HL Deb 14 January 1988 vol 491 cc1415-38

8.20 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 3.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich moved Amendment No. 11:

Page 4, line 7, after ("undertake") insert ("or commission").

The noble and learned Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is in part to draw attention to the importance of the board carrying out extensive inquiries and investigations of a kind which in fact is contemplated by subsection (2)(f), but in particular to make quite certain that it can do that not only by making those inquiries itself but also by commissioning research from academic and other bodies. Indeed, it is to be hoped that it will regard that as a very important part of a continuous research function to assist it in dealing with its powers and in making a periodical assessment of the needs for different forms of legal aid which will certainly not remain static in different parts of the country.

I dare to hope, despite what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said in reply to the previous amendment, that among the matters it will investigate in depth is the gaps in legal services and the way in which those gaps are being filled, in particular by law centres and other advice bodies, irrespective of whether this Bill contains a provision for the function of those bodies to be within the ambit of the board. Indeed, it is hard to see how a full picture can possibly be assessed by the board or by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor unless it is aware not only of the gaps that exist but also of the problems which exist concerning the various bodies such as law centres which try to fill those gaps.

Unless those and similar matters affecting the general picture of legal aid provision are part of the main function of the board, the board will be handicapped in carrying out its job. I have no doubt that it is the intention that the board should be able to commission investigations of the kind I have mentioned, in particular for academic bodies but also others, and no doubt to pay for those under its powers contained in Clause 3. However, in case there be any doubt about that from the wording of the subsection, which refers only to "undertaking" and not also to "commissioning", we think it preferable to write that into the legislation so that the importance of it cannot be underestimated.

In Clause 3(4) the draftsman has adopted that cautious principle of being certain in distinguishing between the powers to provide advice and the powers to secure the provision of advice. In moving this amendment, I am following, or seeking to follow, his excellent lead in that respect. I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor

I entirely accept the point that the noble and learned Lord makes. My impression, which is perhaps the same as his, is that this is probably comprehended in the Bill already. However, as he has made the point perhaps he will allow me to check that for certain and I will come back on Report. It is certainly our intention that the board should have power not only to undertake but also to commission somebody else to undertake inquiries or investigations.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that reply, and in the light of it I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 12:

Page 4, line 22, at end insert— ("and such directions shall include conditions as to the availability to the public. and quality of, advice, assistance or representation and as to the means for monitoring such availability and quality.").

The noble Lord said: As much as anything else, this is a probing amendment in order to ascertain what standards the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor thinks should be set down in view of the provision in the Bill as it exists at the moment. Subsection (4) states: The powers to provide advice, assistance or representation under this Part and to secure its provision under this Part by means of contracts with, or grants or loans to, other persons or bodies—

  1. (a) shall not he exercisable unless the Lord Chancellor so directs and then only to the extent specified in the direction: and
  2. (b) if exercisable, shall be exercised in accordance with any directions given by him".

There is no hint in the Bill as to what the matters are that the Lord Chancellor would of necessity have in mind before contracting out certain services under the Bill. It merely says that the board itself would not be able to exercise the powers without the directions of the Lord Chancellor.

Therefore it was thought necessary to table this amendment so that there is protection in the sense that such directions shall include conditions as to the availability to the public and the quality of advice, assistance or representation, and as to the means for monitoring such availability and quality. The purpose of the amendment is to see that to a great extent, if not completely, the choice of representation, availability and quality is there. The noble and learned Lord may well think that this is a helpful addition to the Bill. However, if I may say so, I am particularly interested in what the noble and learned Lord has in mind himself as to the kinds of matters that should limit the board's powers to deal with this contracting-out provision, which many of us feel is a very dangerous matter. I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor

I am sorry that the noble Lord should feel that a contracting-out option is dangerous. I hope that it may prove an extremely useful and cost-effective option. However, I recognise the concern that he has expressed that the service provided by those contracting with the board to provide advice and assistance should be a good service of a proper quality.

I believe that this can be achieved by setting proper conditions for the award of contracts. As the noble Lord and the Committee realise, the Bill at present provides that if the powers are exercisable they should be exercised in accordance with any directions the Lord Chancellor may give. Therefore it is open to the Lord Chancellor, in agreeing to the exercise of this option, to lay down conditions which must be adhered to if the power is to be lawfully exercised. I certainly intend, as I am sure that anyone discharging the responsibility that I have would wish, that the conditions and directions should be appropriate. The requirement that this amendment proposes also applies to some law centres, the responsibility for which is to be transferred to the board as they will be funded to the extent provided under its grant-making powers. This will mean that, if it is done in accordance with this amendment, there will be a tighter control over the activities of those centres than they have enjoyed in the past, because the noble Lord's amendment applies to grants and loans as well as to the other contracts.

I understand the point that the noble Lord has made. I am not convinced that it would be necessary to set this as an obligation in respect of all grants and loans as well as contracts. I should be glad to consider further what he has said and to see whether anything further is required to be added to the provisions of the Bill. It was our intention that the Bill should give power to cover this aspect of the matter. I should be happy to consider that further in the light of what he has said if he feels able to withdraw the amendment at the present stage.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord and readily agree to what he has suggested. I hope I am not over-burdening the noble and learned Lord's department; but it would be of considerable assistance if one had an intimation before Report stage that the amendment as it stands is acceptable, or of any suggested amendment. If it is acceptable then it could be tabled at Report stage so that this point is covered. Subject to those remarks, I readily accept what the noble and learned Lord has said, and I regard it as very helpful. I ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Lord Chancellor

I shall try to write to the noble Lord if we manage to overtake all the matters which we have to consider in the time available to do so.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 13 not moved.]

Lord Meston moved Amendment No. 14:

Page 4, line 31, at end insert— ("(8) Subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor, the Board shall establish regional legal services committees which shall be constituted under regulations and which will be given the task of promoting and developing a more efficient and effective use of existing legal resources on a regional basis.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 14 is concerned with the regional distribution of legal services. The hoard itself is inevitably limited in numbers and may well be thought to be over-centralised even if it is able to disperse its administrative functions throughout the country.

