HL Deb 18 December 1995 vol 567 cc1402-3

2.46 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Who has authority to grant legal aid.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, decisions on the grant of civil legal aid are made by the Legal Aid Board. In criminal cases, the decision is taken by the court hearing the case but can be reviewed by the board where the court has refused legal aid on interests of justice grounds.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in view of the great increase in the cost of legal aid over recent years, would it not be a good thing to restrict the number of people who are entitled to authorise it?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, some time ago I put out to consultation a Green Paper containing new proposals for legal aid among which are proposals about who might grant legal aid. The object would be to ensure that the amount predetermined as the amount to be spent on legal aid was satisfactorily related to the amount actually spent and to have regard to the interests of justice in terms of accessibility for those who would be entitled to legal aid.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, do lawyers have any responsibility to inform their clients if they feel they should have legal aid or to inform them how to go about getting it? Many people never hear of legal aid or how to get it until they find themselves in a difficult situation.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, lawyers have the responsibility to advise their clients on all the circumstances which may be relevant to their particular situation. Although this may not exactly arise out of the noble Lord's question, I should add that lawyers have a responsibility to inform the legal aid authorities if the case moves against their client in a way that is relevant as to whether legal aid should be continued. Lawyers have wide responsibilities in relation to legal aid.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is not the suggestion that few people know about legal aid completely contradicted by the very substantial increase in the number of people actually drawing it?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, some 3.4 million people annually are beneficiaries of legal aid, which suggests at least that knowledge of legal aid is fairly widespread. There may be pockets of people who are ignorant of the possibilities, but I think such pockets are very isolated and rather small.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord satisfied with the number and the stringency of the checks currently carried out on statements of means made by those who apply for legal aid? If he is not, what steps does he propose to take, and when, to ensure that people with the means to pay do not abuse the system at the expense of those who are currently falling through the net and therefore being denied access to justice?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, so far as concerns civil legal aid, the means assessments are done by the Benefits Agency. The detail of what it does in particular cases is something about which I cannot know in view of the confidentiality provisions. In criminal legal aid, the assessment is done by the court. We have had some problems over the years because of the difficulty experienced by those responsible in the courts in examining fully what is required in the way of support for the means statements of applicants for criminal legal aid. Some illustrations we have had recently of those with complicated financial affairs suggest that it would be wise to have a special unit with specialist knowledge and expertise available to try to unravel more fully than is possible at the moment the affairs of such people. As a result of the consultation carried out earlier on legal aid for the apparently wealthy, I have decided to introduce such a unit. I am advancing plans for it as speedily as I can.