those services, including the balance between the legal aid scheme and publicly funded legal services such as those rendered by law centres and CABs as well as upon the difficult question of representation before tribunals. It is not possible to make additional commitments in these areas until it has reported, and I understand that that will take place next year. There is, however, one area where I am resolved to give further help. It is the law centres. They are at present an essential part of the legal services, working in areas of greatest need. The package will, therefore, include some modest reinforcement for them pending the outcome of the Royal Commission recommendations.

May I say that it gives me personally particular satisfaction to be able to announce these proposed changes today, remembering as I do my maiden speech in the House in 1974 when I stressed the importance of extending legal services throughout the country, in particular to those most needing them. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1978, laid before the House on 1st November, be approved. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome the announcement made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor of his package. We shall be examining it in due course when it is presented in detail, but I understand that this is almost an annual exercise relating to the increase in the various limits of the sums which are set out in the regulations. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that they were to keep pace with the rate of inflation, and they seem to vary between 6 per cent. and 8 per cent. I do not intend go go into the question of whether the rate of inflation kept between 6 per cent. and 8 per cent. during the whole of last year, nor do I know whether it will during the coming year. Certainly, however, an increase is essential, since more and more people are being denied the use of legal aid.

Noble Lords will recollect a very important matter which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, during the debate upon the gracious Speech. He mentioned that something like 58 per cent. of households in this country were eligible for legal aid in 1954 but that only 23 per cent. of households were eligible for legal aid 20 years later. That was a figure which came as a great shock to me personally, as it must have done to other noble Lords who are interested in and concerned about this matter. There must be increases every year, just to keep pace with the present position. I shall not know whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor thinks that these increases are sufficient until he introduces the package which he has just announced to us.

The difficulties with regard to civil legal aid which the noble and learned Lord has spoken about and which is primarily his responsibility, since criminal legal aid is the responsibility of the Home Office, seem to require, in my view, much more attention than those which relate to criminal legal aid. I suspect that criminal legal aid is given too freely and that it is also given without sufficient investigation of the means of persons who actually receive criminal legal aid.

I recollect appearing for a national newspaper before the Divisional Court in circumstances in which two persons, who were accused of crimes of which they were subsequently convicted and who were the leaders of very large criminal organisations, had complained concerning the newly introduced restrictions on the reporting of proceedings before committing magistrates. There was an argument before the Divisional Court. The two complainants, these criminals, failed. On behalf of that national newspaper I asked for costs, which I was entitled to do, only for it to be announced that these two persons—having a life style which was well publicised, since they were the heads, as I have already said, of very substantial criminal organisations, as they were subsequently proven to be—could afford only a nil contribution. Although they lived in the style of princes, they were being defended out of public funds. They were making no contribution at all to that legal aid.

I have always felt that on the criminal side there is reason to be concerned, but very much greater concern ought, I believe, to be attached to civil legal aid. The greatest attention should be paid to it. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has indicated the package which he is going to produce some time next year. I hope that he will concentrate much more on these levels of legal aid than on the law centres.

Parliament has willed that persons facing litigation—and of course persons accused of crime—shall receive professional help and, if that is so, then Parliament must provide the means. As I indicated to your Lordships not long ago, I believe that there should be a substantial switch of resources, including greater assistance to the court service, greater and proper financial rewards for the professional services, where, perhaps I may say, after over 30 years of practice, without having to declare an interest, the young barristers in the Crown Courts have a level of remuneration which is far too low. If there is going to be a social service—which this is—then it should be adequately remunerated.

It is in regard to proper levels of legal aid that, in my view, at the present time the scheme has gone wrong. Therefore we shall look forward to seeing the increases which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has foreshadowed, when he introduces the Bill next year. He has referred to the Royal Commission on Legal Services which will be reporting next year. I do not know whether he will be able to help your Lordships by telling us about when next year he anticipates that this very important Royal Commission will be reporting, but I presume he means that it will be reporting after he has introduced his Bill, which I understood was to be early next year.