The amendment is not merely concerned with administrative functions; it is concerned to provide by committees a positive mechanism to deal with any geographical imbalances in the provision of legal services. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, said earlier this afternoon, the provision of legal services throughout the country is patchy in some areas. It is characterised by overworked urban solicitors and urban law centres and sometimes by sparse rural services trying to meet the reasonable needs of people in an increasingly sophisticated legal framework. The irony is that it is the lower income groups that often encounter the most complex pieces of legislation in regard to the law of social security, housing, consumer credit, immigration and so on.

All those problems mostly arise in areas where there tend to be fewer lawyers because they find there is less for them to do in privately paid work, and less incentive to practise in such areas. By this amendment the Lord Chancellor would be empowered to set up regional committees to assess and to meet local needs.

There exists already the North-West Legal Services Committee which I understand has had the support of the Lord Chancellor's department. That in itself indicates that it has been regarded as a useful and successful committee. This amendment derives its inspiration from the South Wales Legal Services Steering Committee on whose behalf the noble Lord, Lord Parry, spoke with great effect on Second Reading.

The purpose of the amendment is to provide something which I hope is useful to co-ordinate and improve legal services, particularly in deprived areas. I hope it will be seen as a useful adjunct to the powers of the board. It is only an enabling provision but it will put on a statutory basis that which the Lord Chancellor has already done at least in the North-Western area. I beg to move.

Lord Renton

Would the noble Lord agree that what he is proposing here in mandatory terms is very similar to the power given in permissive terms under subsection (1) when read with subsection (4) of Clause 3?

Lord Meston

I am sorry, but would the noble Lord repeat the subsections to which he was referring?

Lord Renton

Subsection (1) and subsection (4) of Clause 3 would enable to be done that which he is making mandatory in his amendment.

Lord Meston

I hope that I am not making anything mandatory. It is subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor and it is therefore intended that committees should not have to be set up in every area but only in those of which the Lord Chancellor approves as suitable for such committees. They certainly will provide positive assistance to the hoard in such areas.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

I support the amendment. As I read the amendment put down by the noble Lord, Lord Meston, the purpose is to put a duty on the board to establish these regional legal services committees, but subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor. It does not appear to me that there is any duplication with the provisions of Clause 3 to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has referred because these are permissive only so far as the board is concerned.

As regards the amendment itself, it starts with the proposition to be found in the Bill in Clause 3(1) that "advice, assistance and representation" may be provided in different ways in different parts of the country. That was a provision which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was invited to explain further in the context of the probing amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Silkin—Amendment No. 9. Having heard the Lord Chancellor's explanation, I feel that this provision makes good sense.

There are differing local needs for particular kinds of advice. I have felt constrained to say on more than one occasion that the provision of advice agencies is haphazard across the country not only in number but in the expertise available. Therefore, it seems to make good sense to allow the board to provide advice, assistance and representation in different ways in different parts of the country according to need.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor gave reasons for resisting Amendment No. 2 which would have required him to have had regard to certain principles. The noble and learned Lord was resistant to that for the reasons that he gave. In appointing members to the board one of the principles in that amendment is representation from different parts of the country. The Lord Chancellor observed that he would not wish people to travel to London from the remotest parts of England to sit on a board which would be essentially a London-based board. There is a good deal of sense in that.

Surely the board cannot function in the manner intended under the Bill unless regional committees are established with local knowledge. Today and earlier in our debates the noble Lord, Lord Renton, drew attention to the geographical division of the country into legal aid authorities. Surely that could be utilised for the regional committee structure proposed by the amendment. The point of the amendment is this: how can a London-based board, to which people from the remoter parts of the country cannot reasonably be expected to travel or to serve on, determine the advice needs of communities, say, in Truro or Bootle? Regional committees would furnish the board with practical advice and information about local needs and the efficiency of its delivery on the ground. For those reasons I support this amendment.

The Lord Chancellor

I know well the work pioneered by what is now the North-West Legal Services Committee, a venture which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, was instrumental in establishing. I also know of representations I have received for the funding of a committee in South Wales.

The North-West Legal Services Committee receives funding through the legal aid administration of the Law Society. Pressure for funding other committees by central government was resisted by my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham when he was Lord Chancellor on the grounds that these were essentially local initiatives and that their development must rest with those in the locality who are directly involved in the provision of legal services.

In my view, the amendment which is now proposed in unnecessary. I do not oppose it on the basis of any antipathy towards the concept of local or regional committees. My reason is that the amendment is unnecessary. The board can fund regional committees or any other type of local committee appropriate to the locality under the general power in Clause 3(2)(b). That power is quite sufficient. Of course, these grants or loans would need my approval and I should need to be convinced that to set up such committees in the particular area was the right course to take.

The board would need to look at this position in the light of all the circumstances as they appear to the board. I certainly think that, as the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Lairg, has pointed out, this clause as drafted is not a completely discretionary clause on the board. It places a duty on the board, with the consent or approval of the Lord Chancellor. That is a slightly hybrid type of obligation. If the Lord Chancellor were to approve, the duty would arise. That seems slightly unusual. However, I make no particular point about that. Rather, I am saying that we already have a very flexible power to do all that is required in this provision. Whether or not that power should be used in this way would be a matter for consideration.

I should like to refer to another point arising out of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. He mentioned my earlier comment about people travelling from remote parts of the country to London. I would not wish to create an inevitable obligation for that to happen. It is conceivable that a person may travel from a remote part of the country to London every week for a multitude of purposes, one of which might be the Legal Aid Board. He might be doing other work as well.

I myself travel quite often from an area which may be regarded as even more remote than any part of England and Wales. I was just illustrating one possible difficulty in placing too inflexible obligations on the Lord Chancellor in the selection of members of the hoard. But I would not wish it to be taken that nobody could be appointed to the board in London from some distant part of England or Wales. The board might be all the better for such appointments, and any consequences that might arise might be well taken.

I hope that in the light of these explanations the noble Lord, Lord Meston, will feel able to accept that his concern, in so far as he wishes the board to have the necessary power, is intended to be covered by the provisions of the Bill, and that he may feel that in these circumstances the amendment might be withdrawn.

Lord Meston

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, for his support. This amendment was intended to provide a precise and useful requirement—albeit in a hybrid form, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has put it—to the benefit of both the board and the public, on the basis that local committees know what is best required in their individual areas. I am reassured by the indication of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that the power under Clause 3(2)(b) can be used to provide grounds for committees if that seems appropriate.

