HL Deb 24 May 1994 vol 555 cc603-5

2.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the cost to the Legal Aid Fund of the collapsed proceedings in respect of tranquillisers and other sedative drugs; and what is the total estimated cost of legal aid in the current year.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, final figures for the cost of the Benzodiazepine litigation are not yet available, and some aspects of the litigation are still continuing. This Answer can therefore only be an interim estimate. Some 13,000 legal aid certificates were granted. The Legal Aid Board estimates that the average cost per certificate where no proceedings were issued is £1,750. In cases where proceedings have been served, the average cost is estimated as £3,500. In addition there are generic costs in the region of £3 million to £4 million. The provision for legal aid for the current financial year is £1.406 billion.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that interesting if rather depressing Answer. Will he say whether the real efforts which the House knows he is making to restrain the growth of this expenditure are being continued and will have any success?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, we are continuing with the efforts and I believe that they meet with a certain degree of success. The particular subject matter of the early part of this Question is difficult. The Legal Aid Board, and I hope also the Procedure Committee of the Supreme Court, will give consideration to whether the court arrangements can be improved for dealing with litigations of this type. Sadly such litigation has become more common in recent years and some new system for dealing with such cases may require to be established.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is not the noble and learned Lord aware of some recent reports in the press which show that people who are alleged to have misappropriated large sums of money will be in receipt of legal aid? I believe in one case a sum of £2 million was referred to. If it is correct that a case is receiving such an amount of legal aid, does it not follow that that sum of money prevents people at the bottom end of the scale, who may have more minor cases but who may be more genuine, from receiving legal aid? If that is so, should not the whole system be looked at and reviewed and a different system be introduced to prevent that kind of abuse?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is easier to state the problems that face the legal aid system than to produce comprehensive solutions for them. If someone is accused of a serious crime and that person qualifies under the regulations for means, that person is entitled to legal aid. The cost of defending a person in serious proceedings may be quite substantial. On the other hand it is important that smaller cases are also properly serviced. The financial conditions for civil legal aid are of course different from those for criminal legal aid and are somewhat more stringent. My efforts have certainly been directed to try to secure, with the money available, as wide a service to the public as possible under this scheme.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recall a recent appeal, which was rejected by your Lordships' House, in which two counsel appealed against the reduction by the Taxing Master of their original claim for £107,000 for four days work to £34,000? Does he also recall that on that occasion the noble and learned Lord, Lord Templeman, said that it was up to the Bar Council to get a grip on these highly inflated figures? Has the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor received any indication from the Bar Council that it is making any effort to deal with these recent highly inflated figures?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as regards this Question, my principal concern is with legal aid. In relation to that matter I know that the Bar Council has always expressed concern where claims have been unduly inflated. As the noble Lord knows, there is a system for taxing or checking the fees claimed, and what is awarded is what the authority responsible for taxation considers to be reasonable. Therefore, it is not particularly important that larger amounts have been claimed except that it is easier for me to make satisfactory arrangements if the claims are as close as possible to what is regarded as reasonable and is ultimately awarded.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, to revert to the original Question of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is the noble and learned Lord satisfied with the application of legal aid funds in the tranquilliser litigation? Rather than spend large sums of money on the investigation of the particular circumstances of many thousands of cases, would it not have been far preferable to have brought forward a small number of strong individual test cases in order to determine whether there was a generic case?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said earlier, this matter goes further than merely arrangements for legal aid. The statutory arrangements for legal aid require the Legal Aid Board to consider the merits of individual claims. That is what it has done, and that is why I was able to distinguish between cases in which proceedings had been served and those in which proceedings had not been served.

Underlying the noble Lord's question is the important matter of court procedure as to whether there should be some system in the court for staying cases raising the same issue in order that strong cases might go forward. There is always difficulty in judging which are the strongest cases because most litigants have their own advisers, and to achieve a consensus view as to which are the stronger cases is not always easy. However, I believe that there may be scope for improving the procedures of the court in this connection and I hope that consideration can be given to that matter by the Supreme Court Procedure Committee and others. If any of your Lordships have good ideas as to how the matter might be handled I shall receive them with deep gratitude.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor say why legal aid costs are much lower in Scotland than in England?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there are considerably fewer people in Scotland than in England and Wales and therefore considerably fewer applications for legal aid. I have no doubt that that is an important factor in the difference between the amounts spent in those countries.