I hope he will not overlook the upper eligibility, because, in my experience, it is there that great hardship is being forced upon persons who are just above the level of legal aid because of their very modest capital and income position and so are totally excluded from any assistance whatsoever. While it is important to recollect that plaintiffs should be given assistance to pursue their claims, there is also a case for those who have to defend claims and who ought to be able to receive the appropriate assistance which the State has said it is going to provide because of the decision to give legal aid to those who have to prosecute or defend suits in the courts. It is of course welcome that there have been these very modest increases at this particular time and we look forward to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor introducing his Bill, which I hope he will do at the earliest possible opportunity, when we can see that greater justice is given to those who really require this aid in order to be able to pursue justice.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor for the sympathetic way in which he placed these regulations before us. He described the regulations as being a holding operation and gave us promise of a generous package by way of comparison in the future. I know that he will not be surprised if a member of the legal profession bases his comments in the same way as I believe a cock once did to a hen when he showed her an ostrich egg, and then said "This is not by way of complaint, my dear, but by way of indication of what one can optimistically hope for".

As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said, the increase which we are now looking at is indeed a very moderate one. As the noble and learned Lord also said, it is based upon a linkage with supplementary benefits and I believe that in turn is based upon the prices index. It is of course a fact that wages have risen by twice as much as the prices index since the last regrading. That therefore means that a proportion of those who until this moment have been able to benefit from legal aid will now not be able to do so and, by virtue of the fact that this is such a meagre rise, that the proportion—however small that might be—of those who could benefit before will not now be able to do so until this further package comes about. Unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, who I believe gave a figure of 20-odd per cent. of households which were now able to benefit, my figure—it may be wrong and I merely put it forward for correction—was in fact double that. It was 44 per cent. and I understand that it is that figure which will now be reduced.


My Lords, if I may intervene, I was quoting the noble Lord, Lord Foot, who produced figures before your Lordships last week. I think he said that 28 per cent. only were now eligible as compared with 54 per cent. about 20 years ago.


My Lords, I am obliged and I shall see to it that I am corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, or perhaps the noble Lord will find himself able to say that his figure was wrong. The figure I was given this morning—which I may have taken down inaccurately—was given to me by a very authoritative source as being 44 per cent., but even that has been reduced. In any event, the principle is the same.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to a very serious way in which hardship arises at the moment which is that many who have been granted legal aid because their cause is one which the authorities who look at these things have decided ought to be dealt with in the courts and that they ought therefore to be assisted, cannot now go ahead with that assistance and many members of my profession are finding this by virtue of the fact that they cannot afford the contributions. When we look at the situation regarding a disposable income of £815, and a third over and above that disposable income, noble Lords will realise what a limitation this is, since a contribution has of necessity to be made when that situation arises.

My last point was touched upon by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and I believe I am right in saying that he said legislation would be necessary not only in regard to that matter but also possibly in relation to assistance by way of legal aid for those who appear before tribunals. It may be that this can be done under another Bill, giving him the right by regulation to see that those people who have to appear before tribunals are assisted.

In my maiden speech to this House, I had the privilege of referring to the situation under which those who have suffered as a result of crime and who therefore wish to go to a tribunal in order to get some compensation for the violence that they have sustained are unable at this moment to get assistance under the legal aid scheme. I was obliged to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, for asking when the report of the Royal Commission is expected, because, if that report is not going to come before us until late next year and the Bill to which reference was made in the gracious Speech and which was referred to by the Lord Chancellor is in fact to be brought forward early next year and before the report of the Royal Commission, one would hope so much that whatever regulatory power or statutory power was required in order to enable people to have the benefit of legal aid before the tribunals, will, if necessary, be provided for before the Royal Commission reports.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, the practice of quoting from one's previous speeches is something, as I have no doubt your Lordships agree, to be deeply deplored, but I ask to be allowed to quote a few words from what I said on the debate on the gracious Speech, because some re- ference has been kindly made to what I had to say and the statistic which I produced on that occasion. As some of your Lordships who were here on that occasion may remember, I started off by quoting what had been said by Sir Hartley Shawcross, who was the Attorney General in 1948 who introduced the original Legal Aid and Advice Act. The words which he used upon that occasion of the Second Reading of the Bill were these: It is the charter of the little man to the British Courts of Justice … It is a Bill which will open the doors of the courts freely to all persons who may wish to avail themselves of British justice without regard to the question of their wealth or ability to pay". Those were the high expectations and hopes with which the Bill was heralded at that time, more than 25 years ago.