I should have hoped for something more precise, but for present purposes I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 15:

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause:

("Advice and representations by solicitors in magistrates courts.

.—(1) The Board shall make a scheme providing—

  1. (a) for the making, by committees set up under the scheme, of arrangements whereby advice and representation to which this section applies is provided by solicitors in attendance at magistrates' courts; and
  2. (b) for the making, by such committees, of arrangements whereby advice and assistance is provided for persons—
    1. (i) such as are mentioned in section 29 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; or
    2. (ii) arrested and held in custody who—
    1. (a) exercise the right to consult a solicitor conferred on them by section 58(1) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; or
    2. (b) are permitted to consult a representative of a solicitor.

(2) A scheme under subsection (1) above which relates to advice and representation at magistrates' courts may provide that arrangements made under it may be so framed as to preclude solicitors from providing such advice and representation if they do not also provide advice and assistance in pursuance of arrangements made by virtue of a scheme under that section which relates to the provision of advice and assistance for persons such as are mentioned in section 29 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and for persons arrested and held in custody.

(3) A scheme under subsection (1) above applies to such advice and representation in connection with criminal proceedings before magistrates' courts as may be specified by the scheme, being advice and representation for persons, or any class of persons, in respect of whom no legal aid order is for the time being in force in relation to the proceedings in question and to whom advice and assistance in respect of those proceedings is not being given under section 1 of the Principal Act.").

The noble Lord said: When the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill came before Parliament many of us were concerned about some of the powers that were given under that Bill. We were consoled by the knowledge that there was going to be an effective 24-hour scheme for solicitors to be available at police stations and magistrates' courts. This amendment places a duty on the board to continue that very useful scheme. It may be of interest to the Committee to know that that scheme is helping annually approximately 200,000 suspects at police stations.

Having said that, I am even more delighted to report to the Committee that the cost is approximately £16.6 million, when in fact in July 1985 £20 million was the estimate that the then noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said would be available for the scheme.

The purpose of this amendment is to ensure that reference is expressed to the schemes in the Bill, which will emphasise their importance, although I readily concede that arguably the board has power to establish these schemes under Clause 3(1) of the Bill as drafted. I make that point immediately because if I did not the noble Lord, Lord Renton, would immediately rise and tell me that that was so, and he would be correct.

The Lord Chancellor

I should make it absolutely clear at the outset that it is the Government's clear intention that duty solicitor arrangements. both for magistrates' courts and police stations, should continue to operate. The administration of them will be transferred to the board, which may well have its own views on how they should best be organised and run, so I cannot guarantee that the precise details of the present arrangements will stand for all time. What I can, however, say is that this amendment is quite unnecessary to continue the duty solicitor arrangements.

Under the existing legislation, as many noble Lords will know, many of the functions carried out by the Law Society in the legal aid area are based on formal schemes made by the Law Society subject to the Lord Chancellor's approval and that of the Treasury, though not of Parliament. It is a kind of delegated power to make schemes delegated to the Law Society with these two approvals.

The Bill does away with that rather inflexible and rigid framework for schemes. It is one of the points that I had in mind in relation to the wording of the first amendment. We are trying to get away from the idea of these rigid schemes because it is possible to get the same result by more flexible arrangements. So the Bill does away with that inflexibility of requiring schemes, and I should be reluctant to reintroduce that inflexibility unless it were absolutely necessary and shown to be so.

In future the management of the duty solicitor arrangements will be for the board, but regulations will clearly specify that there have to be duty solicitor arrangements for both magistrates' courts and police stations. The Bill as at present drafted enables duty solicitors to be provided under Part III or Part II. Initially at least I would expect them to be provided under the advice and assistance provisions of Part III because that is the more natural place for it to be found. But, at a later stage, the board may well wish to consider making arrangements under the contracting-out powers of Part II. It might well be a suitable type of arrangement for a duty solicitor to have a contracting-out type of provision; a contract with particular people or with a particular centre, say, to provide the necessary services.

This amendment in its present form would deny the flexibility inherent in the proposals made in the Bill. To summarise, the position is that I entirely accept the spirit of the amendment in seeking a continuation of the duty solicitor scheme but not in the form of "scheme" in the very technical sense of the previous legislation. I believe that our present proposals enable these arrangements to continue, to be modified possibly in the light of experience and to be improved either under Part III, the natural place for them, or possibly Part II, as matters develop. I hope that in the light of that explanation the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mishcon

I am much obliged to the noble and learned Lord for much of what he has said. I should like to have the opportunity of consulting and to study what the noble and learned Lord has said. At this stage I would ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Lord Chancellor

Before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment, may I take this chance to say what I should have said on other occasions. If, as a result of such consultations, a point arises that I have not covered, if the noble Lord felt able to draw my attention to it before we come to Report stage, it might save time at that stage, just as he has asked me, if possible, to give him my results.

Lord Mishcon

The noble and learned Lord is always so courteous to others that I should like to reciprocate that courtesy, and I shall certainly do so.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 [Duties of the Board]:

Lord Irvine of Lairg moved Amendment No. 16:

Page 4, line 38, at end insert— ("( ) The Board shall, from time to time, furnish to the Legal Aid Advisory Committee such information as it may require relating to the discharge or proposed discharge of the Board's functions.")

The noble Lord said: The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor made it reasonably plain on Second Reading on 15th December that after a transitional period he might well exercise his power to dissolve the Legal Aid Advisory Committee. The result would be that only the new Legal Aid Board would remain. In that debate the noble and learned Lord, at col. 650, insisted that he desired to retain the benefit of independent comment on the operation of the legal aid system. In particular the noble and learned Lord said: The Legal Aid Advisory Committee has given valuable advice. It will continue to do so during the transitional period, but the Legal Aid Board is charged with giving advice. If we can obtain people of the same quality on the Legal Aid Board, it may be unnecessary duplication to have the Legal Aid Advisory Committee and the Legal Aid Board giving advice. None of those advisory bodies is completely without the need of a little money to keep it going".

