Civil Legal Aid — Debate
Lord Beecham (Labour)
My Lords, I declare an interest as an unpaid consultant in the firm of solicitors of which I was previously senior partner, and which practises in part in the area of legal aid.
We follow a debate on human rights with a debate on one of the most fundamental human rights-access to justice. I say immediately that the credit for this Motion coming before your Lordships' House today belongs not to me, but to my noble friend Lady McDonagh, who drafted it and would have moved it had she been able to do so. Alas, she is not able to be present today for personal reasons, so I am in a sense instructed by her-a familiar condition for me, because she used to instruct me on behalf of the trade union for which she was an officer many years ago, and after that as general secretary of the Labour Party. I follow my instructions today with perhaps a little more alacrity than I did in that former case.
The legal aid system was one of the great pillars of the post-war welfare state. At one time affording access to justice to 80 per cent of the population, it has undergone many changes in the past 62 years. Currently, around 36 per cent of the population fall within the financial eligibility limits-both income and capital-for legal advice and assistance, or representation in matters of civil law. Some areas have long been excluded from the civil legal aid system, including most personal injury claims, which ironically were removed from the system's scope because of the conditional fee system that the Government now propose to abolish in the guise of an attack on the so-called compensation culture, the extent of which is surely exaggerated.
Last week, I confessed to having form in the matter of police reform. I have a similar confession in respect of legal aid. My noble friend Lord Bach will recall that I was responsible for a debate at a Labour Party conference which was somewhat critical of the previous Government's legal aid policy-this was just before he became a Minister responsible for it-and chaired a very constructive working party that made some improvements to that policy.
At present, legal aid and advice are available across a wide range of issues, including debt, employment, housing, education, family law, immigration and clinical negligence, and more besides. In some of these areas, legal aid does not extend to representation: in others, it does. The total cost is around £900 million a year for civil legal aid and £1.2 billion a year for criminal legal aid. The Government's Green Paper on legal aid reform proposes a massive cut in the civil legal aid budget of £279 million, with a much smaller reduction of around £71 million in the criminal legal aid budget. It achieves this by substantially reducing the scope of the scheme across most of the categories currently covered, while several categories are removed entirely.
The effects are stark. The Government's assessment of the number of individuals affected by the withdrawal of access-not the overall number, which would include family members-is around 500,000 to 550,000. This figure appears to understate the real effect by around 150,000, based on the latest Legal Services Commission data that show that some 725,000 cases will not be assisted. The Legal Action Group's estimate is 650,000-still substantially more than the Government's estimate. No doubt those figures reflect rising demand stemming from the effects of the recession both in terms of the need for advice and the increasing numbers becoming financially eligible.
What are the implications of this massive cut-around 70 per cent-in the number of cases for which funding will be available? In round figures, funding will be available for 250,000 fewer cases involving family disputes; 140,000 fewer cases involving welfare benefits; 110,000 fewer cases involving debt; 50,000 fewer cases involving serious housing problems; and 30,000 fewer cases involving employment problems. The impact is concentrated on the poorest. Currently, 80 per cent of legal help cases and 90 per cent of cases where legal representation is funded involve the poorest 20 per cent of the population.
No doubt other noble Lords will give examples of the kind of cases for which assistance will no longer be available. I will confine myself briefly to four. In the area of housing, tenants will not receive help in securing the repair of their homes; in the area of education, the parents of disabled children will not be helped to secure proper provision from the education authority; in the area of employment, help will be available only in discrimination cases; and in the complex world of clinical negligence, no claims will be assisted, not even those of children.
The Government believe that greater reliance on two factors, mediation and the support of voluntary organisations, will substantially mitigate the effects of the draconian cuts. However, mediation already exists-it has to be considered now by the parties and the courts-yet only in some 4,000 cases a year is it adopted. Moreover, as I remarked when we discussed the Statement launching the Green Paper, mediation is not suitable when, as in many family cases, there is disequilibrium in the material or psychological resources of the parties, with the pressure on the weaker party to agree often being irresistible. By definition, the objective of mediation is agreement, not adjudication.
As regards alternative sources of support, law centres and Citizens Advice, too, are under extreme financial pressure, both from the withdrawal of government funding implicit in the proposals of the Green Paper and from local councils struggling to cope with the largest ever reduction in government grants. The Law Centres Federation anticipates a loss of something over 50 per cent of law centres' income, and there is a fear that 50 out of the 56 existing centres may be forced to close if the Green Paper proposals are implemented. Many are already struggling with cuts in grants from local councils such as Birmingham or Hammersmith and Fulham, where the entirety of local authority funding has been withdrawn. Citizens Advice faces similar pressures at a time when demand is increasing.
The Government rightly claim that our legal aid scheme, when compared internationally, is one of the most, if not the most, generous. However, as the Bar Council points out, if one looks at the cost of the justice system as a whole, adding the cost of the courts to the legal aid bill, the gap is much narrower. Reducing the costs of administering the system should be the first priority. Paradoxically, the reduction in legal aid and advice might drive up costs, as the courts contend with the problems of dealing with litigants in person. International comparisons of expenditure are inevitably rough and ready, taking little or no account of different legal systems, let alone different social and economic structures or pressures. Citizens Advice, in its response to the Green Paper, demonstrated that the taxpayer saves substantially by investing in legal aid. In the case of housing, the saving is £2.34 for every £1 spent on legal advice or legal aid; in the case of debt, £2.98 for every £1 spent; in the case of benefits advice, £8.80; and in the case of employment, £7.13.
Clearly, the justice system cannot be immune from the pressure to engender savings at a time when deficit reduction is a given, even if the scale and timing of reductions continue to be contestable issues. However, I urge the Government to consider very carefully the Law Society's proposals for savings. It identified £249 million-worth of savings for the Ministry of Justice from a range of measures, including improving the efficiency of the prosecution service and capping an individual lawyer's fees derived from legal aid. In addition, it accepts £62 million of the savings that the Government propose in the Green Paper, plus further savings from barristers' fees. I observe that the Law Society is rather quick to suggest reductions in barristers' fees; its enthusiasm may not be shared by the Bar Council. In addition, it suggests areas where revenue can be raised: for example, by a modest 1 per cent levy on the alcohol industry, which contributes significantly to the need for legal services not just in the criminal courts that in such areas as family law, housing, debt and welfare-or, on another track, by simplifying housing law. It estimates that £158 million could be raised from a variety of such measures. If all the savings suggested by the Law Society were to be adopted and implemented, they would bring a total of £469 million-worth of savings-substantially more than in the Government's proposals contained in the Green Paper.
There may be other ways of contributing to reductions in the civil legal aid budget. In earlier days, legal aid lawyers suffered a levy of 10 per cent on their costs, as eventually assessed by the courts or agreed with the other side. Perhaps we could revert to that system to generate money for the legal aid fund: or perhaps we could introduce a contingency fee system under which legally aided clients would contribute a proportion of their damages or sums that they recover to the legal aid fund, but preferably not to their lawyers. I recall suggesting such a scheme at a meeting where my noble friend Lord Boateng, then a Minister in another place, had roundly denounced fat-cat lawyers. Speaking, as I said at the time, as a moderately plump-cat lawyer, I thought that my proposal was worth investigating. He did not, and it was not: yet it still seems to me that such a system, coupled with the former practice that cases had to be independently assessed by practitioners as having a reasonable chance of success, and authority obtained to incur significant expenditure, would be better than the conditional fee system that is supposed to incentivise lawyers to undertake weaker cases-on the grounds that swings and roundabouts would apply-many of which might fail. Those cases would be subsidised from the fees from cases that they won. Of course, the conditional fee agreement is now to go.
