HL Deb 30 June 1999 vol 603 cc276-8

3 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What has been done to improve access to justice for disabled people.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the noble Lord is well known as a champion of the rights of the disabled, in particular for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill which he introduced in another place in 1991. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 met many, but not all, of his concerns. It did not establish a disability rights commission. This Government have done just that by their Disability Rights Commission Bill which is before another place today. Royal Assent is anticipated by the end of July and the commission is expected to be up and running by April 2000.

More particularly, a freephone disability helpline has been set up by the Court Service. It has been operational since March this year. In April 1998 the Court Service introduced provisions to arrange and pay for interpreters for deaf court users in civil cases. A pilot scheme is also running in the magistrates' courts for the appointment of blind and partially-sighted lay magistrates. The Court Service has also carried out a programme of disability access audits in order to plan and prioritise the changes required to court buildings. This involves no less than 341 separate audits.

Lord Morris of Manchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for his reply, and both to him and the Government as a whole for the urgency with which they are enacting the Disability Rights Commission Bill—an historic advance for disabled people. Can my noble and learned friend now say what was involved in the disability access audits; how many have been conducted; and when they will all be completed? And how does he respond to the expressions of concern in and outside Parliament that reform of the legal aid system will be seriously detrimental to disabled people seeking legal redress?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, those are two substantial supplementary questions. Court Service staff visited every building on the courts estate—341—to identify where any fails to meet the required standards. The staff involved received special training in the facilities required to meet the needs of all categories of disabled court users. A report has been prepared on each building, identifying how a disabled person would gain access to the building and making recommendations about the alterations or additional facilities required. Ninety-eight per cent of the audits have been completed. Out of a total of 335, only six are outstanding. Those should be completed in the next two weeks.

As to the second supplementary, I have heard concerns expressed that reforms to legal aid will be detrimental to the disabled. I deprecate that scaremongering which must be very troubling for the disabled. In fact, they have nothing whatever to fear. There is no evidence that legal aid lawyers fail to act for the disabled in cases where they would act for others, and no reason whatever why they should fail to do so. It will be exactly the same under conditional fee agreements.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, given the Government's intention to provide access to justice for all, and given the need to create a level playing field to ensure equality of access to justice for all, how satisfied is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor with the present provision, for example, in relation to deaf people who attend court or who find themselves involved at any stage in the legal process? There is a real dearth of interpreters for the deaf in the United Kingdom?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, this is the first question that the noble Baroness has asked from the Front Bench, to which I welcome her as a fellow lawyer. She will come to learn that your Lordships' House much appreciates lawyers. As I have already said, in April last year the Court Service introduced provisions to arrange and pay for interpreters for deaf court users in civil cases. Since the scheme was introduced, interpreters have been booked for 124 hearings. As the noble Baroness will also know, there are issues about how the deaf might act as jurors in criminal trials. There is no bar on their doing so. The trial judge has to be satisfied that the individual deaf juror would be capable of discharging his duties. A problem is that under the present rules an interpreter for the deaf may not sit in the jury room. The Government are undertaking research into that issue. A consultation paper is likely to be issued next year.

Baroness Masham of Ilion

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor give us an assurance that, because of the complications involved with disabled people, they will not be turned down by lawyers and will always have access to a lawyer?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said, I can think of no reason why a disabled person would be turned down by a lawyer. Legal aid lawyers act on behalf of the disabled today and there is no conceivable reason why it would be in their interests not to do so tomorrow.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, nevertheless, is not the Lord Chancellor aware of the great concern within the legal profession, particularly among groups which act for minorities, including the disabled, that under the conditional fee system where the lawyer receives double fee or no fee, the prospect is that in difficult cases of low value lawyers will not find it in their interest to act for the disabled in cases where they are now ready and willing to do so under legal aid?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, there is no rational reason whatever—lawyers are rational people—why a lawyer would abstain from acting under a conditional fee agreement for someone who is disabled when he would not abstain from acting for someone who is not disabled.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend accept that members of minority groups who are disabled are doubly disadvantaged in accessing justice? If so, can he tell the House what he proposes to do to redress that inequality?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I would require persuasion that a member of a minority group who is also disabled is doubly disabled in relation to access to justice. I accept that he or she is doubly disabled, but not the latter.