As a fellow Scot I see the force of that. The noble and learned Lord continued: On the whole, one would prefer not to have unnecessary wheels on the coach. Therefore, power has been taken in the Bill to dispense with the services of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee after a time, if that should seem right".

It is reasonable to infer that the card of the Legal Aid Advisory Committee has been marked.

While moving this amendment I would invite the noble and learned Lord to consider how consistent this is with his acceptance of the need for him to continue to have the benefit of independent comment—I emphasise the word "independent"—on how the scheme is working. The question is: is it realistic that the Legal Aid Board could ever provide independent comment on the discharge by it of its own functions?

The point is that when the Law Society runs legal aid, the Legal Aid Advisory Committee keeps the Law Society's administration of the scheme under critical scrutiny. Now the new Legal Aid Board is going to run the scheme. Therefore, the simple point which is the background to the amendment is that the Legal Aid Board cannot be a watchdog, in the public interest, over itself. If the Legal Aid Advisory Committee goes, then the Legal Aid Board will be exercising the functions formerly exercised both by the Law Society and the Legal Aid Advisory Committee. There will therefore be no independent body able to give the independent comment which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has assured this House he desires to retain.

Let me emphasise this point by practical example. Time and again, the Legal Aid Advisory Committee has expressed itself in trenchant and critical terms that the scheme is not being administered effectively in the public interest. In its 34th report published in January 1985, the committee expressed its serious concern about gross regional variations in the grant of legal aid, particularly the "striking variations" in allowing the green form £50 limit to be exceeded.

In its report for the next year, 1984–85, the advisory committee had strong things to say about delays in the issue of civil legal aid certificates. It called for the Law Society to establish performance objectives. In its most recent report for 1985–86 the committee was outspoken about delays and accumulating backlogs in the system, while at the same time noting the adverse effect on the administration of the scheme of cash limits and manpower ceilings.

What I would call attention to is this: can it seriously be argued that the Legal Aid Board is going to say this sort of thing about its own administration of the scheme? Independent criticism of administrators comes only from a body independent of the administrators. This amendment is predicated on the advisory committee continuing permanently in being because of the independent watchdog function in the public interest which only it can exercise. The amendment would give it a power to require the new board to give the advisory committee such information about how the board is administering the scheme as the committee requires so as to allow it—the advisory committee—to exercise its watchdog function effectively.

A later amendment, Amendment No. 57 on the Marshalled List, will seek to remove the power to dissolve the committee given to the Lord Chancellor by Clause 33(5), and will further require the Lord Chancellor to refer the Legal Aid Board's annual report to the advisory committee for its consideration and comment on what is contained in that report along with any other comments that the Legal Aid Advisory Committee may choose to make on the whole operation of the scheme.

Meanwhile, this amendment will give the committee a power to require the board from time to time to furnish information to the committee to assist it to fulfil its function of monitoring the operation of the scheme in the public interest. I commend the amendment to the Committee. I beg to move.

Lord Ackner

I should like to support the amendment which I should have thought might have been welcomed by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in order to test whether the Legal Aid Advisory Committee has anything of value to offer. This would precisely achieve that because the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor would then be able to see whether, as a result of the board from time to time furnishing the committee with information, there is a useful feedback from that committee which would justify its existence. I do not want to arm the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor with a reply to a later amendment which I have down and to which my noble friend Lord Irvine has referred. However, I should have thought that it would fortify his resistance to be able to say, "I want to keep the power to abolish the committee in the light of the utility or absence of utility which it demonstrates, having regard to this amendment which obliges the committee to act with the information which it receives". For those reasons I should have thought that this is a sensible amendment.

9 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

The Legal Aid Advisory Committee has been operating for some time, and from the reaction to its reports, which the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and others have expressed, it has been operating satisfactorily to them at least, and I think also to others. It has no power to require the Law Society to furnish such information as it may require. It is perfectly able to operate successfully without such a power. If the Legal Aid Advisory Committee seeks any information from the Law Society it would in the normal course of events without any such power ask for it. If for any reason the information was not forthcoming, it should be possible for the Lord Chancellor to obtain that information if necessary. At the present moment it does not appear to me to be right to give the Legal Aid Advisory Committee a formal power of this kind when it has not proved necessary in relation to the Law Society. The Legal Aid Advisory Committee has functioned perfectly well without such a power.

As to whether the Legal Aid Advisory Committee should be continued indefinitely, perhaps I should keep what I have to say about that until the amendment arises in which that question is to be debated. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, tempts me to answer but I think it is perhaps more appropriate that I should wait to hear the full arguments that my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner and others supporting the amendments will advance. I had better have the whole case against me before I give my reply. That is a wise precaution for people to take in other circumstances and perhaps I should retain that right myself.

At the moment my answer to the amendment before us is that no such power exists at present, the Legal Aid Advisory Committee functions perfectly satisfactorily, there is no reason to think that any such power is necessary for the future, and there is no question that if information were required powers exist to enable it to be provided.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

I am heartened by the support for the amendment that has been offered by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and I see great additional force in the reason that he gave for his support. I have heard the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor say that the power which it is suggested the advisory committee should have in relation to the board is not one which it presently has in relation to the Law Society. If I were generally to accede to that form of reasoning, it would follow that nothing new should ever be done for the first time.?

We attach great importance to the permanent retention of the advisory committee. We shall consider the noble and learned Lord's response to Amendment No. 57 when it is moved. He declines to anticipate his position in relation to it and we shall consider that response along with the limited response that he has made in relation to this amendment. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich moved Amendment No. 17:

Page 5, line 2, after ("cases") insert ("or categories of cases").

The noble and learned Lord said: Clause 4 of the Bill sets out the duties of the board. Subsection (5) provides that: The Board shall have regard, in discharging its functions, to such guidance as may from time to time be given by the Lord Chancellor".

Subsection (6) qualifies subsection (5) by providing that: Guidance under subsection (5) … shall not relate to the consideration or disposal, in particular cases, of— (a) applications for advice, assistance or representation",

or subsequent matters arising where those are available.

