HL Deb 17 December 2002 vol 642 cc610-4

7.28 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved [First Report from the Joint committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Scotland, I beg to move the Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I should also declare an interest as my partner is a solicitor in practice.

It is proposed that this instrument be made in exercise of the powers conferred on the Lord Chancellor by Section 47(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 to amend Section 11(3) of the Solicitors Act 1974. The order is subject to affirmative resolution by virtue of Section 47(2)(b) of the Access to Justice Act 1999.

Section 1 of the Solicitors Act 1974 gives the Law Society the power to require solicitors to hold a practising certificate in order to practise. Section 11(1) of the Solicitors Act 1974 provides that the Law Society may charge a fee for the issuing of practising certificates. Section 11(3) of the Act provides that all moneys raised by the issuing of practising certificates, shall be applied in such manner as the Society may think fit for the purpose of the Society, including facilitating the acquisition of legal knowledge".

The purpose of the order is to ensure that the application of fees raised by the Law Society from compulsory subscriptions is, unlike hitherto, restricted to those purposes which the Law Society performs in the public interest, and from which both the public and the Government benefit.

In seeking approval to this order, I make it clear that the Government believe that it is right that a professional body should be able to spend money generated from compulsory subscriptions on certain activities only. However, by the same context, the Government have no wish whatever to stifle the many useful functions in the public interest which the Law Society currently performs, and from which both the public and the Government benefit.

The Lord Chancellor made this clear to Parliament during the passage of the Access to Justice Act when he said:

'practice support' or practice management and the `raising and maintenance of standards' will be covered by compulsory fees … These activities are entirely compatible with the role of the regulatory body".—[Official Report, 14/7/99; col. 458.]

Section 47(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 provides that the Law Society should be restricted in its application of fees raised from the issuing of practising certificates to, (a) the purposes of the regulation, education and training of solicitors and those wishing to become solicitors, or (b) both the se purposes and such other purposes as the Lord Chancellor considers appropriate". Proposals made to the Lord Chancellor by the Law Society have been considered by the Legal Services Consultative Panel. The panel recommended that the wording proposed by the Law Society should be adopted in any order made under Section 47(1) of the 1999 Act.

The Lord Chancellor has in turn considered the Law Society's proposals and the advice given to him by the Legal Services Consultative Panel. He has also been very diligent and taken account of the desirability of approving purposes for the Law Society which are broadly similar to those already approved in respect of the General Council of the Bar.

The Lord Chancellor has concluded that, subject to a number of drafting changes, the Law Society's proposals should remain essentially unchanged. Those proposals have subsequently been agreed by the Law Society and the Master of the Rolls. The order now before the House would therefore amend Section 11(3) of the Solicitors Act 1974 by specifying revised purposes for which the Law Society may apply any funds raised from the issuing of practising certificates.

The revised purposes are: the regulation, accreditation, education and training of solicitors and those wishing to become solicitors, including the maintaining and raising of their professional standards and giving advice on practice management and practical support for solicitors' practice; the participation by the Law Society in law reform and the legislative process; the provision by solicitors, and those wishing to become solicitors, of free legal services to the public; the promotion of the protection by law of human rights and fundamental freedoms; and the promotion by the Law Society of professional interests through discussion with, and participation in the activities of, relevant national and international bodies, governments and the legal professions of other jurisdictions.

It is my view that all of these activities, which are already undertaken by the Law Society on the basis of subscriptions from its members, are useful functions, clearly in the public interest. It would, of course, continue to be open to the Law Society to pursue other, representative activities provided that it does so on the basis of funds raised from other sources.

In my view, the provisions of this order amending Section 11(3) of the Solicitors Act 1974 are compatible with the rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since an amendment of this nature, adding to the purposes for which fees might be raised by the issuing of practising certificates, was anticipated during the Access to Justice Act 1999 implementation debates, and since Section 47(1) makes specific provision for the exercise of these amending powers, I invite the House to approve the order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 13th November be approved [First Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, all the purposes set out in Article 2 of the order seem to be wholly appropriate purposes for the Law Society to spend the money it raises from fees for practising certificates. There is, of course, a question as to whether there are any further purposes on which it might also be appropriate to spend money. but the Law Society made it clear in the brief which it circulated that this order corresponds very closely to its own proposal. In those circumstances, it seems that there is very little to be said other than that I am happy to support the order.

