HC Deb 12 November 1992 vol 213 cc861-2W
Mr. Michael Brown

To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what measures he is proposing to take to restrain the rate of growth in legal aid expenditure.

Mr. John M. Taylor

The Government's plans for legal aid expenditure over the next three years have been published today. They provide for the net cost of legal aid in England and Wales to grow to £1,284 million in 1993–94, £1,406 million in 1994–95 and £1,528 million in 1995–96. Five years ago spending was £426 million. Legal aid spending will continue to grow rapidly during the next three years, on average by 10 per cent. a year from present levels. A number of measures will be necessary to ensure that legal aid spending does not rise even faster.

As far as financial eligibility is concerned, the Government's objective is to strengthen the legally aided client's financial interest in the progress of the case, and to bring the means assessment for legal aid more closely into line with that used for other means-tested benefits. The Lord Chancellor intends to lay regulations to provide that, from 1 April 1993, the lower income limit for civil legal aid (ie the limit of disposable income below which an applicant for legal aid pays no contribution) will be reduced to the equivalent income support limit. This means that, on current figures, the limit will be reduced from £3,060 per annum to £2,213 per annum.

The Lord Chancellor also intends to lay regulations providing that, from 1 April 1993, dependants allowances for civil legal aid will be reduced to income support levels.

Equivalent changes will be made to the financial eligibility regimes for criminal legal aid and advice and assistance.

The upper eligibility limits for civil legal aid (ie the limits of disposable income above which an applicant for civil legal aid ceases to be eligible for assistance) will not be increased in April 1993.

The Lord Chancellor intends to lay regulations providing that, from 1 April 1993, all those granted civil legal aid will be required to pay a contribution of one-third of their disposable income above the lower limit and that such contributions should continue for the life of the case. Equivalent provisions will be made in respect of criminal legal aid, and assistance by way of representation.

The Lord Chancellor also intends to lay regulations providing that only those who would qualify for assistance free of contribution shall, in future, be able to receive advice and assistance under the green form scheme.

In respect of remuneration, as he has already announced, the Lord Chancellor intends to introduce standard fees in the magistrates courts at the beginning of next year.

The Lord Chancellor will then be taking steps to extend the existing standard fee scheme in the Crown Court to cover more cases. He will also be introducing a fixed hourly rate of payment for solicitors in civil non-matrimonial cases which are legally aided, and taking corresponding steps to gain control over legal aid payments made to barristers in those cases. He intends in setting these rates and fee levels to have regard to whatever rate would attract sufficient firms or barristers to do the work, while maintaining appropriate levels of quality.