HL Deb 30 January 1996 vol 568 cc104-5WA
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

asked Her Majesty's Government:

In the light of the fifth successive qualification by the Comptroller and Auditor General of his opinion of the Legal Aid Appropriation Account, whether they have reconsidered removing responsibility for the grant of criminal legal aid from the magistrates' courts.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

This Question highlights a difficult problem to which I and my department have accorded high priority for a considerable time.

The Legal Aid Act 1988 vests in the magistrates' courts the function of deciding on the grant or refusal of legal aid in criminal cases. In the performance of their functions the courts act independently of any government department.

In December 1993 I explained to the House that the Comptroller and Auditor General had repeatedly qualified his opinion on my department's appropriation account because of material uncertainty as to whether the regulations governing the grant of criminal legal aid were being applied with sufficient rigour. I affirmed to the House that in no circumstances could any irregularity in dispensing public money be acceptable, and I recounted the measures I had taken to rectify matters.

Among them was an examination of the feasibility of transferring the function to the Legal Aid Board. I explained to the House that the risks to the speed and efficiency of criminal procedures deterred me from taking that step at that time. However, I undertook to give further consideration to that and alternative measures if other continuing action failed to achieve an acceptable result.

During the last two years I have made numerous statutory and administrative changes, with the help and co-operation of the Legal Aid Board and the Justices' Clerks Society. The results have been closely audited both by my department and by the National Audit Office. I am pleased to report that significant improvements in the levels of compliance with the regulations have recently become apparent. The improvement is marked enough to give reason to think that satisfactorily high levels of compliance could be achieved under the present arrangements, although further marked improvements are needed to achieve that result.

I have now proposed more fundamental reforms of the legal aid scheme as a whole, as described last year in the Green Paper Legal Aid—Targeting Need. In these circumstances I do not propose any earlier change in the arrangements for the grant of criminal legal aid in the magistrates' courts, so long as the improvement in compliance with the regulations is maintained. I shall announce my intentions regarding the wider reforms when I have completed my consideration of the public responses to the Green Paper.