The question which is not wholly clear is whether that is intended simply to prevent the Lord Chancellor from giving guidance on individual cases or whether it goes wider than that to classes of case which go beyond the single individual case. On the face of it, it would not seem sensible that he should not have the power greater than the power to deal in this way with cases of various classes or a number of cases of the same kind. The provisions of subsection (6) should therefore be restricted to guidance in individual cases so that only in those cases should the Lord Chancellor be prevented from giving his guidance. I shall be glad to know what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has in mind in relation to this subsection. I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor

The idea of this particular provision is to exclude interference by the Lord Chancellor in a grant or refusal in an individual case. That is the primary thing that is attacked here. The noble and learned Lord's amendment would insert the phrase "or categories of cases". It seems to me at the moment that it might be perfectly appropriate for the Lord Chancellor to give directions in relation to categories of cases, so long as that did not involve guidance in relation to particular cases.

For example, it would be quite wrong for him to say, "Please refuse all applications that come from a certain person or relate to a certain thing". On the other hand, it would seem perfectly reasonable that the Lord Chancellor should say to the board that in matrimonial matters involving children those applications must be given priority. That sort of guidance would seem perfectly feasible. So to exclude guidance in relation to categories of case might well exclude the possibility of guidance that would be perfectly reasonable, and indeed necessary, for the Lord Chancellor to take in the public interest in seeing that the arrangements that the Legal Aid Board made fitted the public interest.

There may be room for some more subtle provision which tries to distinguish between acceptable guidance in categories of case, and non-acceptable guidance in categories of case that the noble and learned Lord's amendment raises. But at the moment I feel that the amendment that he has proposed strikes against guidance that it might be perfectly appropriate to give. Perhaps we both ought to think a bit further about this point.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who seems to have understood the problem here a bit more clearly than I expressed it. I agree with him that any form of words will not be easy to formulate to encompass what we both have in mind. Perhaps if we can both think about it we may be able to come up with something. Meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mishcon moved Amendment No. 18:

Page 5, line 11 at end insert— ("(8) The Board shall consult the Law Society with respect to any proposals or exercise of powers by the Board which, in the opinion of the Board, may have a significant effect on solicitors and shall consult the General Council of the Bar with respect to any proposals or exercise of powers by the Board which, in the opinion of the Board, may have a significant effect on counsel.").

The noble Lord said: At first sight, and I admit it at once, the Committee may feel that this is not a very wise amendment. The Committee may say "Really, do you have to insert in a Bill that the board must consult the Law Society where matters of significance affecting the solicitors' profession are concerned, and must consult with the General Council of the Bar in regard to proposals or powers which the board think might have a significant effect on counsel?" I accept the rebuke which has not yet been uttered and will now try to explain why the rebuke is not deserved.

As the Bill is presently drafted, the Legal Aid Board has only to consult the Lord Chancellor, and the Lord Chancellor has no duty of consultation, save of course the duty to consult with the Treasury, except in relation to the appointment of solicitor members of the board and to remuneration. While that be so, can one from experience say that it all works out very well when no duty to consult in this manner is set out in a Bill?

I have to tell the Committee what has happened in Scotland. Grave concern has been expressed by the legal profession that they have not been sufficiently involved in the reform of the scheme following the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986 and the establishment of the Scottish Legal Aid Board. I am told, and told reliably, that the result has been hasty changes leading to unforeseen consequences. There is a gentleman called Rob Mackenzie of the Law Society of Scotland, who spoke in October 1987 at the National Legal Aid Conference in Liverpool. He said that one of the startling features of the Scottish Act was the speed with which changes were brought in. I give your Lordships some facts.

Between September of that year and 1st April 1987, when the new Scottish Legal Aid Board and the statutory provisions became operative, a complete and revamped framework of secondary legislation required to be drafted and was put out for consultation and comment. I am reliably informed that in some cases a matter of only two or three weeks was allowed for that consultation. What was the result? It was inevitable. Less than six months after the commencement of the new regime the society and the board had a formidable list of proposals for change. There was a Scottish Office news release on 15th December 1987 which announced that a number of the proposals had been conceded.

I shall quote the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right honourable Malcolm Rifkind, QC, MP, who confessed in the following terms: It is clear that the new arrangements require some adjustments to ensure that our objectives for legal aid are being fully achieved … Given the magnitude of the changes introduced in April, it is hardly surprising that there are some areas where improvements are possible. I am grateful to all those who made representations".

The Secretary of State might have said—one is obviously grateful for the appreciation that he expressed—that there might have been no need for the changes if proper consultation had taken place.

I am well aware that the board, as chosen, will consist of people of worth who will realise the need to consult about the matters referred to in the amendment and to do so with both branches of the profession. That will be true of the first board, and I hope it will always be true of its successors. What is the harm if one inserts the provision in this Bill based on the unfortunate experience in Scotland? I utter these words with some fear, bearing in mind that while half of the noble and learned Lord's heart is in this country the other half is in the very country that I have mentioned. I feel that the amendment should be incorporated in the Bill for the reasons that I have tried to give. I beg to move.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Renton

If the Bar and the solicitors were to be represented on the board, presumably it would not be necessary to have consultation of the kind which is envisaged in the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. Nor would it be necessary to have it if the effect on solicitors or barristers respectively were to be favourable to them. Therefore when the amendment refers to "a significant effect" on them, one wonders whether those are the right words.

In any event, I must say that this endless writing into statutes of a duty to consult when consultation would be part of the normal process of administration seems to me to be something that goes too far and is a habit which we should not develop.

The Lord Chancellor

It is fairly apparent these days that good administration, whether by the Lord Chancellor, by the Legal Aid Board or anyone else, requires consultation with those who are affected, and does not need, as my noble friend Lord Renton said, to he constantly written into statutes. The noble Lord. Lord Mishcon, explained what took place in Scotland. All I can say is that one result of the speed with which matters happened in Scotland was that statutory improvements to the Scottish Act, which were seen to he necessary in the light of experience, are set out in Schedule 4 to the Bill. Had it not been done speedily, that opportunity would have been lost and who knows when another opportunity might have arisen.

However, I am not here to defend or comment upon what happened in Scotland except as it may contain some lessons for us. The position as I see it is that consultation about the effects on people of any change, proposal or exercise of power by the board would be proper action for the board to take. I take some exception to the concentration in this amendment on consultation with the Law Society and with the General Council of the Bar.

