HL Deb 30 March 1983 vol 440 cc1567-71

3.28 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone) rose to move, That the regulations laid before the House on 10th March be approved. The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, there are four legal aid regulation Motions on the Order Paper which I wish to speak to and, with permission, I will speak to them all together, although they will of course have to be moved separately. The first two Motions relate to England and Wales and the second two relate to Scotland, but they all have the same broad intent, and that is to up-rate the disposable income limits and the disposable capital limits available for legal aid by approximately 6.25 per cent. This increase is intended to ensure that persons with the same real income in the coming year as those who qualified last year will be eligible to receive legal aid, subject, of course, in suitable cases, to a similar contribution.

The lower disposable capital limit for civil legal aid is being increased to align it with the supplementary benefit limit of £2,500 as recommended by the Advisory Committee on Legal Aid in its recent annual report. The upper limit is increased to £4,000, thus maintaining the differential between the two. This increase in the lower limit represents an increase of over 90 per cent. Broadly speaking, it means that anyone eligible for supplementary benefit will also be eligible for legal aid without paying a contribution.

I should like to deal with the regulations in a little more detail. The legal aid regulations raise the lower disposable income limit for legal aid, below which no contribution is payable, from £1,850 a year to £1,965 a year, and the upper income limit, above which legal aid is not available, from £4,440 a year to £4,720 a year. They also raise the lower disposable capital limit for legal aid from £1,310 to £2,500, and the upper limit from £2,725 to £4,000.

The advice and assistance regulations—that is, the green form scheme—raise the lower income limit for legal advice and assistance, below which no contribution is payable, from £44 a week to £47 a week, and the upper disposable income limit for green form assistance, above which it is not available, is raised from £93 a week to £99 a week. They also raise the relevant capital limit above which legal advice and assistance is not available from £655 to £700.

The House should also be told, and is probably already aware, that I have made a further set of regulations, for the approval of which an affirmative resolution is not required. These are the Legal Advice and Assistance (Amendment) Regulations 1983, and they make amendments to the scale of contributions which an applicant under the green form scheme may be required to pay towards his costs. The corresponding Scottish regulations are in a slightly different form. This is because the lower income limit for advice and assistance does not appear in the regulations requiring an affirmative resolution but in the instrument subject to the negative procedure, together with the amendments to the scale of contributions. These are the Legal Advice and Assistance (Scotland) (Financial Conditions) (No. 2) Regulations 1983.

All these limits were, it will be remembered, increased on 1st April last year. They will now be increased on 1st April this year to reflect the extent of inflation over the year from November 1981 to November 1982, as the last year's increase reflected the position in November, 1981. Any changes since November 1982 will, therefore, fall to be taken into account at a future date. The legal aid disposable capital limits have, moreover, been substantially increased in real terms by a percentage far in excess of inflation (as will have been gathered from what I have just said) as it is now, or was last November, or even at any time during the term of the last Labour Government. This will enable many of those who are excluded under the current limits—for example, old age pensioners with a small sum of capital—to be eligible for legal aid.

The coverage of the scheme as regards disposable income is much the same as it was last year. The limits are only one factor affecting financial eligibility. To obtain the concept of disposable income and disposable capital involves a deduction from gross income before the limits are applied; for instance, in respect of allowances for dependants, housing costs and fares to work. Perhaps I should add this. Although it is not the subject of these regulations, the House should be told that I have also recently introduced regulations to give effect to a number of changes to simplify the process of assessing the means of applicants for legal aid. These are relevant to the subject of eligibility.

The principal changes involved are as follows: first, the abolition of the rule allowing the disregard of the first £4 a week of unearned income; secondly, a relaxation of the rule governing reassessments so that in future a reassessment of an assisted person's disposable income will be made only if the assisted person's disposable income appears to have increased by more than £500 or decreased by more than £250 and a reassessment appears likely to lead to a significant change in the contribution payable; and, thirdly, a partial disaggregation of parents' and child's resources so that only the resources of those with whom a child lives and who are responsible in law for the maintenance of the child will be aggregated with the child's resources. These changes bring into effect the proposals of the advisory committee regarding simplification contained in their recent annual report.