As to the statistic that I quoted, there appears to be a little doubt as to what has happened since. The reason why I quoted it was because it seemed to me the simplest way of illustrating how far short the scheme of civil legal aid has fallen below the expectations which were held at that time. The statistic must be true because it is produced by the Law Society. The quotation I made was this, that in 1954 58 per cent. of households with children were eligible for legal aid on income grounds—that is, if capital is disregarded or they have none—but by 1974, 20 years later, the figure had fallen to 23 per cent. and so had been cut in half.

In order to try to emphasise the way in which we have fallen short of our hopes of 25 years ago I quoted something that happened in the other place last year. Perhaps I may be permitted to quote it again. It seems to me to illustrate the failure, up to now, in the most understandable form. It was back in April last year when Mr. John Ovenden asked some questions of the Solicitor General. He asked some questions about the cost of civil legal aid during the preceding five years; and when the Solicitor General had provided that information Mr. Ovenden asked whether the Solicitor General would accept that those figures reflected the failure of the incomes scale to keep pace with inflation, resulting in a smaller proportion of the population being eligible for legal aid, and whether he was satisfied with a situation where the only people who qualify for maximum legal aid are those living on incomes just above the supplementary benefit level, and that to qualify for legal aid at all people must have incomes well below the average industrial earnings. When the Solicitor General rose to reply, he said that he could not dispute the figures that Mr. Ovenden had quoted. I have taken leave to remind your Lordships of that because that really does represent a true statement of the present situation.

May I at once say to the noble and learned Lord that the statement which he has made to the House today will be received with the utmost gratification by those who have been striving to get a reform of this, as we believe, evil. I should like to add my congratulations to the thanks, and I am sure it will be of great and legitimate satisfaction to the noble and learned Lord that he will, early in the New Year, be bringing before us, as I understand it, radical alterations in order to try to put this situation right. It will take a little time. I am a lawyer and I think I know something about the legal aid system—I have been living on it for a long time; it will take all of us a little while to digest the information which the noble and learned Lord has given us, because, as he said, it is a very complicated subject. But the news that we are going to have some radical measures proposed early in the New Year will come as a great satisfaction.

My Lords, I do not think we want to confuse the position—I am sure that is not what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, intended to do—by talking about criminal legal aid, because criminal legal aid is quite a different matter. In my view, criminal legal aid has worked and is working very well in this country at the present time, subject only to one matter which has been a matter of considerable public debate; that is, the difference in the granting of legal aid in the magistrates' courts and Crown courts as between one court and one jurisdiction and another. That is a matter which ought to be urgently looked at. I believe I read something the other day in the newspaper to indicate that a request has been made by the Magistrates' Society and the Justices Clerks' Society to the Lord Chancellor that he should issue some further directions—or possibly the Home Office should; I am not sure who does it—in order to try to bring into some sort of level the way in which the criminal legal aid system is administered in different courts.

I heard with some regret that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor does not feel able to make any change in the matter of legal aid or tribunals until the Royal Commission report. One well understands that it may be quite wrong to pre-empt what the Royal Commission may say; but I would emphasise this fact, that until the legal aid system is extended to cover tribunals a great many people will not be able to pursue their legitimate claims before industrial tribunals, medical tribunals and the like; they will simply be precluded from going to those tribunals at all because almost inevitably in matters before such tribunals the layman cannot present his case properly on his own. Therefore, I hope that the Royal Commission are going to come up eventually with a proposal that legal aid shall be so extended.