To the ordinary lay person, represented for example by those to whom my noble friend Lady Faithfull referred, it might give the impression that the Legal Aid Board and the whole of the Legal Aid Bill was for the benefit of solicitors, the Law Society and the General Council of the Bar whereas in fact of course the primary purpose is to provide a service for people of low, small or moderate means. Any change might well affect them so they also should be consulted.

The Committee may think the amendment gives an undue prominence to the interests of the Law Society and the General Council of the Bar. I also take the point that my noble friend Lord Renton made that they are to have the advantage, we hope, of having membership of the board. However, I do not go quite so far as my noble friend. The mere fact that there are people on the board who are members of the Law Society or perhaps members of the Bar or even members of the General Council of the Bar would not I think make it right for the board to proceed on what those members might think was the correct opinion of the effect of any changes on the solicitors' branch as a whole or on the Bar as a whole.

Whatever the constitution of the board, it would still be appropriate for proper consultation to take place in relation to proposals for change. I should think that, on consideration, my noble friend would agree with that.

Lord Renton

Strictly speaking it does not need to he written into the Bill.

The Lord Chancellor

I am greatly obliged. In my view this particular provision, whether or not one depends on that consideration, does not need to be written into the Bill. For the reason that I mentioned a moment ago, I think that it creates a slightly unfortunate impression of the balance of the Bill as a whole. It may be that the noble Lord will feel able in the light of these submissions to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mishcon

I feel that I must at least answer in view of the nature of the objections that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, raised. I was going to say—but the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said it rather better than I could—that emphasis has been placed upon the fact that membership of the board does not mean representation of the interests of the people concerned. One hopes, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said, that this will operate as a unit for the general benefit of mankind, if I may put it that way.

So the mere fact that solicitors and counsel will be represented on the board was not quite an answer to what I have said; nor, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, does he necessarily describe the altruistic attitude of the Law Society and, I am sure, of the General Council of the Bar, when he says that one need not necessarily consult a particular body when one is doing something which is very favourable to the profession. I hope that my profession is sufficiently altruistic to say that we are being given too much.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

I do not think so.

Lord Mishcon

The noble and learned Lord is amazed at that remark and finds it a matter for some jollification; but I assure him that that really is the attitude of my profession. I am sure that he can speak for his profession. I say that with some seriousness because quite obviously what may be deemed to be very favourable to the profession would be seen by it to be too favourable if another aspect is being ignored and is being sacrificed by virtue of the benefit which is being offered. That may be a matter that quite obviously should be discussed and be the subject of consultation, whether it be favourable or unfavourable.

I must deal with the point of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor about the amendment looking as though the whole interest to be safeguarded was that of the law. I think that possibly the Opposition is the one place where no such suggestion ought to be faced fairly, since we are the ones who are responsible, together with others such as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, for seeing to it that the interests of all parties are represented on the board. We have talked about the consumer, the Citizens' Advice Bureaux and other bodies. We have obviously tried to safeguard their interests. It is the legal profession who will have to carry out the duties of the Legal Aid Act. Therefore, we thought that such consultation was very necessary; it was not supposed to be of a selfish character.

If I am told, as the noble and learned Lord has said, that that is not a desirable result, in spite of the fact that I tried to give reasons as to why it should happen, I naturally want to think about his remarks. In the circumstances, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich moved Amendment No. 19:

Page 5, line 11, at end insert— ("(8) The Board shall ensure that legal representation shall be available in any proceedings before any court, tribunal or statutory inquiry where in the opinion of the Board—

  1. (i) a significant point of law arises;
  2. (ii) evidence is likely to be so complex or specialised that the average layperson could reasonably wish for expert help in assembling and evaluating the evidence and its testing or interpretation;
  3. (iii) a test case arises;
  4. (iv) deprivation of liberty or the ability of an individual to follow his occupation is at stake; or
  5. (v) the proceedings are before the immigration appeal tribunal, social security commissioners or the vaccine damage tribunal.").

The noble and learned Lord said: This is a particularly important amendment. It is regrettable that inevitably it has come at a time when the Chamber is looking a little bare. I am sure that many Members of the Committee would have wished to consider the amendment and take part in the discussion.

The amendment raises the question of representation before tribunals and statutory inquiries. The provision of legal aid in those cases has been advocated by many persons and bodies over a considerable period of time. Among them are the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid which has made proposals which. to a large extent, are echoed in the amendment. It has repeatedly pressed for an extension of legal aid to tribunals, as have the Law Society and other bodies. The restrictions on that provision which the amendment proposes follow the ideas of the advisory committee.

The amendment falls short of granting a general extension of legal aid to tribunals. It requires the board to ensure that legal aid is generally available to tribunals if—but only if—in the opinion of the board there is a particularly strong necessity for it. It sets out categories of cases where it is likely that that necessity will arise. It goes a little further in that under paragraph (v) there is a provision for proceedings before certain tribunals—the immigration appeal tribunal, social security commissioners or the vaccine damage tribunal—where it can be assumed, in our view, that the matters will be of such importance that representation ought to be available.

Some legal advice and representation is a vital element in the provision of justice. I am sure that we all have no doubts about that. That is so irrespective of the identity of the court or tribunal which is entrusted with the dispensation of justice in any particular case. The potential damage to the individual who is unrepresented before tribunals or at statutory inquiries is potentially as great as or greater than that which arises before the courts of justice.

It is difficult to see what possible logic there is, if indeed there is any logic, in a system which excludes from tribunals, inquiries and other bodies representation under the legal aid scheme for cases in which damage may be very great and the issues involved very complicated and complex—questions of law, fact and evidence—when legal aid is available in relatively simple cases involving comparatively little damage to individuals which happen to come before the court. The only justification that can be given for that distinction is the hard logic of cost to the public and the way in which the legal aid system has developed. But the hard logic of cost undoubtedly creates its own injustice.

This amendment recognises the cost factor. That is why it seeks to limit the extension of the proposed new facility to the most important and difficult cases—those which are most deserving of the provision of representation or those who are unable to afford to be represented themselves; cases, indeed, in which in many instances the other side may be a statutory authority that has no difficulty in obtaining representation or a large company which is well represented when it comes across a case of some difficulty.