Lord Hunt of Wirral

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for such a careful and comprehensive explanation of the order. I do indeed recall our debate on the Access to Justice Bill, as it then was, in 1999, when we pressed the Government to ensure that any regulations should be by affirmative order. So this is an important opportunity to look at what the Government are proposing. This also gives us the opportunity to look at the overall regulatory framework governing the legal profession and at the Access to Justice Act itself and the way in which it is working.

First, however, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is to be praised for closely following the Law Society's own suggestion on the terms of the order, which will enable the society properly to carry out its important regulatory activities while at the same time continuing to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. In view of the overall debate about standards in the legal profession, I would strongly urge the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to ensure that the core values of solicitors—independence of advice, integrity and the avoidance of conflicts of' interest—must be preserved.

I turn for a moment to the framework within which the order is set out. A number of well argued responses, in particular one from the Law Society itself, were made to the Lord Chancellor's consultation paper entitled In the Public Interest? As the president of the Law Society, Carolyn Kirby, has warned, client protection must be at the heart of any changes, and choice must not come at the expense of quality and access to justice. Currently, however, a shadow of uncertainty hangs over the legal profession, caused by some wide-ranging and fundamental proposals. I hope that the Lord Chancellor will move swiftly to lift the shadow of uncertainty. It would be helpful if the Minister, if he felt able to do so, could give us at least an indication of the timetable by which the Lord Chancellor intends to proceed.

I turn to access to justice itself. This morning, there was a very worrying report in the Daily Telegraph that the cost of the compensation culture, which in many ways has been exacerbated by introduction of the new no win, no fee arrangements, now amounts to £10,000 million a year. That is an alarming figure. If access to justice is to be meaningful, we really do need to ensure that steps are taken to improve access.

In our debates on the Access to Justice Bill, I recall the criticism, particularly from noble and learned Lords, and especially from the Cross Benches, about the introduction of the new no win, no fee arrangements with virtually no research, combined with a lack of proper resources for the civil justice reforms. I believe that those arrangements have been introduced at a very high price.

I praise—as I have on previous occasions—our reforming Lord Chancellor. However, I urge the Government to go back to the three Rs, as reform is truly successful only when it is preceded by proper research and when sufficient resources are made available to make the new system work. So reform, research and resources are a proper prescription. I recall hearing a very convincing speech last week by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, in the Second Reading in this Chamber of the Courts Bill, in which he stressed that there was a serious lack of resources to enable access to justice to work.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, declared an interest, I should remind noble Lords that I am senior partner at Beachcroft Wansbroughs. That firm undertakes a great deal of work which closely mirrors the access to justice provisions. However, I feel strongly that the no win, no fee supermarket mentality combined with the virtual overnight abolition of civil legal aid has been a bad deal for the consumer. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, who knows this subject very well indeed, that the public must have access to legal services which are reliable, trustworthy, good value and, above all, a model of excellence. In signifying our agreement to the order I hope that the noble Lord will respond to the points that I raised.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their kind and generous contributions and in particular for their broad agreement with what is proposed.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for skilfully travelling slightly wider than the remit of the order. He is right to praise my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, who has achieved many great reforms during his period in office and will continue to do so. The order ensures that the Law Society can carry out the valuable educational work to which the noble Lord referred. He is right to remind us of the importance and the value of the three Rs of reform, research and resources. It is right to place on record the fact that the Government have rigorously followed those three Rs in this field. We have rightly been praised for our reforming programme.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has a longer experience of government than I and will be aware of the importance of ensuring that policies are well researched before they reach the statute book. At all times we must be mindful of resources. The Government have allocated many resources to the area of public law. We recognise the importance of resources as a means of enabling people to gain access to justice.

I agreed with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about the compensation culture, although one should always be a little wary of believing everything that one reads in the Daily Telegraph other than the sports pages, which are undoubtedly excellent.

I turn to the specific question of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the timetable for the consultation paper. As I am sure the noble Lord is aware, the consultation period concluded on 22nd November this year. We need to analyse the contributions and take some care in planning our response to them. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the measure needs to be well researched and factually based. We intend to issue a response in the spring of next year and a report setting out subsequent proposals in the summer. Although that may lead to a period of uncertainty it should not last too long. The issues which have been raised in the public interest merit full and careful consideration. I wish to put that point on the record. I am most grateful for the contributions that have been made to the debate. I trust that the House is satisfied that the order is satisfactory.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I beg: to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.37 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.54 to 8.37 p.m]