My Lords, that is all I want to say, except to conclude by again congratulating the noble and learned Lord and thanking him for the small mercies which he has given us now and the greater mercies which are going to be extended next year.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I too would welcome these orders and, still more, the vista which my noble and learned friend has held out to us about the delights which he has in store for us in this field, during this Session. When I say "in this field" I shall confine my observations to civil legal aid. May I say as a further preliminary what a pleasure it is to me to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. I have not had the pleasure of doing so before; I know his very wide experience in the whole of this field.

My Lords, the main problem with legal aid is not that, although it is nearly 30 years since it was brought into effect, the whole of the provisions of the 1949 Act are not yet in operation. I persuaded my colleagues to extend it for the first time to a tribunal. It has not yet been extended to other tribunals. There are still forms of action which it does not cover, but which it ought to cover.

However, the sad point about the whole of its history is the extent to which successive Governments have deprived people of their existing rights. As I have ventured to say on a previous occasion, it is absolutely useless for any Government to continue passing legislation, conferring rights on poor people or people of moderate means, if they cannot afford to enforce or defend their rights. If they cannot afford to enforce or defend their rights, they might just as well throw their rights into the wastepaper basket for all the good they are to them.

Mention has been made of the way in which successive Governments have actually reduced the numbers of people who are so entitled. In the last report of the Advisory Committee on Legal Aid and Advice at paragraph 16 it said: Increases in eligibility such as those in recent years can, however, only be marginal and can do little to repair the serious inadequacy of the present financial conditions. The Legal Aid and Advice Act 1949 and its successors, were designed to provide people of both small and moderate means with a subsidy where appropriate. There is now a large number of such people who are either ineligible for legal aid, advice and assistance, or if they are eligible, are unable to afford the contributions asked of them. These people cannot afford to establish or defend their rights and therefore the legal aid scheme fails to achieve what Parliament intended". The advisory committee has stressed this point year after year and in its report of the previous year it illustrated the very large numbers—I suppose millions of families—who previously were entitled under the Act to enforce or to defend their legal rights, but whom successive Governments have deprived of doing so. It said in paragraph 15: A study made by our Special Consultant, with the help of the Central Statistical Office, confirms that the proportion of various social groups which are eligible for legal aid has generally fallen. The main conclusions of the study, which we think very significant, are that:—

  1. (a) in 1950, when the scheme began, the proportion of the population eligible for legal aid on income grounds alone was over 80 per cent. (though the low capital limits would have reduced this proportion);
  2. (b) between 1950 and 1974 there was a dramatic decline in eligiblity based on income grounds alone. By 1973, only about 40 per cent. of the population as a whole was covered, and this proportion would have been even lower if demographic and social changes had not increased the number of old-age pensioners and single-parent families;
  3. (c) the decline was particularly marked in the case of married couples with children. 677 In 1964, over 60 per cent. of these couples were still eligible, but by 1974 the figure had shrunk to just over 20 per cent.;
  4. (d) since 1974, the overall decline in eligibility appears to have been largely arrested;
  5. (e) some part of this decline is due to an increase in the earnings of wives, but the rest is due to the failure, over many years, to keep the financial limits in line with earnings;
  6. (f) at the same time as the failure of the financial limits to keep up with earnings has pushed a large proportion of the population outside the scope of the scheme, the cost of civil litigation has risen to such an extent that, despite higher earnings, the position of an unassisted party who has to pay his own way has worsened since the scheme began".
It concluded: thus the scheme has become more and more limited, and now only covers the legal problems of those with little or no income; and this is true of legal advice and assistance as well as of legal aid". It is most regrettable that successive Governments should actually have deprived millions of families of legal rights which they had previously and could enforce, but who are now, as a consequence, outside the scheme.

