HL Deb 31 March 1993 vol 544 cc889-92

2.45 p.m.

The Earl of Selkirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the rules governing legal aid are identical in England and Scotland.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, legal aid is the means whereby citizens on low and modest income can be given access to the legal system. In seeking to achieve that objective, the detailed provisions for legal aid in Scotland and England vary in order to reflect the differences between the Scottish and English legal systems.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I ask the Question because I know that the Law Society of Scotland has been worried about changes. It is a matter entirely for the noble and learned Lord. However, perhaps he will arrange to have communication with the Law Society of Scotland on the subject at the appropriate time.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I shall be happy to communicate further with the Law Society of Scotland. I have met with the president on a number of occasions. Recently I gave evidence before a Select Committee in another place at which the representatives of the law society were present. I believe that they appreciate the basis on which there is a separate but real concern in Scotland about the growth of the amount of legal aid that has to be paid out. The number of grants of civil legal aid has continued to rise and has risen particularly fast during the course of the past year. I consider it only appropriate that against that background some restriction in the total growth of legal aid is right.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister two questions. First, will he state how the cuts in the legal aid provision throughout the United Kingdom, which deprive at least some people of access to the courts, can be reconciled with the Government's Citizen's Charter as it applies to the courts system and the Government's vision, or perhaps delusion, of a classless society? Secondly, will the Government give a breakdown of the daily cost of prosecutions in Scotland in the sheriff courts and the High Court and the daily cost of civil litigation in both those courts? Will he indicate what proportion of those costs are borne out of the legal aid fund?

If the Minister cannot provide those details—I appreciate that he probably cannot at this stage—will he undertake to make those figures public in due course so that the people in Scotland can see whether his assertions about the cost of legal aid in Scotland are true? Indications were given to me that within the legal aid scheme in Scotland £16 million of awards were recovered and £16 million of expenses were recovered. That indicates that the system is working effectively in Scotland and that there is no reason for the cuts.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as the noble Lord appreciates, the detailed figures of the costs per day of prosecutions in the sheriff courts and the High Court in Scotland are not immediately at my fingertips. However, I shall do what I can to provide him with those details.

Responsible government have to balance what they spend. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has indicated that in England and Wales he anticipates yet further substantial increases in the legal aid budget in the next year amounting to about £1,284 million. It is a considerable sum. Comparably in Scotland we envisage that there will be some very considerable increases in expenditure. I believe that in both countries the anticipation is that over the next three years the rise in the cost of legal aid may be about 40 per cent. Therefore while both my noble and learned friend and I have on our respective sides of the Border sought to introduce some changes to reduce what we spend, it will be a reduction in the growth of legal aid, not of the total sum.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend say whether the demand for legal aid is more fully met in Scotland or in England?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I do not believe that I can answer that question. All I can tell my noble friend is that on both sides of the Border the demand for civil legal aid and for criminal legal aid is regularly increasing.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that as a mental health patient in receipt of invalidity benefit is now no longer eligible for the green form scheme because the invalidity benefit is slightly higher than the income support limit that has been set, mental health patients detained in mental institutions who wish to appeal to a mental health tribunal will have to pay between £500 and £800 costs?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I do not believe that I can answer the question specifically in relation to England. I can indicate that in such circumstances an individual might have to make a contribution, but it would be a very small one. It would not deprive him of access to legal advice and assistance or legal aid.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, in view of the answer given by the Minister, are both he and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor riding a Treasury tandem, paying no attention to the interests of justice in the community?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

No, my Lords. I think that on previous occasions I have made clear to the noble Lord that there has been a real increase in expenditure on legal aid in Scotland. Quite independently, once that was brought to my attention, it seemed to me right that we should introduce some measure to restrict the growth in the amount of legal aid paid, but not to reduce the total amount. That will continue to rise by some 40 per cent. for the next three years.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, quite apart from the difference between the application of legal aid in Scotland and in England, there is a great difference in the cost? It appears that in civil legal aid, the cost per case is about £800 in Scotland and £1,600 in England. The money spent per head of population is much less in Scotland. Is that because of the competence of the Scottish legal system and Scottish lawyers, or is it because they are not as greedy as their English counterparts?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord would be surprised if he thought that I would follow him down that route.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that much of the cost is on account of the many adjournments and the waste of the courts' time? Will he consider disallowing legal aid costs when they result from adjournments?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I have no doubt whatever that considerable sums of money are wasted as a result of adjournments and because witnesses do not turn up. But whether there is any realistic way in which a penalty can be imposed as regards the payment of legal aid in such circumstances is more problematic.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the legal profession and many of the people who have to use its services are concerned about the different levels of legal aid in non-criminal instances? To them, there seems to be no good reason why the levels should vary, yet in some cases the legal aid provided seems to be generous while in others it is not quite so generous. Will the Government contact the legal profession to discuss that aspect of legal aid?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, all I can indicate to the noble Lord is that while there are some differences in eligibility levels, depending on the types of cases, where there are differences I should have thought that they were welcome. However, it is certainly a matter that I am prepared to consider.

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