HL Deb 22 October 1992 vol 539 cc846-8

3.18 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the estimated cost of legal aid in the current year, and what is the anticipated cost next year.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, the provision in the Estimates for legal aid this year is £858 million. It is likely that the final total expenditure will be greater than that and parliamentary approval for a Supplementary Vote will be sought in due course. The anticipated cost for next year will be published in due course along with the rest of the Government's expenditure plans.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that extremely interesting Answer. Is he happy that so large an item of public expenditure should occur this year with the possibility, as I understand it, of an increase next year? Does he have any proposals for restricting that expenditure which, however worthy, is surely not entitled to the highest priority?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, obviously this is a matter of public expenditure which requires to be considered with other items in keeping public expenditure as a whole under control. I must consider carefully what must be done in that connection.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, what action is being taken to amend the present unsatisfactory solution in helping those who need aid and those who are prejudiced by it?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the scheme presently in operation as approved by Parliament is not perfect; on the other hand, it gives a measure of help in an increasing number of cases. The effect of legal aid granted to one side is that it may be more difficult for the other side to recover costs as it would be in the ordinary course of events if the other side were successful. However, that is an incidence of the scheme that is difficult to eliminate.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the provision of justice for our citizens is of the highest priority? Does he accept that a discussion of this matter, including the figures spent on legal aid, should in fairness include the remarks of the chairman of the Legal Aid Board who, giving the reasons for the increase, said, Problems caused by the recession have increased both the need for legal help in certain fields and the numbers of people eligible for legal aid. Solicitors arc speeding up cases. Payments have been made earlier because of efforts by courts and the board to speed up cases, taxations and determinations? I am sure the noble and learned Lord will agree that it is desirable that solicitors should speed up cases.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it would certainly be right to take account of those three items. The noble Lord stopped reading just before giving the final reason of Mr. Pitts when he said finally that, costs of individual cases have continued to rise above the rate of inflation". That is an important factor to which we must also direct our attention. We need to bear in mind all those reasons.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that as far back as written records extend it has been a major object of government policy, both in his country and in mine, to encourage those who believe themselves wrongly accused or vexed to have recourse to the courts and not to violence? Does the noble and learned Lord agree that that is an objective of the highest priority and that if any reductions in legal aid should endanger that objective it could have the effect of increasing and not reducing public expenditure?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I agree that the rule of law is preferable to any kind of mob rule or rule by violence. However, the costs associated with preserving the rule of law are costs covered by public expenditure in relation to legal aid. The overall needs of the nation in connection with the control of that type of expenditure must be kept in view when one is considering what it is reasonable to allocate to that aid.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that commendable though it is to try to reduce the level of money spent on legal aid, or at any rate to ensure that it is properly spent, the methods which have been used have resulted in large numbers of solicitors now refusing to undertake legal aid work? Those solicitors still undertaking the work are doing it in many cases for a remuneration the hourly rate of which is less than the cost of running their offices. Members of the Bar are increasingly declining to carry out legal aid work because the central taxation units are in many cases failing to pay for periods of up to a year. Will the noble and learned Lord give an undertaking that those problems are being addressed now and will be addressed effectively?

Will the noble and learned Lord also reassure the House that in future there will be no resiling from the basic underlying principle of legal aid which is that those who need to be represented before the law should be able to be represented even if they cannot pay for that themselves?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, within my experience there is no question of being able to reduce the cost of legal aid. On the contrary it rises inexorably year after year. As regards the numbers of solicitors carrying out legal aid work, we do not have separate figures for the total number of solicitors but the number of officers receiving payment has reduced over the years but only by a fairly small extent. The central taxation teams deal with extremely large claims in many cases. They are dealing with taxpayers' money when they certify money for payment. Therefore the claims that are submitted must be scrutinised with care. I have done what I can to speed up that process and I shall continue my efforts in that regard but it is by nature a complicated process. I have introduced a system of standard fees which eliminates to a great extent unnecessary administration. I hope that I have the support of the noble Baroness in taking that step.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that part of the essence of the problem of criminal legal aid is a simple want of competence on the part of the prosecuting authorities? There are long trials, multi-count indictments and many defendants. Those trials continue for months and months to the exhaustion of the jury and to the tedium of the judge. There are often many acquittals, if not total acquittals. The prosecuting authorities might consider returning to the practice that was adopted when I was a young man at the Bar when they took independent advice of the highest order at some cost on how to draft indictments, how to split trials and have short trials. Would it not be a good idea if the prosecuting authorities applied to the independent Bar to assist them in this regard?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the House will understand that I do not have responsibility to Parliament for the prosecuting authorities. That is a matter for the Attorney-General. However, I am aware that a number of cases that have taken some time to progress have been prosecuted in court by members in private practice at the Bar who are colleagues of my noble friend. Many of those people have a high reputation at the criminal Bar and they act sometimes for the prosecution and sometimes for the defence.