I know that this is a subject very near to the heart of my noble and learned friend. All those concerned with legal aid know that no Lord Chancellor could have done more in this area than he has done. However, before closing may I ask him two questions? I apologise for not having given him notice of them, but not having heard what he was to say I was unable to do so. First, can he give us any idea when the Royal Commission is likely to report? Secondly, if all his intended proposals for the forthcoming Session are accepted by Parliament, can he give us any idea of what proportion of those who in recent years have been excluded from the scheme will be brought back into it?

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to make a few comments because I think that I am one of the two survivors of the Legal Aid Committee which devised the scheme which became the Legal Aid and Advice Act, almost without alteration. I think that the other survivor is my noble and learned friend Lord Hodson.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, has pointed out, the scheme as devised and enacted covered a far wider area than it has been possible to implement at present. It is sad to realise that over the years the section of the community which was covered by the Legal Aid and Advice Act has narrowed almost year by year. I should like to join in welcoming the proposals put forward by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and thank him for making such improvement as he can at present, and I look forward to seeing his further package proposals in the future. I hope that they will at least bring back within the scope of the Act that section of the community which was originally covered.

I do not intend to go into the details of percentages and matters like that, but I think that everyone who has sat on the Woolsack has known and experienced the difficulties of getting enough resources to be able to achieve what every Lord Chancellor since the passage of that Act has sought to achieve in respect of legal aid. One of the problems is the ever mounting cost. That must be faced, but at the same time I think that perhaps some close investigation should be made into the expenditure.

From all I hear, I would lend my support to what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, said when he expressed the view that criminal legal aid was given too freely. I believe that there is substance in that observation and that it may be worth examining, although I must confess that during the passage of, and the debates on, the Legal Aid and Advice Act none of us, no matter on which side of the House we sat, and none of us on the Legal Aid and Advice Committee, was able to find a satisfactory solution to the problem of securing financial contribution from those charged with criminal offences who could well afford to make such contribution. Whether or not criminal bankruptcies and so on have enabled some funds to be extracted from them I do not know.

However, I have also heard it said—and this also may be worth looking into, if the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is not doing so at present—that sometimes the grant of legal aid leads to cases lasting considerably longer than they should, and so to more expense on the fund. I am not sure whether that is happening, but I support the plea that those who conduct legal aid cases should be adequately remunerated, and may I add—and this, I think, is perhaps even more important—promptly remunerated, for their services. If one could ensure that the money is perhaps better spent and investigate that matter and secure some savings, it might make room for some improvement in the level of remuneration. The granting of legal aid before tribunals has always been a difficult question, but now that there are so many tribunals I would certainly support the proposal that it should be available for some. I rose only to add a few words and to congratulate the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on what he has been able to achieve in the face of what, I have no doubt, were considerable difficulties.


My Lords, I propose to exercise patience and forbearance.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome which these modest regulations introduce in the legal aid field, but I can only say how relieved I am that at least I was able to announce the package, because had I been relying entirely upon the modest increases in the regulations now before your Lordships' House I should have come into this Chamber very naked indeed.

The package to which I refer is, of course, related to the civil field. Responsibility for criminal aid is divided between the Home Secretary and myself. He has responsibility for what goes on in the Crown Court; I have responsibility for what goes on in the Magistrates' Court—part of that fascinating pattern which, for better or for worse, history has imposed upon our legal institutions.

Naturally, I have listened carefully to what has been said about criminal legal aid. I am bound to say that the complaints that come to me with regard to my responsibility for criminal legal aid in Magistrates' Courts are not that such aid is given too freely, but that it is not given frequently enough, and attention is drawn to the curious variation in the practices of one Magistrates' Court compared to another. Some, which I shall not name, show a great reluctance to grant legal aid; others make legal aid very freely available. This is a field where I do my best to try to secure a better balance.

However, these are of course matters which are left to the discretion of the courts themselves. Parliament has decided upon that. Therefore, the extent to which 1, as a Minister, can give directions as to practices and amounts is limited. All I can say is that we do our best in the various ways open to us—for example, in my addresses to the Magistrates' Association and in other ways—to move towards as much uniformity in practice as possible.