The Lord Chancellor has made a refreshing start on reforming penal policy, distancing himself from both his Conservative and Labour predecessors. I applaud him for that, though not for yesterday's unfortunate pronouncements, but in this area of civil legal aid, he is in danger of making a grievous error. In the words of the current Lord Chief Justice, the proposals fail,
"to recognise the depth of the problem",
"the proposals would lead to a huge increase in the incidence of unrepresented litigants, with serious implications for the quality of justice and for the administration of the justice system".
Consider the following from the Jackson report from which the Government have cherry-picked recommendations about costs and conditional free agreements:
"I do not make any recommendations ... for the expansion or restoration of legal aid. I do, however, stress the vital necessity of making no further cut backs in legal aid availability or eligibility. The legal aid system plays a crucial role in promoting access to justice at proportionate cost in key areas".
Those are very salient words from a distinguished judge looking at this key issue of public policy.
I have quoted the present Lord Chief Justice, and I conclude by referring to a most distinguished predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who is not in his place today. Two or three years ago, the noble and learned Lord published a volume which is a distillation of his prudence, wisdom and humanity. It is called The Pursuit of Justice. The title is derived from the biblical injunction:
"Justice, justice shalt thou pursue".
I hope that this House in the course of this debate will endorse that sentiment and urge it on the Government.
Lord Faulks (Conservative)
My Lords, I should begin by declaring an interest as a practising barrister and also as chairman of research for the Society of Conservative Lawyers and editor of a pamphlet submitted to the Government and the Ministry of Justice as part of the consultation process in relation to the Government's proposals for the reform of legal aid.
The Government must cut £350 million by 2015. Although comparisons are not easy, we spend much more on legal aid than countries of an equivalent size and economic status. Legal aid, like other areas of government spending, must bear its share of pain. I agree with the Government that court proceedings should be very much the last resort and that encouragement should be given to people to seek remedies by other means.
The party opposite has accepted that had it been in power-I rely on what the shadow Minister in the other place, Sadiq Khan, said-there would have to have been significant cuts in any event. However, consistent with its approach generally, there has been a lack of specificity about where those cuts might fall, thereby leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre to criticise the proposals that the Government have put forward.
However, I welcome the debate secured by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and give credit to him and to the noble Baroness, Lady McDonagh, for initiating it. If one accepts that cuts have to be made, the question is where the axe should fall so as to cause the minimum of pain and to try to ensure, so far possible, that there remains meaningful access to justice. I share the concern of, I suspect, many noble Lords that the vista of unrepresented litigants will not necessarily be much of a saving in terms of the administration of justice. Cases tend to take longer and sometimes there are appeals on difficult points.
There is little time to deal with all the many issues that the Government's proposals involve. I shall refer to two. The first is clinical negligence. Some clinical negligence cases are of immense complexity-to take an example, an obstetric case which may result in a brain-damaged baby. These cases will involve myriad experts, quite rightly. They will include obstetricians, midwives, neuroradiologists, paediatric neurologists and neonatologists. A great deal of expertise is needed from them and from the lawyers to investigate what is often a very difficult matter: whether there has been a departure from the appropriate standard of care and, often even more difficult, whether such departure has or has not caused damage. An enormous amount of literature has been generated by this. It really does involve a great deal of skill. Very often the conclusion is reached by lawyers that there is no case, and the matter does not go forward. There is not to be any legal aid, even for the investigatory steps, and I suggest that is potentially going to cut off some very important cases. It means that those who really need compensation in the years to come may well be denied.
The Government's answer is the CFA system, but because of the changes in the CFA system that they propose following the partial implementation of Jackson, it will be very unattractive for many lawyers to take these cases. I fear that the limit to the success fee-25 per cent of damages excluding really sizeable amounts-and no recovery of after-event insurance mean that many firms are going to restrict their activities to very straightforward cases of egregious errors, the sort of cases, in fact, that would attract claims managers rather than responsible and experienced lawyers. I suggest to the Minister that if he does nothing else as a result of my observations he goes back to Sir Rupert Jackson and asks him whether he would approve of this effective pincer movement on those very worthwhile cases that are going to be prevented as a result of the Government's changes.
I will have to deal with my second point very briefly. The tone of the Government's response seems to suggest that there is some possibility of additional funding in cases where they may feel that they would be in breach of treaty obligations if they did not do so. Reading the subtext, I take this to be a suggestion that anything to do with Human Rights Act cases may still require legal aid. There are some very important Human Rights Act cases, but let me tell the House that there is an enormous number of very trivial Human Rights Act cases. The Government should not be frightened to say that if cases are not serious, do not involve large amounts of money and are not truly human rights issues, there should be no legal aid for them. There would be savings that could be better spent elsewhere.
Baroness Sherlock (Labour)
My Lords, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the Government's plans for legal aid: the proposal to take social welfare law out of scope. Of the cuts to be made, more than £l00 million will be cut from social welfare legal aid and, as a result, most social welfare law and legal advice will no longer be covered. I want to draw attention to the context in which these proposals are being made. The Welfare Reform Bill is currently making its way through another place. Its proposals are, frankly, a revolution in welfare benefits. Even the DWP, which is not given to overstatement, has described the Bill as,
"the biggest change to the welfare system for over 60 years".
The Bill will abolish most of the income-related benefits we know about-income support, jobseekers' allowance, employment and support allowance, tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit-and replace them with a single benefit called universal credit, many of whose key features are not yet clear, even though the Bill is about to come out of Committee in another place. There will also be other changes. There will be more conditionality for people already in jobs. Noble Lords will be aware of tests already being used to determine whether people are entitled to disability benefits. There is a dramatic change in the shift to local decisions on a range of benefits and provision, and there are proposals on the table which would significantly reduce access to the statutory system of child support. These proposals combined will dramatically change the landscape for poor people over the next few years.
My concern is that when Governments make changes on this scale, mistakes inevitably happen. It takes time for those administering new systems to calibrate the decisions that they make and to understand whether new systems will in fact achieve what they are meant to achieve. Many of the decisions made turn out in practice to be good. Others turn out not to be. Having those tested in court or tribunal often helps government as well as individuals understand what Parliament intended. Benefits law is very complex. The new system may be integrated, but anyone who has read the Welfare Reform Bill will know that that will not make it simple. It will simply make it integrated and complex rather than separate and complex. If someone is to challenge a decision if they have their benefits rejected or stopped or they are sanctioned in some way, they will need advice. The evidence is quite stark about the difference in success between those who are represented and those who are not, which is something that will presumably come as a relief to the many lawyers in your Lordships' House. Given all those changes, does this feel like a good time to stop providing advice and help to benefits claimants in those settings? I think not.
As well as the fact that benefits recipients tend to be poor, legal aid is targeted at poor people. Therefore, these changes clearly target the poorest people in our country. I am also concerned, as the CABs have pointed out, that the shift in the criteria for civil funding is moving towards crisis points, such as imminent homelessness, and away from the kind of legal help and advice which might prevent someone becoming homeless in the first place. That does not seem to be a sensible move.
Ensuring the rule of law, as is often observed, is one of the foremost duties of the state. But a citizen who cannot challenge a wrong decision by the state simply because they have not got the money cannot depend on the rule of law. That does not mean unlimited spending on legal aid; but it does mean that one does not remove from the scope of publicly funded legal support an entire aspect of law which is fundamental to the dignity and survival of some of our poorest citizens.
When the Welfare Reform Bill comes to this House, I hope very much that the considerable expertise around these Benches will be deployed in scrutinising it very carefully. It is substantial legislation and its changes will make a big difference to the lives of millions of people who depend on benefits. It is the kind of thing that this House does very well and I am sure that the Bill will not emerge in the same state as it came in. But what is the point of our spending weeks of parliamentary time scrutinising legislation, if, in practice, those who are affected by it have no means to ensure that Parliament's intentions are implemented.
