HL Deb 23 March 1982 vol 428 cc952-5

4.32 p.m.

Lord Lyell rose to move, that the regulations laid before the House on 2nd March be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to move the first of the two Motions on the Order Paper before us today which are in my name, I hope that I shall have the leave of your Lordships to speak to both at the same time. The regulations increase the income limits for legal aid in civil proceedings and for legal advice and assistance by approximately 9 per cent. They are intended to ensure that persons with the same real income in the coming year as those who qualified in the past year will be eligible to receive legal aid, subject, where appropriate, to a similar contribution. Your Lordships approved the equivalent regulations for England and Wales on 23rd February this year.

The Legal Aid (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1982 raise the upper disposable income limit, above which a person is not eligible for legal aid, under the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1967, to make legal aid available to persons with disposable income of not more than £4,400. The lower limit—the level below which a person is not required to make a contribution from income—will increase to £1,850. The limits for disposable capital rise by a similar percentage so that the upper limit above which legal aid may be refused if it appears that the applicant could afford to proceed without it, becomes £2,725 and the lower limit, below which no capital contribution need be paid, becomes £1,310.

Your Lordships will be pleased to note that these regulations bring to an end an anomaly that has complicated the granting of civil legal aid in some cases following an oversight in the Legal Aid Act 1979, which omitted to confer on the Secretary of State the power to increase the lower limit. The position has therefore been—and will be until 1st April 1982—that free legal aid has been available for those with disposable incomes below £1,500, and that from those with incomes between £1,500 and £1,700 the nominal sum of £1 has been required as a contribution. The regulations do not refer directly to the removal of this difficulty but footnote (a) indicates that Section 26 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1980 restored the power to increase the lower income limit once more. The disappearance of the nominal £1 requirement will simplify the work of the Law Society of Scotland in administering the legal aid schemes.

The Legal Advice and Assistance (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) Regulations 1982—the second order that stands in my name raise the upper disposable income limit for persons seeking legal advice and assistance from £85 to £93 per week and increase the disposable capital limit from £600 to £655.

A further set of relevant regulations—which are not subject to affirmative resolution and therefore do not fall to be considered by your Lordships—will come into effect from 1st April 1982. The Legal Advice and Assistance (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) (No. 2) Regulations 1982 increase the lower disposable income limit, below which no contribution has to be paid, from £40 to £44 and amend the scale of contributions payable for persons with incomes between that lower and the revised upper limits. The effect of these increases is to maintain the level of availability of legal aid to 70 per cent. of households with children. A similar coverage was secured when legal aid was first introduced in 1950, and that level was broadly restored in 1979, after slipping back somewhat during the intervening period.

The volume of cases continues to grow. In the latest full year for which figures are available for Scotland the 12 months up to 31st March 1981—just over 20,000 certificates were issued for legal aid in civil proceedings and there were 95,000 successful applications for legal advice and assistance. These regulations will ensure that legal aid or advice and assistance will continue to enable many people to enforce or defend their legal rights. My Lords, I beg to commend these regulations and move the first Motion which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 2nd March he approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

4.38 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, being neither a lawyer nor a Scotsman, it is with some trepidation that I rise in the absence (owing to the speedy transaction of earlier business this afternoon) of my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan, to respond to the moving of these regulations by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. I thank him for introducing and explaining the somewhat complex regulations to your Lordships this afternoon.

I am comforted in my task this afternoon by the fact that the English and Welsh equivalent of these regulations was approved by your Lordships on 23rd February. In so far as the regulations ease the paths of deserving applicants for legal aid, they are of course clearly very welcome. However, in so far as they fail to reinstate the level of benefits otherwise eroded by inflation, they are clearly not so welcome.

I have with some care read the reply given by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to the questions raised on 23rd February by my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones. But I am still not wholly clear as to the resulting position. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, would be so kind as to confirm that the levels of eligibility in relation to both capital and income fail to recover in real terms the position which existed in November 1979, that being the date on which the levels were last raised. If the level is now lower than at that time, by how much lower is it in percentage terms? Is there any valid reason why there should be any shortfall in the level now proposed as compared with the level agreed in 1979?

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, said in his introduction, and may well argue again, that the limits have been increased to ensure a similar level of coverage to that achieved in November 1979. However, the point of my question is to establish what the levels should be now if they were increased in accordance with the Retail Price Index and the percentage by which the new levels fall short of that index. Surely there can be no excuse for not increasing the levels in line with inflation. As it is, there will be some people who were eligible and now are no longer eligible, even though they may just have received increases in their incomes in line with inflation.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I, too, on behalf of my colleagues here, would like to welcome the provisions contained in these regulations. I should also like to pursue the question raised on index-linking, which has become a very fashionable term these days. I should like to know whether, in view of the fact that the Government borrowing is now to be index-linked together with taxation allowances, we are passing regulations today which might be slightly out of date 12 months from now, and whether in fact index-linking was looked at in connection with the provisions in these regulations now before us.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I am sure the House will be grateful, as I am myself, to the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for what they have said about these two orders today. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, raised the very valid question—raised also by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor—of index-linking of the 1979 limits and the rise in value of the limits I have introduced today over and above those of 1979. I am afraid I have not got a precise and detailed answer compounded over the full period but I will ascertain the precise statistics requested by both noble Lords in as succinct a form as possible, and I will write to them. I hope that will satisfy your Lordships.

However, I should like to suggest that the accepted criteria of legal aid in Scotland and in England and Wales have for many years been at this level of 70 per cent. of households with children who would be eligible for legal aid. The uprating of the limits is only one factor, though an important one. I would ask your Lordships to consider the other important elements in matching income to these limits. The elements which go into the calculations of relevant income are such things as supplementary benefit allowances, the thresholds of income tax, child benefits, national insurance contributions and so on. We think it could be misleading to have regard to only one factor: that is, the limits. The 70 per cent. coverage of households in Scotland and England and Wales remains in the Government's view the most effective measure for legal aid. That said, I will repeat my promise to ascertain the information requested by both noble Lords, and will write to them.

I would beg your Lordships' indulgence in making one minor correction. In introducing these orders I mentioned that legal aid would be available to persons with a disposable income of not more than £4,400. That is the figure in my prepared text, and I must apologise for not having matched up that figure with the figure which appears on the order before us. The figure that I should have mentioned is £4,440. With that humble apology to your Lordships, I commend the first order standing in my name.

On Question, Motion agreed to.