With regard to the plea for legal aid for tribunals, there is, as noble Lords have said, a very great proliferation of tribunals in the country. They go to very large numbers indeed. At present, legal aid is available in three trinunals—namely, the Lands Tribunal, the Commons Commissioners and the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The view has been taken that, so far as possible, the proceedings before tribunals should be informal and should be dealt with without the participation of lawyers. However, I am bound to say that, particularly in the field of industrial tribunals, the greater complexity of the provisions presents serious problems which greatly concern me. On the whole, the trade unions—I do not speak of all the trade unions—have tended to take the view that the less the lawyers dominate the proceedings before industrial tribunals the better. They favour rather more representation by trade union experts in this field, and they believe that for officials to spend a great deal of time instructing often rather young counsel or solicitors who are not very experienced in the field, is highly unrewarding. I shall not go into the merits of that, but that is a point of view and it is a point of view that is very strongly held.

However, legal aid is already available for the Employment Appeal Tribunal which, of course, hears appeals on points of law from the industrial tribunals. As I have said, the Government will await the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Legal Services, which I have no doubt will have gone into these matters in some depth. I am afraid that I cannot tell the House when the Royal Commission will report, but I certainly intend that the Bill—which, as I have said, is an important part of my package—will be introduced early in the new year, and I anticipate that that will happen before the Royal Commission reports, which I hope will be in the late spring or the summer. I had better not repeat the ancient formula of time which proved so misleading when one of my right honourable friends made a guess a long time ago. As Mark Twain said: It is always very dangerous to prophesy, especially about future events". Turning to the immediate matters of the legal aid package, I hope that it will not be disappointing when it surfaces. However, I assure noble Lords that it has distressed me greatly to see the decline in the number of people eligible for legal aid. I held the high office of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, as he then was, when we introduced the legal aid schemes in the House of Commons. The expectations which he then expressed—which the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has read to us—were certainly what we intended. However, let us not overlook the fact that the legal aid scheme which we then introduced has, in the meantime, helped millions of our citizens to obtain justice in the civil courts and to obtain proper defence in the criminal courts. This country was a pioneer in this area. Perhaps by now the United States have caught up with us; some of the Commonwealth countries have fol-owed our example and it may well be that they have overtaken us.

We all know that the last two or three years have been a period when every Department of State has had to make sacrifices. Cuts in public expenditure have become necessary, and I had to make my contribution. However, having made my contribution—and I was able to do so because of the simplification of divorce proceedings which, frankly, rendered participation by lawyers in the courts an expensive waste in most cases in those matters which were undefended and where no issues were left for decision—I have come virtuously to the doors of the Treasury and at last I am able to reap some reward for my patience.

I cannot tell my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner what precise proportion of the population will be able to enjoy legal aid. I shall not guess at that at this moment, but I am anxious to ensure that there will be a very large increase in the number of households that will become eligible. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, has referred to the struggle by Lord Chancellors to get their share of the resources available, and these are, of course, the battles that go on in a little room in Number 10. Everyone who has held my office will know what the problems are. However, as I say, although there has been this disappointment in not maintaining the legal aid scheme at the original high level, it has nevertheless been a very important part—indeed, in my view, one of the most important parts—of the social services that we in this country provide.

I conclude by thanking those noble Lords who have spoken. I wish that one or two of the non-lawyers in the House had contributed, but I make no complaint about that. This is a matter which greatly concerns the ordinary man and woman in the street and his family who, when they come up against the law, are entitled to get such assistance as we can give, otherwise we shall be back in the days when it was said that the Law Courts, like the doors of the Ritz Hotel, were open to everybody. Well, we do not want to revert to that state of affairs, and I look forward early in the New Year, or at least not late in the New Year, to carrying out the promises I have made to your Lordships today.

On Question, Motion agreed to.