I accept entirely that there may be cases of which it may be said that it is better for there not to be representation at all. But no representation at all is not the same thing as one side being represented in a way which is inevitably unfair to the other side. It is that situation that this amendment seeks to end, but only in cases where one can justify by the nature of the case the importance to the individual concerned of being represented. In my submission to the Committee, at the very least this amendment presents the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor with the strongest case that he can have to put to his Cabinet colleagues; namely the argument that they should depart from the inflexibility that was displayed in the White Paper, which said that there should not be extension to tribunals. I hope that he will welcome and seize that opportunity. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m

Lord Renton

I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord would be so good as to explain why he has raised this matter at this stage—admittedly under the heading "Duties of the Board"—when it might have been more appropriate to have raised it under Clause 14, which deals with availability of representation.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

We certainly thought it quite appropriate to raise the issue under the duties of the board. It will be for the board to decide whether in its opinion one of the conditions of precedent which are set out in paragraphs (i) to (v) arise. That would be a function of the board entirely consistent with its general function of deciding whether there should be representation or advice in other cases.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to look sympathetically and approvingly at this amendment. It has always struck me as exposing a tremendous lacuna in the arrangements for legal aid where before tribunals—and we have a multiplicity of them—parties are represented fully on one side by an array of counsel who raise important matters of law and matters of importance to the individual before the tribunal. Yet it is a one-sided process.

At one stage, trade unions preferred to undertake this procedure through their own experienced spokesmen. That is a phase which has long since passed. Now, even though skilled men—of whom the noble and learned Lord may have had a little experience—have done their work well in the past, the inequality of representation before tribunals on matters of very great importance to the individual concerned is becoming more apparent and more unsatisfactory.

Without going into the detail of the matter. I urge the importance of acceptance or at least an undertaking to look at this matter which has been raised by authorities in this field. It is high time, in a period of proliferation of tribunals, when so much is done outside the courts which is of increasing importance to the individual subject, that we consider whether we can fill in some way, if only modestly, the gap which now undoubtedly exists in this field.

Lord Ackner

Perhaps I may add a short comment on this point. As my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor knows, very often great costs are run up in appeals where, if the case had been argued competently in the first instance, no appeal would have been necessary. If in this field one is concerned with public expenditure—and it is probably only in this field that one is so concerned—one should hear in mind that money well spent at an early stage can often prevent quite unnecessary expenditure at a later stage.

Lord Meston

With respect, perhaps I may take up that last point and support it. This is an important amendment. I suggest that the extension of legal aid in some form or other to tribunals would be valuable and possibly cost-effective. I have some experience of industrial tribunal cases. I suggest that to enable legal representation in more cases, certainly before industrial tribunals, would lead to more cases being settled, or abandoned when they are utterly hopeless as indeed far too many of them are.

The existing ACAS and interlocutory procedures in industrial tribunal cases do not deter the unarguable case. They do not prevent a great number of cases being pursued to a full hearing when, had there been proper advice at an early stage, the applicant would have been saved a great deal of disappointment and the respondent—usually his employer or former employer—would have been saved a great deal of expense and trouble.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, has said, the effective presentation of cases at an early stage will inevitably be of benefit and will shorten cases before tribunals, some of which go on for far too long.

I see one problem in the amendment. When monetary sums are awarded, typically the amounts recovered before tribunals are small—surprisingly small in some cases. Indeed, the applicants themselves are often surprised at how little they are able to recover. The cost provisions are such that orders for costs in favour of the successful party are seldom made by tribunals. It follows that if there was representation under the legal aid scheme, the statutory charge would bite and would probably swallow up most of what was recovered. It would therefore be necessary to provide some measure of exemption from the operation of the statutory charge if the amendment, or something like it, were to come into force.

The Lord Chancellor

I accept there is no doubt that some times, if cases were better prepared in a lower court, the result would save unnecessary expense. I may be wrong, but I have come across a case or two of which that might be said in which there was legal representation. If one could incorporate that with legal representation, perhaps the point that my noble and learned friend makes might be powerful. As it is we have to see whether the amendment focuses on cases of that sort.

So far as I can see, the amendment would apply to any form of tribunal, statutory inquiry or court. It would apply to a defamation action in which some important point of law arose or which was a test case for one or more actions of defamation. As I said earlier, up to now it has been accepted that defamation actions should not be covered by legal aid. That would be an innovation in itself. But the fundamental point about the amendment is that the distinction between tribunals and statutory inquiries on the one hand and the ordinary courts of law on the other is that tribunals and statutory inquiries are set up specially for particular purposes. Matters are taken from the ordinary courts so that specialised attention may be given to them by persons who have special qualifications to deal with such matters.

The whole thrust of the great increase in such tribunals and statutory inquiries—I shall not pause to try to trace the history of that growth or the particular administrations under which it arose— indicates that the justification advanced was that these tribunals offered a specialised service and therefore were not dependent in anything like the same way as ordinary courts on the arguments advanced by the parties on one side or the other in the shape of representations of law. A tribunal is supposed to be familiar with the law and able to apply it.

The amendment has the exceptional quality that it would apply to every court, tribunal or statutory inquiry and therefore there would be no kind of threshold test. The administration of the board would be required to look into applications in every possible kind of court, tribunal or statutory inquiry to see whether, for example, a significant point of law arises, whatever that might mean; perhaps one which is significant as distinct from any other point of law. The evidence is likely to be so complex or specialised that the average lay person could reasonably wish for expert help in assembling and evaluating the evidence and its testing or interpretation. One can understand that it would largely apply, for example, to the planning inquiry field. I think that any substantial planning inquiry would have that character. As far as I understand, all of these headings are options. If one or more of the headings apply, legal aid would become available and therefore a tremendous field is being opened up.

Paragraph (iv) of the amendment reads:

"deprivation of liberty or the ability of an individual to follow his occupation is at stake".

I am not clear what is meant by the latter part of that provision. Paragraph (v) appears to be different and appears to give a complete right to legal aid in respect of the immigration appeal tribunal, social security commissioners and the vaccine damage tribunal. That appears to fit strangely into the principle, if there is a principle, in the early part of the amendment.

