HL Deb 10 July 1990 vol 521 cc187-9

7.35 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord MacKay of Clashfern) rose to move, that the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved—[21st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the Motion standing in my name relates to the draft Legal Advice and Assistance (Scope) (Amendment) Regulations 1990 which extend the scope of the Assistance by Way of Representation (ABWOR) Scheme to cover appeals against closure orders made under Section 10A of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and to include the remaining cases under the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act 1960. Unlike the green form, which is generally available unless excluded by regulations, ABWOR is only available to the extent the regulations provide. These draft regulations before us today specify two areas where ABWOR will now be available if they are approved.

The Statutory Instrument rectifies an omission from the last ABWOR regulations made in March 1989. Inadvertently the reference to the Matrimonial Proceedings (Magistrates' Courts) Act 1960 was left out of the 1989 regulations. I am grateful to the Law Society for pointing out that, although the 1960 Act has been repealed—which was a ground for taking out the reference—applications for variation of orders under that Act may still be made. ABWOR has always been available for these proceedings and no change of policy has been intended. This amendment now restores the position.

The extension to appeals under Section 10A of the Fire Precautions Act 1971 is, however, new. The Act was amended in 1987 to give fire officers the power to order the immediate closure of multi-occupation buildings where there is a serious risk to safety. This means that fire authorities now have the power to make closure orders against the occupiers of a building including domestic tenants. The effect of an order is to force the tenants to leave the closed premises immediately. Failure to do so can be punished by a fine or imprisonment. Appeal against a closure order lies to the magistrates' court.

As I have explained, ABWOR is only available in specific proceedings if regulations so provide. No regulations were made for this purpose in 1987. I believe that this was because it was not then contemplated that the powers in the Act would be used directly in respect of domestic tenants as opposed to the landlord of the premises in question. The first case involving domestic tenants has only recently come before the court. Since a tenant in this situation may be at risk either of losing his home or of incurring a fine or imprisonment for non-compliance with an order, it is clearly right that provision for legal assistance should be available where necessary. The amendment to the regulations will have that effect.

I am grateful to the learned judge who presided in that case for pointing out that in his view this was a clear case in which legal aid should be available. I hasten to accept his advice and this particular part of the regulations has come forward accordingly. These are important yet brief extensions of the scope of the scheme. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, as always the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for the clarity with which he explained these draft regulations. For the benefit of noble Lords who heard the word "ABWOR" and wondered what it meant, perhaps I may explain that it is an abbreviation for "Assistance by Way of Representation". I am sure that all noble Lords present knew that perfectly well, but I thought I should explain that I knew it also.

The noble and learned Lord would be disappointed if, after saying that these regulations are very proper and that we should approve them this evening, I did not take the opportunity briefly to remind him and the House of the great need that there is For ABWOR—if I may use that extraordinary abbreviation again—in matters of great social need.

The noble and learned Lord will not be surprised if I at once refer to appearances before the Social Security Commission. In almost all cases the Government are represented by the legal department of the Ministry. But the legal aid for the people who come before that commission—who are usually people in great need to whom the decision that is to be made is of great import—does not extend to representation for them.

I conclude by mentioning another group of people. They are the people who appear before the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. Those are matters not necessarily of life and death, but certainly matters where life will either be improved or made very miserable. It may be a question of joinder of families, or whatever, before the appeals tribunal in the vital matter of immigration but there is no right of representation through legal aid.

As I said, the noble and learned Lord will not be surprised that I mention those two priorities. I could mention others but, acceding to his request that the House pass the regulations, I ask him not to forget the two I have cited. I express the hope that it will not be too long before we hear that the noble and learned Lord is bringing forward regulations to cover those matters.

With those words, we on these Benches certainly approve of the regulations which the noble and learned Lord has brought before the House.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for supporting my Motion. Of course, I would be delighted to be in a position to extend legal aid further than it presently extends and perhaps the first area that he mentioned is an important priority in that connection.

However, I have to say that this depends on resources being made available. The level of resources that the present legal aid scheme takes is high and each year becomes higher. I have looked, with assistance, at the present scheme to see whether some of the money presently available could be used in other ways as suggested by the noble Lord. So far I have not seen any way of accommodating more within the level of expenditure that we have.

Your Lordships know that I am looking generally at eligibility, not behind closed doors, as some professional bodies would say, but with very open doors. I am extremely anxious to have any good suggestions that may be made. I particularly welcome suggestions which might help us to improve the structure of the present system in such a way as to accommodate more within it but without an undue increase in resources. With those words, I commend the regulations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.35 p.m.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.43 to 8.35 p.m.]