I would ask the Minister to consider one thing in particular. If the Government will not move on these reforms in general, will he consider at least making no changes to the provision of legal aid, advice and help to benefit claimants at least until two years after the Welfare Reform Bill has been implemented in full? The very least people expect is that if Parliament makes decisions, they should be able to get justice according to them.
Lord Thomas of Gresford (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, there is no point in cutting legal aid if the effect is to increase government expenditure in other areas and at the same time deny access to justice. The Green Paper proposes a radical reduction in the scope of private family law issues for which legal aid will be available. That policy is based on a false premise; namely, that spending on legal aid fuels litigation and that the only alternative is mediation.
Family lawyers, as a group, are committed to settling cases out of court as expeditiously as possible, often by referring clients to mediation, but, more frequently, negotiating settlements themselves. In my early days as a solicitor, I was much involved in that sort of work. The Green Paper entirely neglects the current important role of lawyers in non-court-based resolution of legal disputes, particularly financial and custody disputes. It is very probably because clients were able to see a solicitor that litigation was avoided in many cases. Without professional guidance, ill founded and certainly ill prepared litigation conducted by the client in person will inevitably follow. That will mean a very substantial rise in the number of litigants in person in the family courts. Sir David Norgrove, chair of the Family Justice Review panel, in his interim report, which was published recently, has emphasised this point.
Those who lack the personal energy and other resources to take on litigation by themselves would not get access to justice at all. Those who have not been able to enforce the other party's private law responsibilities for support and so on inevitably fall back on the state for housing and support, so that is where more state expenditure is incurred. One reason why mediation is currently successful is that the threat of litigation encourages people to adopt sensible positions in mediation or in settlement discussions. With that threat effectively removed in many cases by the removal of public funding for legal representation, successful mediation will be severely hampered.
Legal aid is to be granted where there is physical violence. There is an obvious perverse incentive for people to allege domestic violence just to get access to funding for their other issues. The other side to the argument could say, "Well, I never did that", which will increase more contested court proceedings. Many women who do not disclose domestic violence that they have suffered, or refuse to apply for injunctive relief in relation to it, will not get a proper and safe resolution of the issues. The very class of person which the Green Paper most wants to protect will be left unprotected and in potentially extremely dangerous situations. Domestic violence very often comes to light only through the lawyers' handling of the case when they learn it from a client who has kept it concealed from their family. Mediation in such cases will not work and should not be tried at all.
Medical negligence cases have played a very important role in improving health care by setting standards, publicising deficiencies and punishing failures. The thalidomide case is a very good example. In many cases, new procedures have been introduced and developed as a result of litigation. According to the Green Paper, taking clinical negligence out of legal aid would save £17 million.
Of the 500,000 avoidable incidents in England alone, as estimated by the DoH in 2009-10, the National Health Service Litigation Authority received only 6,652 claims. Expert solicitors who handle these claims will decide in 75 per cent of them that there is no case. Sometimes there is negligence but no injury and sometimes there is injury but no negligence. It is not possible to assess the chances of success in clinical negligence cases at the start of the case. There must be funding to find out if there is a case and for the higher cost cases. I follow the noble Lord, Lord Faulks in his pointing out that whether the issue is negligence or causation, expensive expert medical evidence is required to establish a basis for the claim before a decision to proceed is made.
The Government propose to remove legal aid for clinical negligence at the same time-I repeat, at the same time-as changing the no-win, no-fee agreements. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, who pointed out to me that children who were said to be still covered for clinical negligence cases are not to be, on which I am sure she will expand. When Sir Rupert Jackson published his proposals, he said:
"I stress the vital necessity of making no further cutbacks in legal aid availability or eligibility ... the maintenance of legal aid at no less than the present levels makes sound ... sense and is in the public interest".
His proposals are based on the continuing existence of legal aid. Its removal will deny access to justice to some of the most vulnerable groups in the country-children, the sick and disabled. The need to streamline costs and for systems to be efficient should not be at their expense.
Baroness Northover (Whip, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that this is another time-limited debate. When the clock reaches the five, noble Lords have had their five minutes.
Lord Dubs (Labour)
My Lords, anyone who has had elected office as a Member of Parliament or as a local councillor will know how important it is to be able to advise constituents to go to a local law centre, Citizens Advice or even legal aid solicitors. It is perfectly clear that the Government's proposals will hit the most vulnerable. All the figures point to that: 85 per cent of people who got legal aid were among the poorest 20 per cent of the population. It is clear that the vulnerable will be hit particularly hard. There is also the specifically the even more shocking issue that there will be no more legal aid for children who are the victims of medical accidents or negligence.
It is clear that early intervention when people have difficulties is a much quicker way of resolving their problems. It is also more economic. To take the all-too-common case of someone who gets into rent arrears, if they get advice at an early stage, the situation can be dealt with and they do not become homeless. If it is left for too long, they would become homeless, at which point they may get legal aid, but it is costly for the public purse and awful for the individual concerned. We have already heard the statistics about the savings there could be from early intervention as opposed to leaving it late and more public money having to be spent.
I was shocked, as were other noble Lords, to learn that, in the Government's view, domestic violence is now to be the gateway to receiving legal aid in relation to family law. This is turning the matter on its head because fear of violence often is the key issue-more than the violence itself. Certainly, people could turn this on its head and say that violence is being used in order to get the benefit or that such an accusation is being made.
It is increasingly clear that the procedures governing immigration, education, employment, welfare benefit and so on are becoming more and more complex. Certainly, going to a tribunal requires expert help and advice. Without it, most people will not be able to manage the process. Legal advice is helpful in that it can persuade people that, if their case has no merit, they will not proceed to a tribunal, so a saving is made. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, in 2010 some 50 new statutory instruments covering social security, housing benefit and tax credits were produced. These are complex matters and it is hard to see how people, with the best will in the world, can secure their rights without expert help.
It has been suggested by the Government that telephone advice might work. Of course it will work for some people, but anyone who has had a constituency knows that people come along to the surgery with their documents. They demonstrate their difficulties by showing you the bills they cannot pay and so on. It makes the matter much clearer than it would be on the telephone. Further, urging people to use telephone advice will be particularly damaging to the more vulnerable and the poorer social classes.
I shall finish on a specific issue, that of forced marriages. I attended a meeting here earlier in the week on this subject. These cases mainly concern women who are usually very vulnerable and have no money. By definition their families cannot help them because it is the families who are often the cause of the problem. What can these women do? We have the Forced Marriage Protection Order which can provide some help. But, frankly, accessing that order without legal help is virtually impossible. It is quite a widespread problem. Estimates of any accuracy are difficult to come by, but the joint Home Office/Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit was approached last year by nearly 2,000 women. Other estimates suggest that forced marriages may run at between 5,000 and 8,000 cases a year. The only safeguard, or bit of a safeguard, is the Forced Marriage Protection Order, and I do not understand how it can be accessed without legal help.
Lord Hart of Chilton (Labour)
My Lords, when I arrived in the Lord Chancellor's Department in 1998, my experience of legal aid had been limited to the pro bono activities of my firm, Herbert Smith, which, from a position of economic comfort, nevertheless looked across the City boundaries to the much poorer London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington, and made contributions to, among other things, local law centres. I shall come back to those in a moment. So it was only in 1998 that I realised the enormity of the legal aid problem, and that there was an asteroid with "legal aid" written on it advancing towards the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Budgetary restraint that was increasing year by year meant that the greater priorities of health and education placed heavy restrictions on funds for legal aid. This was compounded by the fact that the first claim on such funds went to criminal cases where there was a priority to defend those who faced the prospect of loss of liberty. It was impossible to ring-fence a fund earmarked for civil legal aid. Yet, when I began to make visits to law and legal advice centres, to citizens advice bureaux in the inner London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets and Southwark, and to major cities outside London such as Bristol and Nottingham, I was immediately impressed by the need for greater investment in providing help and advice towards solving civil problems before they involved the courts.
