HL Deb 14 June 1993 vol 546 cc1217-8

2.57 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will refer the policies in the purchasing of legal services by the various prosecuting authorities and the criminal legal aid authorities to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, the purchasing policy of any prosecuting authority which forms part of central Government is a matter for the authority itself, subject to overall government policy. Even if the Government were aware of abuses, which they are not, those would be best dealt with directly. Similar considerations apply to the criminal legal aid authority. A reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would be neither necessary nor appropriate.

Lord Spens

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware—I imagine that he must be—that three weeks ago he lost an appeal in the Queen's Bench Division from a leading defence counsel who wished to be paid at least the same rate as the junior barrister on the prosecuting side? Is he aware also that the payment of exorbitant fees to prosecution counsel and niggardly fees to defence counsel—I have personal experience of both—is one of the underlying causes of unacceptable delay in the criminal system?

Does not the noble and learned Lord think also that the quantum of the prosecution pay-outs is unlikely to encourage the much-vaunted barristerial independence? Consequently, the problem may be at the root of many of our more infamous miscarriages of justice, another of which was exposed last Friday. In all, does he not think it is time that there was a thorough professional investigation so that we can all see the facts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not believe that the basis of payment to those who act for the prosecuting authorities contributes to miscarriages of justice. The responsibilities of those who prosecute and defend are distinct and the appropriate payments for them may therefore differ. In a recent case, which may be the one to which the noble Lord referred, it was made clear that it is appropriate to have some regard to what was paid to the other side in considering what is appropriate to the side in question.

Lord Peston

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to clarify some aspects of his answer. Am I wrong in assuming that the lawyers in these cases would charge what the market would bear and that therefore, if one were dealing with a narrow group of lawyers, one could certainly end up with very high fees indeed? Would it not then be reasonable for the prosecuting authorities, which, after all, are public authorities in many cases, to look at the wider public interest? I speak as an entire layman on this matter, but did the noble and learned Lord say that he thought that there was no role generally for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or no role in this specific case?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I said that I did not think that reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would be either necessary or appropriate. As the noble Lord may recollect, the Director General of Fair Trading has a role in giving advice to the designated judges—the heads of division and myself—in relation to the consideration of who should have rights of audience in the courts. Therefore, this aspect to which the noble Lord has referred is taken account of appropriately in considering who should be regarded as qualified to present such cases either for the prosecution or for the defence.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is this a matter which will fall within the remit of the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the Royal Commission has a very wide remit. We are awaiting its report with great interest and we hope that it will come quite soon. As I said, it has a very wide remit. There is no particular reference to this matter in it but I have no doubt that matters of this kind will have come before its consideration. The noble Lord, Lord Spens, has drawn some of these matters to the attention of the Royal Commission in the evidence which he has submitted.