I invite the House to approve these sets of regulations, and I beg to move the first of the four Motions standing in my name.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 10th March be approved.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for guiding us through this somewhat complex forest of provisions regarding legal aid and assistance. Of course, we on this side of the House immediately welcome the increase in the financial eligibility limits for both legal aid and advice and for legal advice and assistance. I hope I may be forgiven for pointing out that the last major uprating of the eligibility limits was made in the package of improvements which the former Administration introduced in 1979. Regrettably, the financial limits were not uprated in November, 1980, nor again in November 1981, apart from small increases in dependants' allowances.

I am bound to say that before I introduced the 1979 regulations it was regrettably the case that a high proportion of the working population was excluded from the scheme. I have little doubt that the present incumbent of the Woolsack had as much difficulty as I in breaking through that limitation which was permitted by the Treasury. However, it is certainly a relief to learn that now there has been in particular the substantial improvement in the limits as to disposable capital at which no contribution is required. That is now increased from £1,310 to £2,500, and the upper limit is increased from £2,725 to £4,000. This was one of the major defects in the arrangements until now.

I think it is essential that eligibility limits are raised regularly and realistically, otherwise, once again, millions of our fellow countrymen will be excluded from the benefits of this essential service in the field of legal aid and assistance.

Lord Foot

My Lords, speaking from these Benches, may I say that when anything is proposed to the House by the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack and at the same time is commended to the House by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, I think the House will agree that it must be right. At any rate, that is the view that we share on these Benches; and I deferentially concur in everything that has been said.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, as one who was in at the birth of legal aid and welcomed it with greater enthusiasm than most of my colleagues at the Scotish Bar at the time, but who have occasionally been critical of some aspects of its operation, from these Benches may I echo the appreciation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and say that we also welcome this further contribution to the legal aid scheme. To reinforce the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, that if certain other of your Lordships agree and express appreciation at the noble and learned Lord's introduction of these regulations, if I also agree, then, a fortiori, it is almost bound to be right.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I should also like to echo the words of praise to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for his presentation of this matter. At this stage I should like to raise rather a technical point. I apologise to the noble and learned Lord that I have not given him advance notice of it. I very much welcome the increase in the value of the capital matters which arise in judging whether a person is able to receive any legal aid. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, has raised the difficulties that have arisen because of the low value of that capital disposable aspect. But now, as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack said, that has been increased very considerably.

However, in my capacity as President of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors, it has been brought to my notice that, in assessing whether a man or a woman, who has an income below the value of the income allowed for, has a patent or several patents, certain parts of the country say that if the person is the owner of patents, that constitutes a capital asset and he is precluded from getting legal aid because of the estimate of the value of the patent rights which he holds. Quite often a patent, although looking a very impressive document, is not worth the paper on which it is written. It may be that the noble and learned Lord will be able to assure the House—possibly not at this stage but later on—that in assessing the capital value of the assets of any applicant for legal aid, patent rights are not included for the purposes of the final sum.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the courteous and generous way in which these regulations have been received. I have always given great credit to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, for the improvements he made in 1979. I think I praised them at the time so I am entitled to say so now. It was at that stage that the burden of legal aid on the taxpayer was significantly increased, but to show how much it has increased by I may say that in 1978–79 the burden was only £84.5 million; for 1983–84 it is estimated at £243 million. That indicates the size of the increase. The coverage, which of course varies slightly from year to year, is now about 70 per cent. of the whole population. Of those who can take the major advantage of the disregards it is rather higher than 70 per cent., and it is correspondingly lower for those, particularly in the case of single people, who do not have that advantage.

So far as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, is concerned, I think I shall have to correspond with him about patents. I quite agree that they are not always worth as much as some people would suppose. I had a cousin who used to practise in that branch of the law, and he said, "Show me a patent and I will break it".

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

That is right, my Lords.

The Lord Chancellor

With those happy thoughts, my Lords, I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.