HL Deb 13 July 1994 vol 556 cc1813-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to restrain the growth in the cost of legal aid to the taxpayer.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Rodger of Earlsferry)

My Lords, the Government are taking many measures to control the growth in legal aid expenditure. These are set out in the Management Statement for the Legal Aid Board and the Lord Chancellor's Department's Strategic Plan, copies of which are available in the Library.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, notwithstanding that, is my noble and learned friend aware that legal aid is being provided in some very expensive cases— notably that of Hashim v. The Arab Monetary Fund, where the costs run into millions? Is there any indication that the Government are prepared to cut out the grant of legal aid in these expensive cases where large sums of money are involved and there is no question of poverty or relief?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, your Lordships and my noble friend will appreciate that the present scheme must be applied in any existing case. My noble friend raised the question of whether something should be done to adjust the scheme. The type of case to which my noble friend referred—that is the Hashim case but there have been a number of others—obviously raises questions as to whether some adjustments in the regulations are appropriate. On the other hand, it is not a matter which can be rushed, and obviously my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has it under consideration.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does the Minister recall the Question that was raised in the House some weeks ago relating to the Iranian gentleman who had received £4 million in legal aid? Is he aware of a report in last weekend's responsible press that further substantial sums of money are to be made available to that gentleman in order that he can continue his court case? It is a financial case, but I understand that fraud is alleged. Does the Minister believe that the Answers that he gave on that occasion and today satisfy people that there has been equal treatment in the allocation of funds for legal aid as regards the citizens of this country when a non-British national is afforded sums of money on this scale? When will the Government do something about it instead of just talking about it?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, the legal aid fund is available to provide legal aid to any person who fulfils the criteria and who is involved in litigation in England and Wales. That includes people from overseas. As I said on a previous occasion, there are to some extent comparable schemes elsewhere to which British nationals have access. But the question raised by the noble Lord is whether in this case the payments have been properly made. On the previous occasion I indicated that the matter was carefully looked at and that eligibility was assessed by the benefit agency. There are mechanisms for an investigation of these matters. In the event of Dr. Hashim being successful in the litigation, there are mechanisms for those sums of money to be recovered by the Legal Aid Fund. Your Lordships must be satisfied that the matter is being properly conducted.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the Minister must understand—

Noble Lords

Order, order!

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I have tried to get the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to explain why the cost of civil cases in Scotland is about half that in England. Will the Minister tell me whether it is because Scots lawyers are less long-winded or less greedy?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, it would be rather contentious to start comparing the two sets of lawyers. However, it is fair to say that the legal aid schemes in Scotland and England are structured differently, and that may be reflected in different levels of fees. As I said on a previous occasion, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has several initiatives under way; in particular, in connection with the introduction of standard fees. We hope that that will lead to a reduction in some of the payments which have been made in the past.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that by far the most helpful advance in restraining the cost of legal aid in England and Wales lies in an appreciation of our civil procedures in the direction of shortening the length of cases and having a number of preliminary hearings in order to reach an alternative settlement of disputes?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, my noble and learned friend refers to a very important aspect of the matter. Reform of civil procedures will, one hopes, bring benefits not only to the Legal Aid Fund but also to ordinary litigants who are not legally aided. As my noble and learned friend said, that benefit will feed through to the Legal Aid Fund.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware—I assume that he is—that at a minuted meeting in the Lord Chancellor's Department on 24th March last year between the Lord Chancellor and representatives of the legal profession and the advice agencies concerning the cuts in eligibility for legal aid, the Lord Chancellor stated in terms that he would like to reverse those cuts if opportunity arose in the future? Can the noble and learned Lord assure the House that it remains the Government's ambition to reverse those cuts if circumstances permit?

Does he accept that the effect of the eligibility cuts introduced in April last year is that only the poor or the very rich have access to the courts, and that middle-income Britain is left out in the cold?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I believe that all noble Lords will be aware that the legal aid scheme is very generous. According to latest available figures, expenditure on legal aid last year was £1,211 million, which was an increase of £118 million on the previous year. Therefore, it would be quite wrong to paint a picture of a miserly scheme. Of course, if in due course, as a result of the reforms that I have mentioned, it is possible to gain more control over legal aid expenditure, it would be desirable to admit as many people as possible to the scheme. But, first, we must get expenditure on legal aid under control.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, is it the ambition of the Government, in any event, to reverse those cuts if financial circumstances permit?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I believe that I have just answered that question.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, has not the action which the Government have taken to restrain costs been quite simply to delay the payment of fees?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, no, not at all. As I said, there are several initiatives—in particular, initiatives to introduce standard fees. In that way we hope to avoid, for example, the delays in taxation of fees and so on. We hope that the initiatives will result in quicker payment of fees.

Lord Annan

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is obviously right to say that there are certain cases for which legal aid is not appropriate. But does the noble and learned Lord agree that the way forward is that suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham; that is, a reduction in costs to bring actions before the courts? In addition to the suggestions with regard to procedure made by the noble and learned Lord, will he also consider whether part of the costs is not due to the rapacity of the legal profession whose members seem to require large dollops of jam put on bread which is already thickly spread with butter?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that a reduction in the complexity of civil procedures is the way forward. The same also applies to some extent in relation to criminal procedures. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has set up a committee under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, to look into civil procedures. Therefore, the opportunities for counsel and others to earn fees may be reduced. In that way, the overall burden may also be reduced.