The spiral of decline triggered by one event leading to another was all too obvious from the case studies I saw. For example, loss of income caused by unemployment could lead to debt, which in turn could lead to homelessness, which could lead to domestic violence and bring about marital breakdown, then to ill health in the short and the long term, both physical and mental, along with harmful negative effects on children and their educational performance, thus affecting their future life chances. Of course, the dominos do not all fall at the same time, but the spiral is well documented. I was particularly impressed by the work of Professor Dame Hazel Genn at University College London in her book, Paths to Justice, and she was a great help to the department in my day.
I also pay tribute to the selfless work of those in the law centres and agencies whom I observed at first hand. There were no handsome salaries to compare with the private sector and many were volunteers. Local authorities were unable to offer much help, and it was left to us to provide the seed corn. The law centres correctly pointed out that early advice and intervention could help break the spiral of decline. It was also self-evident that each of the components of the spiral brought with it economic costs for society as a whole. It therefore followed that early successful interventions would not only save costs, but also prevent problems escalating. A cost-benefit analysis outlined by Citizens Advice in July 2010 demonstrates the advantages of early advice in respect of housing, debt, benefits, employment and family. In monetary terms, the benefits are enormous and are real value for money, vindicating the principle and justifying the amount of civil legal aid as a worthwhile investment.
I am proud of the fact that the previous Government introduced the Community Legal Service and, notwithstanding the fact that they were faced with a growing need to effect savings in the legal aid budget, which they did, they always sought to protect social welfare law. My fear is that those who I saw making such a valuable contribution by providing immediate help to those in the most urgent need of it will now be faced with a setback from which it will be difficult to recover. In response to the suggestion that the voluntary sector will fill the gap left by the removal of civil legal aid in the proposed areas, I can see no evidence for such an assertion.
The legal profession can be justifiably proud of its record of pro bono activities. It has provided millions of pounds' worth of endeavours in that respect. I have checked the policy of my former firm on what is now called corporate responsibility, and the corporate responsibility plan at my wife's firm, Norton Rose. They are impressive policies, like many of those adopted by other City firms of solicitors, but they just will not be able to close the gap that will open up. In spite of the outstanding achievements of these policies, even all of the City firms put together will not provide enough to cover the expected shortfall in the inner London areas surrounding the City, let alone the rest of the country. We must also remember that local authorities are still strapped for cash and therefore unlikely to be able to help. I hope that the Minister will explain how advice deserts, as they have been called, in some of the most deprived communities in the country, are to be avoided. Without more civil legal aid, I cannot see how they can be.
The Earl of Listowel (Crossbench)
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for tabling this timely debate. I share the respect and admiration of the Government for the work of the voluntary agencies in this area, but as the previous speaker said, it is hard to see how they can meet the depth of need. I should like to concentrate on two issues, one of which is the separate representation of children in family court proceedings. It is important that, when parents are fighting with each other, the child's voice is not lost. I would like a reassurance from the noble Lord that tandem representation of the type developed by the National Youth Advocacy Service is not denied to children because of these changes and cuts. I want also to focus on the impact of the lack of access to justice for young people and adults who have been in local authority care. Despite welcome investment and attention both in policy and legislation, for many young people, care has been an appalling experience. It leaves them vulnerable in later life to succumb to many of the problems that have been described today. Many of them deserve redress for the way they have been disappointed.
At a meeting held yesterday of young people in care, care leavers, foster carers and social workers, a young woman talked about being in care but separated from her siblings. There was another report of siblings being split between several different foster carers. We heard about the anguish of the young person involved as they lost touch with their siblings, and the sense that no real attention was paid to the need to keep in touch with brothers and sisters. We heard from a young man who had had 20 different placements during his years in care. Another young woman had had five different social workers within the last two years. We also heard about the instability that continues to affect care.
We also heard about the welcome report from Professor Eileen Munro into how social work can be streamlined and improved. I pay tribute both to this and the previous Government on their efforts, but there is a long way to go. In particular, we heard from a young mother whose child had been removed from her. We know that if a young woman is in care, she is far more likely to become pregnant during her teenage years and that her child is more likely to be removed from her. This young mother expressed her belief that the reason for her child being removed from her later in life was that her mental health needs had not been met while she had been in care. There is very clear evidence that when children are taken into care and have had trauma, they should be properly assessed by a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist. They are not currently getting that proper assessment. The specialist looked-after children's mental health teams that have been developed in recent years are expensive, complex to run and are only patchily in place. Many young people are not getting the support they need for their mental health needs in care. The young mother to whom I have referred went in person to the European Court of Justice over the case of her child being removed. Exceptionally, the court accepted consideration of her case.
We heard at the same meeting a barrister who had been in care speak about his admiration for a young person who had gone to court to seek redress from his local authority for the way that he had been treated and how he stood up for his rights.
I should like reassurance from the Minister that young people and adults who have been disappointed by the treatment that they have received in care can have access to justice in order to get the support they need; for instance, in paying for counselling and therapy.
It is very important that the voice of children in family courts is not lost, that they continue to have separate representation when that is appropriate, and that there is every opportunity for young people leaving the care system, and adults who have experienced it, to get redress for the way that they have on many occasions been denied their right to family life and for the disappointing treatment that they have often received.
Lord Haskel (Labour)
My Lords, normally I do not trouble your Lordships on legal matters-they are way above my station. I normally speak on more lowly matters such as business and industry, science and technology. But on this occasion I felt that my noble friend's case was so strong and so compelling that I wanted to show my support. So with apologies to noble and learned Lords for trespassing on their territory, let me try to put this case in a way that we practical people see things.
The first thing that we look at are the numbers. Legal aid is a big number and is paid by a small department, the Ministry of Justice. Is this a true picture? In the world of business, we are pretty good at presenting numbers so as to project the impression that we want to give. Is this being done here?
Many noble Lords have spoken of legal aid in health, housing, employment and criminal negligence. Surely these are matters for their respective government departments, not all for the Ministry of Justice. If legal aid costs were allocated to these various departments, surely the costs would become much smaller-they would become minuscule. So I put it to the Minister that if the costs were allocated differently, the numbers might tell a different story.
We technologists are very keen on understanding the theory behind things, how they work and why they happen. We like to understand the cause so that we can foresee the effect. If there is a theory that we cannot understand, we rather think that there is something phoney behind it.
So what is the theory behind cutting legal aid? We know the effect, but what is the cause? Justifying it simply by the need to save money, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, was doing, is intellectually very weak. It will be to the lasting shame of this Government if we come to look back on things and say that the only reason that we could find was that we could not afford it. So can the Minister be intellectually more robust and explain these civil legal aid cuts in terms of the rights and wrongs of civil legal aid rather than just saying that we cannot afford it?
In my world, we are very keen on testing, both in theory and in practice. We are very suspicious of things that are done in a blinding rush before they can be tested, because that is the way that mistakes are made.
Now, we all know why this Government are in a rush. They have read Tony Blair's book, where he says that his biggest regret is that he did not get on with doing things straightaway. What he did not say in his book is that we spent a lot of time thinking and discussing our way through problems, looking at alternatives, consulting, learning from other people's experience and trying out different ideas in White Papers and Green Papers so that the best one won, so that policies such as Sure Start came out of several false starts.
Everybody in my world thinks that that is the best way of ensuring success. I find this careful preparation and testing absent in the Government's attitude towards civil legal aid. Surely we owe it to those who depend on it to search for alternative solutions, such as the reduction in costs mentioned by my noble friend Lord Beecham or the matters referred to by my noble friend Lady Sherlock and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas.