As some Members of the Committee have pointed out, this matter has been discussed for some time. When my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham was Lord Chancellor he made arrangements for his department to commission research into the effectiveness of representation at tribunals. My experience of some tribunals suggests to me that perhaps one is better without legal representation on occasion. I have vivid recollections of appearing for the rating officer in Scotland in valuation appeal committees. The most successful applicants to those committees were not those who came along with learned senior counsel, or arrays of distinguished counsel, but the lady who came along with a baby in her arms and briefly stated her position. She usually went away with more by way of success than did those who came equipped with dazzling and perhaps expensive counsel to support their application.

Perhaps lawyers such as myself are apt to assume that if one has the benefit of a lawyer one necessarily has the benefit of a better result. I would be the last person to underestimate the value of a lawyer's services. On the other hand, when one is examining a question as important as this, it is wise to see whether legal representation overall makes any substantial difference to the result of tribunals.

The research is going ahead and is concentrating on social security, mental health, industrial and immigration tribunals. We hope to have the results of the research early in 1989; it is a fairly thorough examination. However, I cannot accept this amendment at present and nor can I reasonably give any encouragement that I shall be in a position to accept it at any time during the currency of the proceedings on this Bill.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

At this hour of the night I would not think of seeking to test the opinion of the Committee. However, we may wish to return to this matter at a later stage, perhaps with a better drafted amendment. The noble and learned Lord's objections seem to be largely devoted to the wording of the amendment and to particular parts of it, although the White Paper is much more robust in opposing the general concept of extension. However, we shall consider that issue.

I should like to comment on the noble and learned Lord's observation that it is sometimes better not to be represented before tribunals. Of course it is sometimes better not to be represented but in general—particularly if the other side is a powerful body which is represented—it is difficult to persuade the unrepresented person that that is so.

What the noble and learned Lord said does not apply only to tribunals in so far as it applies at all. I well remember a long divorce case that I fought unsuccessfully before the High Court. My client could not afford to brief counsel for the Court of Appeal and he was not eligible for legal aid. I told him that in my view he had a very good case and that he could do it himself. He did so far more successfully than I did in the court below. Cases of that kind happen, but it would be a very sad reflection on the purpose and advantages of legal aid if one were to accept that that is a generality that one ought to regard as usually applying in tribunal cases. However, at this hour of the night, I do not believe it is profitable to pursue the matter, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Lord Elwyn-Jones moved Amendment No. 20:

After Clause 4, insert the following new clause:

("Regional Legal Services Committees.

.—(1) The Board shall establish regional committees for legal services, composed of appropriate groups of legal aid areas or any parts of legal aid areas.

(2)The said committees shall consist of bodies representative of the consumers and providers of legal and advice services and local authorities in each region, and other people interested in the work of the committees.

(3)The said committees shall ensure and facilitate the development of legal and advice services.

(4)The said committees shall advise the Board upon regional needs for legal advice, assistance and representation and the Board shall exercise its powers and duties under this Act with due regard to such advice.

(5)The Board shall provide financial and other resources to the regional committees for the performance of their obligations.")

The noble and learned Lord said: This amendment would require the establishment of regional legal services committees along the lines of the existing North-West Services Committee and, if I may say so, of a committee in South Wales which, however, is impoverished, although for some reason the North-West body is not. However, both do excellent work in the locality.

One of the problems in the legal aid field is the unequal availability of legal aid as between one district and another. It has been found, and legal aid annual reports have indicated, that locally based legal services committees make a valuable contribution in the regional development of legal services. They are particularly useful in identifying unmet needs. in pioneering new schemes for the provision and delivery of legal services and, indeed, in co-ordinating the provision of services in their areas.

Clause 3 (1) of the Bill, it would seem, confers on the Legal Aid Board power to establish such committees. The subsection states: Subject to the provisions of this Act, the Board may do anything

  1. (a) which it considers necessary or desirable to provide or secure the provision of advice, assistance and representation under this Act.".

It is therefore a broad enough provision to cover the financing of regional legal services committees.

I have had very eloquent letters from South Wales about the work that the South Wales Legal Services Steering Group does, for which we are grateful in those parts. The North-West Legal Services Committee has a proven record of bringing together all those concerned with the administration of justice and the provision of legal services to achieve improvements. I am told, for example, that the committee pioneered what has now become the ALAS scheme. I hope it is not the "alas" scheme because that sounds too desperate a situation for me to call in aid, and I hope I shall not be pressed to say what ALAS stands for. However, whatever it stands for, it is a scheme which has organised experiments for delivering legal services to prisoners. It has published directories of advice services in the locality and it is the kind of service which can be rendered by these local groups. Other committees exist in the North-East, and for some time I have received letters from them and also from South Wales.

The Law Society in its response to the legal aid efficiency scrutiny, said that regional committees: would play a key role in co-ordinating legal services".

It is thought that that role is particularly crucial if the Government are to press ahead with their plans to hive-off parts of the green form advice scheme. This is a situation which has concerned the Law Society and this is one of the stop-gap measures which it believes will be particularly useful if that occurs.

On any view it seems important to ensure the spread of availability of legal aid and legal services across the country and that there should be a willingness to set up these regional legal services committees dedicated to looking after the interests, above all, of the people in their own region. There are some regions which are badly neglected and which sorely need such facilities. I cannot believe that it would involve any great expenditure. We believe that it would be a valuable addition to the administration of the legal aid scheme. I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor

I have already made comment on the North-West Legal Services Committee, and I have also referred to the South Wales Steering Group for such a committee and its eloquent desire for help.

I have already explained that power to do what is suggested in this amendment is available to the board subject to the approval of the Lord Chancellor. I also sought to explain that it is a matter of seeing what is required in the view of the board when the board is set up. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, will feel that the answer I gave to the earlier amendment may be something to be taken into account in answering this one. I certainly do not see a need to add anything on these lines to the Bill when the Bill already covers a discretionary power to the board to make provisions on the lines that the amendment seeks to provide.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I confess that I was not giving my undivided attention to the earlier consideration of this matter. I therefore may have let something very important pass by in the odd moments when one is allowed relaxation. I shall bring no tears to anyone's eyes but I have sat in this Chamber since three o'clock in the afternoon. If I have missed something which was said earlier, I apologise. I invite a serious look at this provision, otherwise I shall be unable to go to South Wales again. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 5 and 6 agreed to.

The Earl of Arran

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.