HL Deb 13 June 1996 vol 572 cc1831-3

3.14 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

What has been the total cost of legal aid in the last year; what was the largest total payment to any individual; and whether it is expected that the total cost will rise or fall this year.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, net expenditure on legal aid in 1995–96 was £1.387 billion. The largest total payment from the legal aid fund in respect of a single client amounted to £2.946 million, which was paid to lawyers representing a defendant involved in a serious fraud trial. Expenditure is expected to rise this year to around £1.476 billion.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that Answer and express appreciation for the efforts which I know he has made to restrain the growth of this expenditure. However, can he not hold out a little extra hope that it may be possible by drastic measures to secure that only modest increases are made in the payment of legal aid, and that people are not given great quantities of taxpayers' money in order to help them to indulge in litigation?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I have put out for consultation proposals for a considerable alteration in the legal aid system to enable cases and matters to be given priority. I believe that that will help to ensure more direct control of the amount paid in legal aid and, as important, that the money available will be put to the best use for as many people as possible in the range covered by legal aid.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it is not the individual litigant who is in receipt of the money, as often seems to be inferred by the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, puts his question, but it is the legal profession which benefits from the enormous expenditure on legal aid? I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will understand that there are many in this Chamber who greatly appreciate his efforts to reduce the amount of money which the legal profession earns in this way.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is correct that the payments referred to in this Question and previous similar Questions are made to lawyers and not directly to the client. The payments also include outlays; for example, in respect of experts' fees. Therefore, the payments may not be only for members of the legal profession because members of one or two other professions sometimes appear in court to give evidence. Accordingly, some other professions may well be involved as well as the legal profession, which is of course an extremely honourable profession.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the actual outturn for legal aid expenditure in 1995–96 was £74 million less than the supply estimates' figure of £1.46 billion, and that the supply estimates were £67 million less than the original estimates? For this year the supply estimates are £156 million less than the original estimates. I do not expect the noble and learned Lord to confirm those figures precisely, but does he agree that the general picture is the opposite of a budget out of control? Does that not further show that his 1993 eligibility cuts exceeded what was necessary to enable the Government to achieve their spending targets?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is important to notice that the actual figures are going up. For example, the figure in respect of 1995–96, which is £1.387 million, is some £70 million below provision, as the noble Lord said. However, that represents an increase of £88 million over last year. Therefore, the amounts spent net are going up.

I do not accept that the alterations made in eligibility three years ago were in any way shown to be unnecessary. I believe that we need to change the system in order that proper priorities can be assigned to this type of expenditure.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, would my noble and learned friend care to comment on the extraordinary judgment of the European Court that a poll tax payer who should have payed his poll tax should none the less be compensated from the legal aid fund because he did not receive legal aid? Has it been possible to make any assessment of the cost of that judgment?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my noble friend refers to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Benham. It is worth pointing out, in case it may have escaped any of your Lordships' notice, that the court was in favour of the United Kingdom on two out of the three points at issue. The point on which the court held the Government to be wrong was in not granting legal aid in a situation in which the defendant was liable to imprisonment. Of course, the ordinary rule is that in civil proceedings, legal aid is not usually granted. But the court held that the human rights convention would require that it was in a case where the defendant was liable to imprisonment and it gave quite full reasons for reaching that judgment.

I have not been able to obtain, as yet, a detailed assessment of the costs but I think that it would cost something in the order of £3 million if we were to change the rules to accord with that judgment.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord referred to consultation and to a possible change in the system. In view of the experience that we have as regards the working of legal aid, is there not a strong case for an inquiry?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I cannot think of a better way of inquiring than by putting out proposals in a Green Paper for all those who know about such matters to respond. That has been done and we have received extremely wide responses from a great many people. Included in that are very full responses from the leading professional organisations. I believe that it is possible to make progress. Obviously, I wish to make progress carefully with pilot studies and incremental change.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend explain to the noble Lord opposite that many people are relieved of expenditure which otherwise they would have to undertake by the grant to them of legal aid?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I think that the answer to that is, yes.