Other noble Lords have spoken about injustice, about unfairness, and they are of course absolutely right to raise it. But in my world we seek fairness not only because it is morally right but because, once it is absent, harm starts to happen. In the practical business world, when harm starts to happen, things start to go rapidly downhill. Purely to avoid trouble, will the Minister review the fairness and the injustice of the Government's decision?
It may well be that the Government do not care for that section of the community that depends on legal aid, so all the things that we have said do not really matter. But I do not think that that is the kind of society that we want to live in. It certainly matters to me.
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Labour)
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Haskel asked why these cuts were taking place. I want to quote to your Lordships something that Jonathan Djanogly, the justice department Minister in charge of legal aid, said at the Conservative Party conference last year. It shows an attitude to legal aid which is to misunderstand it. Mr Djanogly seemed to suggest that legal aid might be a good way of keeping busy women who wanted to return to work after maternity leave. He said:
"Legal aid can be a good filler for those lawyers out of work or women who want to get back into the legal job market after having children".
Mr Djanogly spent 21 years in practice with the wealthy international commercial law firm SJ Berwin and earned sums which we associate with top bankers. It may well be that lawyers such as he have no understanding that someone would choose to do legal aid work not because they are looking to fill in, not because they have come back after having babies, as I did, but because they chose from the beginning to give voice to those who are usually voiceless within the system.
I have spent my life doing legal aid work and I have done it through choice. Chambers such as mine win the pro bono awards every year despite the fact that all of our lawyers are legal aid lawyers. Why do they win the prizes for pro bono? It is basically because their life experience in the courts gives them necessary expertise in these areas, so that when they come to do pro bono they are not filling in-or coming like a grandee to offer kindness and charity to the poor-but coming with expertise on welfare rights, employment and what it is like to be poor and on the margins. The starting point is wrong and misunderstands the purpose of legal aid. The purpose is set out in the 1949 legal aid Act: to ensure that no one will be financially unable to prosecute a just and a reasonable claim or defend a legal right.
As I have previously told the House, I chair Justice. We have a number of concerns with which I can deal briefly because most of the other contributors to the debate have pointed out the things that I wanted to say. I reinforce the view that the cuts to the scope of legal aid will be particularly damaging to social welfare law, employment, housing and education for the most disadvantaged. I am concerned about how that will impact on those with special needs, the mentally ill and so on.
We have to test and question some of these ideas in the House because legal aid will not be well defended by the public. Generally, if it is health or education, the public will rally, but they will not do so around legal aid because they think that it is about fat-cat lawyers. The reason for that is a malevolent combination between sometimes government Ministers and the media. It has never been my experience that fat-cat lawyers do legal aid; the vast majority who do are usually committed, decent, good people who are fairly slender and certainly not living high on the hog.
A number of the ideas are certainly worth exploring-for example, the idea of a call centre as the first point of access for the many people who do not know how to start finding a lawyer. However, it should be piloted first because there is a real concern that it will fail to deal with those who have low communication skills or complicated cases, as others have said.
I am also worried about the removal of legal aid from matrimonial cases because of the inequality of arms that it will create for women. So often in the courts already the male spouse is privately represented and the female spouse is legally aided and represented by a legal aid lawyer. She will be cut out and, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said, this may well drive people to make allegations of domestic violence. Even where there has been some domestic violence it is usually not pursued for strategic reasons, because it would not be good for the children to hear rehearsed the details of what happened inside the relationship between the parents. That might lead to undesirable consequences.
I am also concerned about clinical negligence cases. Given the high initial cost of establishing liability, removing legal aid completely will mean that poor people who suffer terrible things within our hospitals will not be able to sue.
The proposals are rushed and, rather like the National Health Service proposals, they need to be given time. I ask for a little let-up and that we examine the proposals before rushing into a folly that will have serious consequences for the poor.
Lord Crisp (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am delighted to contribute to the debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on giving us all the opportunity to do so.
I declare an interest. My daughter is a lawyer practising in legal aid. However, I am not just standing here as a proud father: I have an interest in this topic and I am concerned, as noble Lords will see from what I say in these few minutes, with the knock-on effects in areas such as health and social welfare, which I do indeed know a lot about.
As a layman looking at these proposals I can see that the starting point of reducing dependency on the law and finding better ways to solve disputes is a good aim. I can also see that setting priorities and justifying the use of public funds is entirely appropriate. As a former permanent secretary I understand this well-but I also understand that the devil is in the detail and that there will be unintended consequences that must be managed and mitigated. It is particularly sad in this case that these unintended consequences can clearly be foreseen now. A large part of what is being proposed is about limiting the use of legal aid to crisis points, such as the point at which you lose your house, domestic violence, serious disrepairs and so on. That first begs the question of how well these are defined and interpreted. Then, picking up the powerful points made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and others, there is the perverse effect of having to up the ante so that the problem is at that level before you can receive any legal advice.
There is another point. For many people seeking legal aid, the issue that they present with is one of a complex of other issues, not their only problem. Many people have housing problems. They may have health or mental health problems, they may be out of work or have chaotic lifestyles. They must just have multiple problems. The point is that we need to think in terms of not just the seriousness of the issue that is presented but also the scale of the situation and the vulnerability of the people who are presenting the problem. Smaller issues may trip some people over into needing much more help. As I have looked at this issue, I have seen many cases where good legal advice can stop problems and avoid further litigation. As other people have said, there is overwhelming evidence that this can be and is the case in many places.
The Government have also argued in their proposal that alternatives are available. Maybe it is entirely desirable that there should be alternatives available to reaching for a lawyer when you are in these sorts of problems-but are they available? From what other noble Lords are saying, there seems to be a great deal of evidence that there is no guarantee of reliably high-quality advice available elsewhere or everywhere. The point for the Government in making these proposals is that this is an eminently foreseeable problem. How are they going to make sure that alternative services for advice and help really are available-and available to the most vulnerable? In parenthesis, I take the point on the difficulties of having a single source of entry from a telephone system. The reality is that when you are dealing with people with multiple problems and issues you need to look at a range of different channels to reach them, not just one.
I also note that the Government have done an impact assessment of these proposals. Not only are there problems that can be foreseen, but they have foreseen them. They raise a long list of possible problems about social cohesion, increased criminality, the impact of resources on other departments, and a recognition, in their words, that,
"failure to resolve one issue may lead to another arising".
On health, they recognise that there may be a potential negative effect on health. I will give some simple examples for which there is plenty of evidence. First, on health and housing, we know that unrepaired, damp houses affect both the mental and physical health of adults and children. Research by the LSE for the Department of Health shows that debt advice can not only lower costs for the health, social care and legal systems but can also reduce the risk of individuals developing mental health problems.
Finally, having done that assessment, what are the Government going to do about it? What policies will be put in place to mitigate and manage these problems which are affecting and will potentially affect the health of individuals? There may be unintended consequences of these policies but they are foreseeable. Indeed, the Government seem to have foreseen them.
Lord Touhig (Labour)
My Lords, when my noble friend Lord Beecham opened the debate, he told us that the Government had underestimated the number of people who will be denied funding as a result of their changes to legal aid. The Legal Action Group, which discovered this error, stated that the Government had "grossly underestimated" the impact of their cuts. The error came about because the Government chose to base the impact assessment on statistics from 2008-09-more than a year out of date. The Legal Action Group's director, Steve Hynes, described the Government as using,
"the most generous interpretation of the data it thought it could get away with".
It is clear from these findings that the number of people seeking help with legal problems is far higher than the Government estimated that it would be. The Law Society's chief executive, Desmond Hudson, said that it is,
"hard to dispel the suspicion that once again the MoJ has embarked on a programme of painful change, without properly understanding the impact of its proposals".
