HL Deb 11 January 1995 vol 560 cc170-2

2.46 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the total sum paid in respect of legal aid to Mr Jawad Hashim in connection with proceedings between him and the Arab Monetary Fund; and whether it is intended to make any further such payments.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, a total of £2.8 million has been paid on account. However, the principal legal aid certificate issued in respect of proceedings between Dr. Hashim and the Arab Monetary Fund has now been revoked and, subject to any appeal Dr. Hashim may successfully make against revocation, no further work can be done. The Legal Aid Board remains liable for payment for work done up to the date of revocation. The final cost has yet to be determined.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply. However, I am not quite clear whether he covered the following point. Can he say how much was paid out to this gentleman and why it was thought necessary in any event to support the litigation of an undoubtedly wealthy foreigner in our courts?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said, the total amount paid out to date is £2.8 million. The application of Dr. Hashim for assistance under the legal aid scheme was dealt with on the basis of the information provided in the forms that the Legal Aid Board requires. The application was dealt with on the basis of the rules that apply to everyone. Therefore, on that basis, Dr. Hashim was entitled to legal aid, being a litigant before the courts of this country eligible on financial grounds. The certificate has now been revoked in connection with consideration of the information provided in the original forms.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord tell the House why the certificate was revoked and why the information upon which it was revoked was not available earlier?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I understand it, the certificate was revoked on the basis of information which came to the attention of the Legal Aid Board, principally through the third of the major judgments. The case was an extremely complicated one. Judgment was delivered in the Chancery Division in three tranches. It was upon information contained in the third tranche that the judge decided contested matters connected with the property and assets of Dr. Hashim. In the light of information coming before the Legal Aid Board from those judgments the decision was taken to revoke the certificate. That decision is, of course, subject to appeal. I understand that Dr. Hashim has lodged grounds of appeal. That is why I say that the matter is subject to any appeal he may successfully make.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the rules of the Legal Aid Board really do need amendment in so far as one can have an applicant who technically has no money but whose family is extremely wealthy? Surely, we should change the rules so that the whole of the circumstances of the family of an applicant are taken into account which, in this case, would have saved the British taxpayer some £2.8 million.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, your Lordships will know from an earlier answer to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that I intended to issue a paper consulting on these very issues. I have now issued such a paper indicating possible changes to the rules that might be considered. Those changes are not easy to make without affecting people other than Dr. Hashim. One has to examine the matter in the light of all the people affected. However, I have issued a fairly detailed consultation paper about legal aid for the apparently wealthy. I shall be extremely grateful to all noble Lords who feel inclined to contribute views about precisely what changes I should make. I have not found the subject particularly easy but, with the help of your Lordships, I am sure that the task will be made easier than otherwise it would have been.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, if a person obtains legal aid by false pretences, is that a criminal offence? If so, have there been any prosecutions for such an offence?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there are certainly criminal sanctions associated with giving false information. There are, of course, levels of falsity. I do not think that it would be right for me to go into the detail of this case because, as the noble Lord knows, I am precluded by the confidentiality provisions of the legal aid Act from knowing about the details of the financial circumstances given to the Legal Aid Board by an applicant. But there are, of course, possibilities both of civil and criminal sanctions in this area, subject to the availability of the person in question to the forces of law and order in this country.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, given that the matter is under appeal and that my noble and learned friend is therefore under some constraint, may I ask him this question? If the original application was based upon false information as to assets or means, is there any mechanism for recovering the money which has already been spent from the person who gave that information?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as regards the person who gave the information, assuming the certificate is revoked it is treated then as never having been granted in a question between the Legal Aid Board and the applicant. Therefore the applicant is liable for all the moneys that the Legal Aid Board has paid out. Of course, as my noble and learned friend is well aware, legal liability and actually getting the money into the Legal Aid Board's hands are two rather different matters.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recognise that many on this side of the House are concerned with the availability of legal aid for the apparently not wealthy? Does it not seem rather strange—I believe this to be a commonly held view in your Lordships' House—that a man of the wealth of Dr. Hashim can obtain £2.8 million so far whereas citizens of this country who are barely above income support levels have no effective access to legal aid and assistance? Is there any sensible prospect of recovering at least this £2.8 million which many of us regard as a disturbingly lax disbursement of public funds?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the regulations under which the Legal Aid Board functions carry the authority of Parliament. As far as I am concerned, the regulations were applied in the case of Dr. Hashim. I am at least as concerned as the noble Lord about the availability of legal aid to those people who really need it. I am convinced that the rigidity of the present scheme militates against a really effective distribution of legal aid money. I should point out that the money was not paid to Dr. Hashim, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, suggested, but to practitioners in this country: they are the recipients of the money. I should perhaps supplement that by saying that one of the responses I have already received to the consultation paper suggests that the money in question should be paid to clients rather than to their lawyers.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend confirm that there is no question in the future of handing out very large sums, amounting to millions of pounds, of taxpayers' money in cases of this kind, and that this incident will not be repeated?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am certain that if it is possible to devise rules under the present scheme which have the effect my noble friend describes without detriment to others—it is a system of rules—then certainly, in the light of the consultation, I will seek to do so. I do, however, suggest to my noble friend and to your Lordships generally that it may be that a more radical change in the whole system is required so as to enable the Legal Aid Board to act in the light of other priorities than merely financial entitlement plus a reasonable case, and that a system under which local priorities and needs are assessed as a guide for the Legal Aid Board may be a useful addition to the present panoply of powers it has.

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