HL Deb 15 November 1979 vol 402 cc1418-21

4.47 p.m.

Lord LYELL rose to move, That the Regulations laid before the House on 1st November, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in speaking to these Motions I hope it will be for the convenience of the House if I speak at the same time to both regulations. These two regulations alter the income limits both for legal aid in civil proceedings and for legal advice and assistance. It has become the practice in recent years for the financial limits to be increased annually in line with such increases as take place in supplementary benefit. The limits were increased considerably in April of this year as part of a package of improvements intended to help to restore the extent to which legal aid is available to the population to the level which was provided when legal aid schemes were originally introduced. The regulations which are under consideration in the House today ensure that the real value of the limits achieved in April of this year is maintained. I would remind the House that your Lordships approved the equivalent English and Welsh regulations on 30th October of this year.

The Legal Aid (Scotland) (Financial Contributions) (No. 2) Regulations 1979 increase the upper disposable income limit above which a person does not qualify for legal aid from £3,600 to £4,075. Perhaps your Lordships would appreciate a definition of the term "disposable income". It is a notional net figure which is arrived at after deductions have been made for tax and rent or mortgage and other necessary expenses.

They also deal with the lower—or "free" limit, as we call it—the level below which a person is not required to make a contribution from income, and in this regard there is one point to which I should draw the attention of the House. This limit currently stands at £1,500 and it is proposed by these regulations that it should be increased to £1,700. However, it has been found that Section 3(1)(a) of the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1967, which was recently amended by Section 9 of the Legal Aid Act 1979, does not now in terms confer the power to increase the lower limit. Prior to the amendment made by the 1979 Act, the Secretary of State had the explicit power by regulation to raise the lower income limit, and indeed it was not intended that this power should have been removed by the 1979 Act. I understand that it is intended to take steps to restore the power to vary when a suitable opportunity occurs, which I believe will be fairly soon.

But in the meantime the powers which are available to the Secretary of State for Scotland enable him by regulations to alter the maximum contribution from income payable by a person who is receiving legal aid, and to make different provision for different amounts of disposal income. Regulation 3(a) of these legal aid regulations provides that the maximum contribution required from an applicant for legal aid whose disposable income lies in the band between £1,500 and £1,700 shall be the merely nominal sum of £1, while the maximum contribution from a person whose disposable income exceeds £1,700 shall be an amount equivalent to one quarter of the difference between his disposable income and the figures of £1,700. These regulations, which I accept are exceedingly complicated, achieve an almost exactly similar effect to those regulations which were made earlier this year in respect of England and Wales by the Lord Chancellor.

I should now like to speak to the second set of regulations which I shall be moving presently: the Legal Advice and Assistance (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) (No. 4) Regulations 1979. These raise the upper disposable income limit for those persons who are seeking legal advice and assistance from £75 to £85 a week—income limits, my Lords. Another set of regulations—which we are not discussing this afternoon, and which are not subject to Affirmative Resolution—raises the lower disposable income limit below which no contribution is payable from £35 a week to £40, and amends the scale of contributions payable for persons with incomes between that lower limit and the revised upper limit.

I think that it would be for your Lordships' convenience if I were to mention that the allowances which are made for dependants in both legal aid and legal advice and assistance schemes also have to be increased. At present these are fixed at one and a half times the corresponding supplementary benefit scale rates and these were therefore automatically increased when the supplementary benefit rates changed at the beginning even of this week.

We estimate that legal aid is now available to approximately 70 per cent. of families with children, and I am sure that your Lordships would be interested to know that in the year 1978–79 about 15,000 full certificates were issued for legal aid in civil proceedings, and that about 34,000 payments in respect of legal advice and assistance were made to solicitors. All this was in Scotland. The net cost of civil legal aid, and of legal advice and assistance, was about £3 million excluding the costs of administration. The changes proposed in the regulations which are before us this afternoon are intended to ensure that numbers of people who without legal aid or assistance would be unable to enforce, or even to defend, their legal rights are not diminished by inflation. For that reason T commend the first set of regulations.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 1st November, be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)


My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for introducing the regulations and explaining them so clearly. I must apologise to him for having missed the first part of his opening remarks. I was called out of the Chamber to take an urgent telephone call and I am afraid that I did not return in time. As the noble Lord the Minister has explained, the regulations that he has introduced for Scotland are similar to those which were introduced on, I think, 30th October this year by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, and we had then from this Bench an opportunity to welcome the introduction of those two sets of regulations.

I would wholly agree with the Minister that it is right that these financial limits should be increased in line with inflation and so that they remain in line with any increases that take place in supplementary benefit as well. Your Lordships would probably also be encouraged to hear what the noble Lord had to say about the plans concerning the power to vary as the occasion arises, which I believe will introduce a welcome flexibility.

I do not need to detain your Lordships this afternoon. As I indicated earlier, we had an opportunity from this Bench a fortnight ago to welcome the last sets of regulations, and I take this opportunity to welcome these two sets of regulations, too, so far as it is proper and not presumptuous of an Englishman to welcome two sets of regulations concerning Scotland. However, I am encouraged by the thought that I understand that those of my noble friends who are from Scotland would take the same course. So I would join with the noble Lord the Minister in commending these sets of regulations to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.