At present, legal aid is available to the poorest parents of children with special educational needs who appeal against decisions made by their local councils about additional support for their child. That is as it should be given the fact that 82 per cent of parents win their appeals and 30 per cent of the appeals are conceded by the local authority even before the case reaches a tribunal. Yet the Government now propose to remove all legal aid where it relates to matters of special educational needs. While discrimination claims would still receive support, for many parents the only way to get the help that their child needs is through appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal and support for these will be withdrawn.
The Government seek to justify its removal for three main reasons. First, they say that the education of children cannot be accorded the same level of priority as other important issues. Surely, access to a suitable and challenging education is the right of every child, and if they miss out on such an education they are disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Disabled children already face many barriers in society, and a failure to provide them with a suitable education puts them at an even greater disadvantage. While the Government have taken some welcome steps to support families with disabled children, they threaten to undermine this by withdrawing legal aid, which many families need to ensure that their children get a decent level of education. The importance of providing an appropriate education to all children, especially those with special educational needs, is such that it should be given the same priority as other important issues.
Secondly, the Government say that they do not believe parents and carers bringing cases like the ones I have mentioned to be particularly vulnerable. But the consultation document from the Ministry of Justice recognises that disabled children are more likely to live with one or more parent who has a disability. Equally, the parents of disabled children are more likely to be in poverty or in single-parent families. These facts make nonsense of the Government's statement that the parents bringing these cases are not likely to be particularly vulnerable. The withdrawal of legal aid in such circumstances risks taking away support from parents who are already financially disadvantaged and pushing even more families with a disabled child into poverty. Surely that renders such parents particularly vulnerable and means that they should be given the support they need rather than making them the victims of these cuts.
In addition to making the wrong decision when assessing the vulnerability of parents, the Government in their equality impact assessment failed to consider the impact of withdrawing legal aid on the children themselves. Some 60 per cent of pupils who leave school without GCSEs have special educational needs, and they are not likely to be in education, training or employment at the age of 19. Taking away legal aid from parents who are supporting these children is an absolute disgrace.
Finally, the Government believe that there are sufficient alternative sources to justify the removal of legal aid in these cases. To support the argument, they identify the parent partnership service, the Advisory Centre for Education and the Independent Parental Special Education Advice service. The advisory centre and IPSEA already have more requests than they can cope with and the parent partnership service is facing huge budget cuts by local authorities. Therefore, legal aid will be at risk.
None of the Government's reasons for withdrawing legal aid from those with special educational needs stands up to scrutiny, and I hope they will think again. In a civilised society, this cannot be justified.
Baroness Turner of Camden (Labour)
My Lords, I also am concerned about the proposed cuts in the provision of civil legal aid, to which a number of noble Lords have already referred. In his introduction to the consultation paper, the Justice Secretary claims that the proposals are justified because legal aid has expanded to cases that should not require legal expertise to be resolved. In some cases, the right to civil legal aid will be retained-for judicial review, homelessness and domestic violence, among others. On the down side, the largest casualty will be private family cases where there is no element of domestic violence or false marriage. Many women who currently get legal aid for ancillary relief will be directed to mandatory mediation, and that is all. Their former partners, if unco-operative, will simply wait out the inconvenience and continue their intransigence. But there is an even worse aspect.
Legal aid will be denied in cases of children who have been victims of medical negligence. It is really awful to think that a child, who could have been disabled perhaps for life as a result of medical negligence, would have no redress. I understand that the Government say that under no-win no-fee arrangements child victims will be able to sue for compensation. However, it seems that those arrangements are under review by the Government. Anyhow, I think that it is an entirely unsatisfactory response.
Those who lose out will be mainly women, their children, and the disabled. Those with disabilities will be disproportionately hit by cuts to areas such as clinical negligence and education, and children such as those fighting cerebral palsy, birth injuries and those requiring additional educational support will be cut out of entitlement.
In the words of a well known lawyer writing in Counsel, the journal of the Bar Council, the consultative paper destroys the coherent national system of legal advice and replaces it with a hideously complicated list of entitlements and restrictions. He concludes that it is outrageous that half a million people on benefit incomes, or just above, will lose entitlement to legal aid because of the excesses of bankers with staggering incomes and, maybe, the incompetence of those managing government finances. I agree. The Government really must think again, particularly about the likely effect upon the most vulnerable-children and the disabled.
A section of the consultative paper deals with employment, and here the Government seem rather confused. The paper refers to "user-friendly procedures" available via the tribunals, where individuals can in effect represent themselves so there is no need at all to provide legal aid in an employment context. The present arrangements are described in glowing terms. However, over at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills an entirely different view is taken. The Business Secretary is now in favour of proposals that make it easier for employers to dismiss workers and more difficult for workers to make claims for unfair dismissal.
To get to a tribunal at all a worker will have to pay a fee, perhaps a large one, and it will not be the nice friendly tribunal envisaged in the Justice Secretary's paper-oh no. The lay sidespersons currently on tribunals, who are representative of both sides of industry, are to be withdrawn. The unemployed worker must put his case to a judge sitting alone, so a so-called nice friendly set-up is to be transformed into an entirely legal one, with, of course, no assistance provided.
There is only one piece of advice that I could give to an employee: if you are not yet a member of a trade union, join one as soon as you can. Unions are skilled at representing their members, and the Government are introducing an environment in which you will need all the protection you can get.
Baroness King of Bow (Labour)
My Lords, in the time available I want to make three points about the proposed cuts to civil legal aid. First, the cuts target the poorest but reduce standards for all of us. Secondly, the cuts in their present form actually increase costs to the taxpayer. Thirdly, not only do they restrict access to justice but, as we have heard, they specifically remove legal aid from children who are victims of medical accidents or negligence.
I find that almost unbelievable. Who in their right mind would think that it was an acceptable idea to remove legal aid from a child who had been disabled for life due to a medical accident or, still worse, negligence? I have written to all noble Lords asking them to write to the Prime Minister on this point because I feel so strongly about it. Regardless of our politics, I do not believe that there is a single one of us in this House who thinks that that is a good and proper thing to do. I hope all of us believe that Great Britain should be a country that provides legal aid to children who are victims in these circumstances, not one that would deny those children any recourse to justice.
Giving Members on the government Benches the benefit of the doubt, what on earth is this about? Even more perplexingly, this is not just about saving money; if it were, the Government would welcome the Law Society's proposals with open arms. These cut more than the Government's £350 million cuts to legal aid. The Law Society, playing an excellent hand of poker, has raised the Government's cuts and said, "We'll cut even more". So, if this is about saving money, why cannot we take on board the expertise of those who actually work in the sector? Critically, the Law Society's cuts do not involve removing recourse to justice from the most vulnerable.
Coming to perhaps the most salient point, it is not just the poorest who will suffer. We will all suffer. If we do not have legal aid to challenge Rachman-type housing, for example, housing standards will not improve. If we do not have legal aid to challenge medical negligence, care in the health service overall will not improve. We see how case law in Britain protects all British people. Look at the Hillsborough disaster, the thalidomide case and the Clapham rail crash; all involved elements of civil legal aid and led to safety improvement, whether for healthcare, stadium safety or transport. Therefore, although evidently only the poorest qualify for civil legal aid, the resulting case law protects us all. We will be worse off if this goes through as currently planned. I ask the Government to think again and for intelligent cuts. None of us thinks that no cuts should be made, but they should not be self-inflicted cuts that will wound this country grievously.
