HL Deb 20 February 1996 vol 569 cc968-70

2.41 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the total cost to public funds of the recent prosecution of the Maxwell brothers and Mr. Trachtenberg.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, it is too early to say what the total cost of the case will be. As far as criminal legal aid is concerned, the full costs will be known only when the final bills have been taxed. However, £8.3 million has been paid to date in respect of interim payments and the magistrates' court proceedings. The total cost to the courts to date has been assessed at £0.5 million. The cost to the Serious Fraud Office, including investigation of matters that will form the basis of future proposed trials, was approximately £11 million as at 31st January 1996.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that extremely interesting if disquieting information. Can he say whether steps are being taken to restrain the very substantial growth in the cost of legal proceedings, particularly prosecutions of this kind, whether successful or, as in the case quoted in my Question, unsuccessful?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, every effort is made to deal with these matters as efficiently as possible. In the particular case to which my noble friend's Question relates, the degree of complexity involved was very high indeed. The method by which such matters should be dealt with is kept under review by the Government. In the light of their history further consideration may require to be given to the manner in which such cases are pursued.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it appears that people brought before the courts charged with fraud on a huge scale seem to take a disproportionate share of the money available for legal aid as opposed to people involved in other nefarious activities? Does he agree that it is time that this matter was looked at? At the moment legal aid appears to be a fund for people who have already received large sums of money through their actions and who seem to be able to obtain legal aid more easily than other people.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is perhaps right that the kind of case to which the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, refers will involve a high degree of complexity and will therefore attract more in the way of resources both for the prosecution and defence. As regards the rules, they are the same for all. It is in an attempt to make sure that they are rigorously enforced that I made the proposals in relation to legal aid for the apparently wealthy.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is it not the case that the success rate in fraud matters is very low when conducted by the Serious Fraud Office? Is it not time that another body took over those prosecutions—perhaps the police?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I gave the details of this matter in Answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Spens, not very long ago. My impression is that the success rate of the Serious Fraud Office in relation to disputed matters is comparable to that of the Crown Prosecution Service. One must take account of the fact that the subject matter is different between the two. If the noble Lord looks at the figures he will see that the success rate of the Serious Fraud Office in these matters bears quite good comparison with other such figures.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, in view of the fact that the case has already cost the British taxpayer something approaching £20 million, does my noble and learned friend agree that it is high time that the rules concerning the .award of legal aid should be changed to the extent that the circumstances of the immediate family of the applicant for legal aid should be taken into account? Can my noble and learned friend confirm that the Saudi Arabian who is appealing against a deportation order will not be entitled to legal aid?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there are two questions. As regards the second, the person concerned will be entitled to legal aid only if he complies with the rules. In relation to the first question, it is not just a matter of legal aid, but of the costs of the prosecution and the defence. In the circumstances of the particular case to which we are referring, and in view of the outcome, even if the defendants had not been given legal aid it is highly likely that they would have been awarded their costs out of central funds. Therefore, legal aid is not directly relevant in this particular situation.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord assist perhaps by putting the matter into context? What was the amount of money disbursed from public funds for legal assistance and representation to those who appeared before the Scott tribunal? Can he offer a view as to which disbursement of public money was the best value?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not have the full figures in my head at the moment regarding that matter, which is not the subject of the Question. As to the subject matter of this Question, the problem is that these costs are incurred in pursuit of justice, the rule of law and the integrity of our commercial institutions. It is against that background that their value has to be judged and taken into account. In my view, when that kind of standard is applied it is clear that while the costs are high, they are just a reflection of the complexity of the issues with which the trial was concerned.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as we are in the realm of comparison, does it not reflect interestingly on the comparative efficiency of our legal and our legislative procedures that these legal costs amounted to half the cost of running your Lordships' House for one year?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I would be the first to accept that the taxpayer in this country gets extremely good value for money from your Lordships' House. However, it is really impossible to draw a comparison between the taxpayers' interest and enthusiasm in maintaining your Lordships' House and the cost of a trial of this kind, which is a very different subject indeed.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord tell us whether he thinks that in trials of this complexity—he has already stressed that—the course of justice is best served by a jury trial?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, that matter has been considered from time to time. It was considered by my noble and learned friend Lord Roskill and his committee. Important considerations have to be taken into account in this connection. As I said earlier, the Government are keeping such matters under review in the light of developments and of the developing complexities of such issues. In this country the right to jury trial is a very well established and important right and can therefore be innovated upon only after careful consideration and only, I think, for very good reason.

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