HL Deb 23 April 1996 vol 571 cc1011-3

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether legal aid was awarded to Mr. Andreas Pavel to sue Sony for breach of patent rights; and, if so, where Mr. Pavel resided at the time of the award; how much was awarded; and under what circumstances.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, Mr. Pavel was not legally aided for the proceedings in the court of first instance. He was, however, granted legal aid to appeal to the Court of Appeal against the decision of the Patents County Court.

As to Mr. Pavel's place of residence, the Legal Aid Board is prevented by Section 38 of the Legal Aid Act from disclosing information provided to it in connection with an application for legal aid. The legal aid costs of the appeal will only be known once the bills have been taxed.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord understand that it seems very strange to ordinary people in this country that a German citizen living in Milan can sue a Japanese-based company through British courts and manage to obtain, as I understand from the Daily Telegraph, £0.5 million in legal aid? Is the noble and learned Lord aware also that the judge concerned in the final decision expressed serious reservations about the length of time that both counsel spent dragging out the case for their own financial benefit? Is that not highly undesirable? Will the noble and learned Lord look into the matter? I understand that the money may not yet have been paid. Will the noble and learned Lord take the necessary action to withhold the payment of that money?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there are a number of aspects in relation to the current aspects for legal aid which I regard as necessary to be reviewed. Your Lordships will know that I issued a Green Paper suggesting fairly considerable changes to the system. I am reviewing the responses to that document at present with a view to bringing out a White Paper as soon as possible.

As regards this particular case, the criticisms to which the noble Lord referred in the Court of Appeal related to the proceedings in the Patents County Court when no legal aid was granted. It is interesting to note what Lord Justice Aldous, who gave the leading judgment, said. I shall not weary your Lordships with all of it, but he said a good deal about the length of time that the proceedings had taken in a county court set up to deal swiftly and reasonably cheaply with patent matters. He spoke about how long it had taken and he said: Mr. Pavel ended up needing legal aid". In other words when he started the proceedings, he had some money. By the time they had finished, he required legal aid. That is the substance of the matter in relation to that particular court. The criticisms of the Court of Appeal were really levelled at what had taken place in the Patents County Court and the failures there.

Needless to say, I wish to follow up this matter. The last but one sentence in the Lord Justice's opinion is: However, some alteration is necessary if the purposes of the Patents County Court are to be achieved". That is a sentiment with which all your Lordships will agree. The question is how to achieve that.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend tell the House how much was paid to that man by way of legal aid?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, nothing was paid to this man. In due course the money will be paid on claim to his lawyers, who are practising in this country. I cannot tell the House the precise amount until the claims have been submitted. The case has been concluded only fairly recently.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend not agree that British taxpayers resent having to foot bills for people who do not live in this country? I understand that the Legal Aid Board is absolutely independent. Its terms of reference are quite obviously wrong and is it not high time that they were changed? Under no circumstances should people like the person in this case be afforded British taxpayers' money.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the terms of reference of the Legal Aid Board are fixed by legislation which is passed by Parliament. That is what I am seeking to review in the Green Paper that was published and in the responses which have come in to that Paper.

The question of who should be entitled to legal aid is difficult. The courts of this country obviously have jurisdiction in the matter and the precise outcome of the Green Paper will be awaited. I am not certain that all your Lordships have yet had an opportunity fully to respond to it, although the formal period for consultation has been concluded.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his detailed and long reply to my initial Question. I was, of course, aware that Mr. Pavel did not require any legal aid when he started his action and he would not have required any legal aid if he had won, but he lost the case. I am still mystified as to how a German national who is not living in this country—as far as I know he has never resided in this country—can sue a Japanese-based company. Is he just using our legal system because it is a rather generous one from which he can obtain money for legal fees?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I have no doubt at all that our system of law is an extremely good one. From that point of view one would seek to have recourse to it. Mr. Pavel came to this action in the Patents County Court at his own expense. That is an important fact to keep in mind. He lost in the Patents County Court and by that stage, as the judge said, he needed legal aid for reasons which I have sought to explain. He then applied for legal aid. Before legal aid was granted obviously the Legal Aid Board had to seek legal opinion upon whether or not Mr. Pavel had reasonable prospects of success. The legal aid was eventually given. It is on that basis—as I understand it—having regard to the financial criteria laid down under the Act of Parliament and the opinion on prospects of success, that legal aid was granted.

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