"We propose to retain the current scope of Legal Help and Representation",
covering legal aid for medical negligence. It uses a few more words than that but that is essentially what it says. It goes on to say:
"We propose to remove all Legal Help and Representation",
around medical negligence, again using a lot more words. Which is it? I know the Government have said that it was an accident and that they did not mean to give children that cover. However, the good thing about such a contradictory Green Paper is that the Government can do a U-turn and say, "Oh, that is what we were thinking all along". That is what I hope they will do. Please step back from these proposals. It is bad enough to remove help from the most vulnerable, but to do so when it seems clear that it will increase costs to other departments is frankly insane. I shall write to the Minister with a full list of examples of how costs will increase in other departments.
I fully realise that in this House a law we often pass is that of unintended consequences. However, here the consequences are clear. I implore the Minister to commission an impact assessment before going further with something that could severely damage this country's fantastic justice system.
Lord Bach (Labour)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Beecham for instigating this debate and all noble Lords who have spoken in it. There can be no doubt that this debate is both timely and vital. It is timely because the Government are, we are told, close to announcing their decisions on their consultation paper of last November. It is vital because if the Government stick to their Green Paper proposals, the system of social welfare legal aid will be decimated, if not destroyed. The situation is as serious as that. Nearly 750,000 people will no longer be eligible for legal help. Huge swathes of social welfare law-in housing, debt, education and employment-will be declared out of scope. Legal help that catches problems early will no longer be available in many cases, and the eventual cost to the state, as we have heard, will be much higher.
These proposals are nothing short of an attack on the poor-no more and no less. They are the wrong cuts at the wrong time and hurt the wrong people. It is therefore hardly surprising that many groups have banded together to try to persuade the Government just to think again. This debate is part of that process. I pay tribute to Justice for All, the umbrella group that covers many groups that have taken up this cause, and to the Law Society and the Bar Council. I also pay tribute to many Members of another place from all political parties, who have said: first, that this is wrong; secondly, that there are alternatives; and, thirdly, that to implement the proposals as they stand would be disastrous, uncivilised, discriminatory and hugely counterproductive.
Of course, there must be cuts. We accepted that when we were in government, and we accept it now. Indeed, we cut legal aid, controversially in some cases. If we had been returned to government at the previous election, we would have made some cuts, but not as many, nor as fast as the proposals that we are discussing. We would probably have made cuts in the field of criminal law following the publication of our White Paper Restructuring the Delivery of Criminal Defence Services, which was published in March 2010. Those substantial cuts would have been controversial, but not as substantial as this Government's. However, when we were in government we refused point blank to cut social welfare legal aid. Indeed, we increased it from £151 million in 2007-08 to £208.4 million in 2009-10-our last year in office.
We also raised the financial eligibility limit for civil legal aid by 5 per cent in 2009, making it possible for many more people to receive the legal help that they needed. Now the Government propose to cut eligibility significantly. The ministerial achievement of which I am perhaps most proud was that of saving the South-West London Law Centre from closure. At a time of economic difficulty it is madness to cut legal aid in this way, but the Government intend to do so. If legal aid does not give at least some access to justice for those who are dispossessed or disadvantaged, whether through poverty, bad housing, unemployment, low wages, the colour of their skin or their mental and physical health, what is the point of having a legal aid system?
The case has perhaps never been as well put as by Helen Grant, the new Conservative Member of Parliament for Maidstone and The Weald, in an article in a national newspaper in February this year. The article states that,
"as civil liberty is to the freedoms of our nation, civil legal aid is to the protection of its citizens. For some of our most vulnerable people, it is the only sword and shield in their armoury".
Common sense and the expert research of Professor Hazel Genn and others, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hart, tell us that early legal advice changes lives. We know that legal problems come in clusters and not singly and that a lack of such early and comprehensive advice can lead to problems escalating out of control, leading to relationship breakdown, unpaid and hopeless debts, and sometimes a decline into crime, with all the misery that that brings with it. Yet I fear that that will be one of the almost inevitable results of these proposals if they are implemented. Then there is the cost to the state and to all of us as taxpayers when no legal help is given. The savings that the CAB calculates would arise from spending £1 of legal aid money were mentioned by my noble friend Lord Beecham in his opening speech. The Government's proposals are financially hugely counterproductive.
As has been said, the lawyers who practise this type of law are not well paid. Some of them have given up the possibility of well paid careers in other areas of law. Yet the Government plan to take 10 per cent from each modest fee that they receive for giving social welfare advice. We know that a number of CABs will not be able to carry on, and that private solicitors, who have been under pressure for some time, may be tipped over the edge. However, we should also state clearly that the law centre movement, which does so much for the dispossessed and underprivileged in our society, is likely to be crushed. There is a proposed 77.6 per cent reduction in funding for legal help and an 83.6 per percent reduction planned in the number of legal help cases, all at the same time as local authority spend is falling. Whether intended or not, these proposals may well destroy law centres, with a disastrous effect on their clients.
Why these proposals? On the whole, previous Conservative Governments have been generous in their support for legal aid. The Liberal Democrats have demanded more money to be spent on legal aid-they demanded that of us and criticised our cuts. They, too, have argued for social welfare law. How can Ministers have signed up to these proposals? My own view is not that Ministers want to play the role of the wicked uncle who wants to destroy anything good he comes across. It is simply, and here I follow my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, that they just do not get it. Their view of legal aid is very limited and old-fashioned, so they do not see its relevance to social welfare law. Ministers keep using the mantra that their proposals are to protect the most vulnerable when, quite obviously, they are the exact opposite. If implemented their measures would, far from protecting the most vulnerable, directly harm them. Whatever they do in the end, Her Majesty's Government should stop this 1984 Orwellian-type misuse of language.
In my view, however, the Minister who is to reply to this debate does get it. His whole political history shows him to be someone who understands the importance of what is about to be destroyed. Our request to him is: please fight these proposals within your department and do not let these fundamentally anti-liberal measures be implemented. He enjoys a huge reputation in this House, both personally and politically. If he were to succeed in mitigating these proposals, that reputation would soar even higher. Why should he bother, he might ask? Legal aid is not his portfolio but someone else's. He should bother because this is not fundamentally a legal issue at all. It is not just one for lawyers, in government or outside it, and it is not one for non-lawyer Ministers and non-lawyers generally to shy away from. It is a simple issue about right or wrong and justice or injustice. In the end, I say to the noble Lord, it is a simple question of morality.
Lord McNally (Minister of State, Justice; Liberal Democrat)
"The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason".
My objectives in politics, like those of most people in this House, are of course of a moral kind. I did not come into politics to hurt the poor but there is the fact-in this I am not playing the usual party political game-that when we came into government we also came into the biggest financial crisis that this country had faced in 80 years. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, knows full well-because his own Government were planning cuts-that whoever the Ministers were going to be, they would be faced with tough, hard decisions.
To govern is to choose and every department has had to make tough decisions. I do not resile from these. If you are in a department which has only three big-ticket items-prisons, probation and legal aid-and you are asked, as part of the contribution to economic recovery, to find £2 billion in savings, you will have to look at those three big-ticket items. In looking at legal aid, we have tried to look in the most compassionate way at the scope of the areas that we cover. I have answered questions before on this subject. If part of your government system is targeted on the poorest sections of your community and you cut that budget then you are going to hurt those sections of the community. That is the same thing that is happening with local authorities around the country and other departments in looking at their various budgets. It is too easy and I have to say that even with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, at the end, not one of the speakers actually put forward a hard choice as if they were at this Dispatch Box. It is all right to say that we have plans to raid criminal legal aid, or the Law Society is going to shift the cost on to the drinks industry, or-I think the jargon is "the polluter pays"-that it will be spread around Whitehall, but even spreading it around Whitehall leaves the Exchequer with the need to save the money.
