HL Deb 03 February 2003 vol 644 cc6-8

2.52 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many firms of solicitors withdrew from the legal aid scheme in 2002.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Legal Services Commission does not collect data in a way that allows me to answer the exact question that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has asked. At the start of 2002, 2,919 solicitors' offices had criminal defence service contracts. At the end of the year, there were 2,909—a net loss of 10. There were 4,938 solicitors' offices that had general civil contracts in the Community Legal Service at the start of the year and 4,681 at the end—a net loss of 257.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, 'while I thank my noble friend for her Answer, is she aware of the deep dissatisfaction of local firms which have neither the inclination nor the resources to carry on doing legal aid work, both in the civil and criminal sense? Is she further aware that a number of practitioners say that they are thoroughly demoralised and have reached breaking point as a result of what has happened to the legal aid scheme? Finally, what is to happen to clients who need legal aid?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are aware that the profession expressed unhappiness about the level of remuneration. It was only when this Government came into office that there was an increase, after a significant period of time. Therefore, we are aware of those concerns. I reassure my noble friend that, within the limits of resource constraints, the Government are doing all that they can to meet the concerns being raised in relation to remuneration and other matters.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I declare an interest as a practising solicitor whose firm is stupid enough to have a legal aid certificate. Is the Minister being a little anodyne in those replies? There is, if not a catastrophe, a serious crisis developing. If she doubts me or the Law Society or the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, she may have read the annual report of the Legal Services Commission. What does the Minister think of this? The report states: We are picking up intelligence through our regional offices that up to 50% of firms are seriously considering stopping". It continues: Our studies show that at current legal aid rates many firms are at best marginally profitable". Is that not a crisis?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, there is not a crisis. First, the noble Lord's firm is not in the least bit stupid to continue legal aid. I commend it on its good judgment, and its service to the public. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, will know that legal aid, solicitors, and those who work funded by legal aid, provide a wonderful service. I understand his concerns. The Government are considering what the justification is for any withdrawal from legally aided work. That is an issue under constant review. I reassure the noble Lord that on a monthly basis the figures are being reviewed to ensure that there is proper legal aid coverage throughout the country.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, the Minister will know that since the introduction of the new contracting arrangements and the Legal Services Commission, the number of solicitors firms giving legal advice, funded by legal aid, on family law has seriously declined. What are the Government doing to protect the interests of those who need such advice in areas which now have no cover?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I have already said, we have recognised for some time that there are potential problems in these areas. We take those concerns seriously. We know that the profession is unhappy. We are monitoring the supply on a monthly basis to the commission. At present, there does not appear to be a widespread problem in providing adequate cover in England and Wales. Those are the issues with which we have been exercised for some time. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, that the particular issue in relation to family law practitioners is one on which we are keeping a careful eye.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, has not the situation occurred because of abuse of the system by certain people?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot respectfully agree with my noble friend. Anecdotally, concerns have been expressed about whether there has been abuse. We make every effort to audit firms to ensure good quality. However, it would not be fair to state that the problems currently faced are as a result of abuse throughout the system.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of Justice, the all-party law reform group. First, I am grateful that the Minister has emphatically refuted the suggestion that this problem is caused by abuse. Is she aware that Justice takes a similar view to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips? This is an issue for litigants, not for lawyers, although lawyers give the service. Is the Minister aware that we take the view that this is the closest we have had to a crisis for a considerable number of years?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand that that is the view being expressed. As I have already said, we are absolutely determined that there should be a proper maintenance of cover throughout the country. We are monitoring the situation carefully. We are taking every opportunity to encourage younger people to enter the profession, and to help others do legally aided work. Of course, we are restrained by the resources available. I reassure the noble Lord that, within the resource constraints, not only do we value those practitioners who do legal aid work, but we very much want them to continue. We shall continue to do all that we can to ensure their valuable work is available to the members of the public who desperately need it.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, is the crisis exacerbated by the setting up of the public defender who will be in competition with the private solicitors for public funded work?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I do not think that that is right. Noble Lords will know that only six offices have been set up. The areas have been carefully chosen as a means by which the Government will judge exactly the nature of the work undertaken and the quality of the work given. We do not perceive that this will cause any unhelpful competition with other practitioners.