I do not doubt the passion that has been expressed today and some very valid points have been made. I will try to deal with specifics as I go through. We are still in consultation. I cannot say that the consultation is going to produce some Pauline conversion at the last moment. As I say, we have made a commitment to savings and we intend to deliver them. What we have tried to do is to look at the whole philosophy of the system of legal aid, which a number of speakers acknowledge had grown and expanded since its introduction in 1949. I went to see the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson-Jeremy Hutchinson from the Liberal Benches-who is now, I think, 96. He is in splendid form, although he no longer attends the House. He was part of the generation that created the legal aid system. He said to me that their hope then was to create the parallel legal system to the National Health Service. I do not doubt that that what was behind, and is behind, the legal aid system. We share that. The consultation that we put out has produced nearly 5,000-4,800-responses in total. I cannot give the detailed government response today. We will be announcing that in the next few weeks. I can assure the House that the various points made today will be fed back into that consultation.
Before addressing the particular points made in the debate, I wish to reiterate briefly some of the considerations the Government bore in mind in making these proposals. The context of the Government's overall reform is, as I have said, to tackle the deficit we inherited on entering office. Last October the spending review set out the scale of the challenge facing the Ministry of Justice. However, as the Government have stressed, we know that our policy cannot be determined simply by dealing with the deficit-nor are we doing so. There is considerable potential for reform within the justice system. Our legal structures and our legal aid system are capable of reform. Therefore, financial considerations and the need for reform come together.
There are many reasons why we believe it is necessary to reform legal aid, many of which have been acknowledged today. Since the modern legal aid system was established, its scope has been widened far beyond what was originally intended. By 1999, legal aid funding was available for virtually every type of potential issue, including some that should not require any legal expertise to resolve. The scheme now costs more than £2 billion a year, making it one of the most comprehensive schemes in the world, even taking jurisdictional differences into account. We need to understand that even after reform we will still have one of the most expensive schemes in the world.
In developing our legal aid reform proposals, we went back to basic principles to make choices about which issues are of sufficient priority to justify the use of public funds, subject to people's means and the merit test. The proposals in the consultation paper aimed to take into account the importance of the issues at stake, the litigant's ability to present their own case, the availability of alternative sources of funding and alternative routes to resolving the dispute, as well as our domestic and legal obligations.
To focus financial support on the areas where it is most appropriate and most necessary, the proposed reforms involve significant change to the scope of legal aid funding. We did not propose any change to the scope of criminal legal aid, and it was also proposed that legal aid will still routinely be available, as a number of colleagues have said, in civil and family cases where people's liberty is at stake, or where they are at risk of serious physical harm or immediate loss of their home.
For example, we proposed to retain legal aid for asylum cases, for debt and housing matters where someone's home is at immediate risk, and for mental health cases. Legal aid will still be provided where people face intervention from the state in their family affairs that may result in their children being taken into care and for cases involving domestic violence-I note the comments that have been made on that-forced marriage or immigration cases where the appellant's liberty is at stake. We also proposed that legal aid should be available for cases where people seek to hold the state to account by judicial review, and for cases involving discrimination that are currently in scope. Legal help to bereaved families in inquests would also remain in scope.
However, prioritising those areas requires that we make clear choices about the availability of legal aid in other areas. We therefore proposed to remove from the scope of the scheme issues that are not, relatively speaking, of sufficient priority to justify funding at the taxpayer's expense. We proposed to cease providing legal aid support for private family law cases unless domestic violence, forced marriage or child abduction is involved. Too often, the long drawn-out acrimonious nature of court proceedings exacerbates disputes between couples, rather than solving them. Under our proposals, we would continue to provide funding for mediation to encourage couples to use more effectively methods to resolve issues between themselves, rather than using the courts. We are not proposing mediation as a cure-all in place of litigation, and I will say more on that shortly.
The Government further proposed to remove from the scope of the civil legal aid scheme claims of clinical negligence, where, in many cases, alternative sources of funding are available, such as no-win, no-fee arrangements. Again, I note the points made on that. We also proposed to remove from scope the categories of employment, education and immigration, some debt and housing issues, and welfare benefits. There would be exceptions for some of these cases where there is a risk to anyone's safety or liberty, or a risk of homelessness, or discrimination. In many of these cases, the issues are not necessarily of a legal nature, but require information, practical advice or other forms of expertise to resolve.
We recognised that there would be some cases within the areas of law that we proposed to remove from scope where international or domestic law would require funding by the taxpayer. We therefore proposed a new exceptional funding scheme for excluded cases. However, I say to my noble friend Lord Faulks that we will take a very hard look at issues on the international side. There will not be an open cheque-book on that.
We are looking at the impact of the reforms on existing claimants and various groups who would no longer have access to legal aid. We recognise that the proposals would have some impact on existing claimants or various groups if issues no longer fell within the scope of legal aid. However, that does not mean that people would be unable to resolve their issues. Straightforward mechanisms are often available to assist. For example, legal representation is not currently available in many tribunals, such as on employment matters, because they are designed to be used without legal aid. We published initial impact assessments and equality impact assessments alongside our consultation. Partly in answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, we will update the impact assessments when we publish the final response.
There is limited evidence about the impact of the proposals on case length for litigants in person, and the findings are mixed. However, we are seeking to simplify the procedures, forms and guidance available to those using the courts in person.
We recognise that mediation may not be appropriate for all individuals but it is important for them to consider it as an option, and we are currently making its use easier for individuals. When successful, mediation may hold considerable advantages, as it can be a cheaper, quicker and less acrimonious process than contested court proceedings.
Public funding for family mediation has been made available for more than a decade and this has proved to be a successful policy. On
On civil mediation, the Government are currently consulting on the paper, Solving Disputes in the County Courts: Creating a Simpler, Quicker and More Proportionate System. The proposals are to require all those involved in cases below the small claims limit to attempt settlement through mediation before being considered for a hearing, and to introduce mediation information and assessment sessions for claims above the small claims limit. We recognise that we cannot, of course, compel parties to settle but we can create a better environment within which settlement can be explored. The consultation closes on
Perhaps I may now turn to some of the specific issues that I have not covered. The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, asked for a time lag. I am not sure that that can be done but I shall feed that suggestion back to colleagues.
The question of clinical negligence was raised by my noble friend Lord Faulks and by a number of other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford. This will undoubtedly be a matter for some debate when legislation reaches the other place and this House. Confidence over whether CFAs will cover that area will, I am sure, be hotly debated, and we can certainly consult Lord Justice Jackson again on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, was concerned about forced marriages. I had better double-check my notes before I sell the pass on this but I think that forced marriages will remain within the scope of legal aid. We propose to keep legal aid for those cases, including the power to waive the upper financial eligibility. I hope that helps.
I fully acknowledge the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hart, about the pro bono help from the legal profession. The question of advice deserts was raised; we will look at that as a concern.
To the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, I say that "polluter pays" is a neat option, but in the end the Treasury wants its money.
We are looking at the evidence given by the Law Society on the point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and will give consideration to it and publish our responses in due course.
I take the point that my noble friend Lord Thomas made about people inserting domestic violence to get themselves in scope; that would have to be advised on.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, emphasised the need for advice. We differ on whether the advice needed is always legal advice-whether we force people into legal advice.
I go back to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, to say that we will look hard at requests under the human rights issues, and the Government want funding only on serious and significant cases. I will also feed back his concerns-they were expressed by others as well-about clinical medical negligence.
To the noble Baroness, Lady King, I say that the consultation paper was clear. I was passed it; it is around here somewhere. That document clearly states that we were going to take clinical negligence out of scope. If she sees a contradiction, I will be happy to talk to her about it. I too received her letter; there will clearly be a campaign on that issue.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked for assurance about children who need separate representation in family cases. Yes, we propose to keep legal aid for children where they have been made a party for the case in family proceedings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, took some cheap shots at my friend Jonathan Djanogly, who is a very good solicitor.
I give full deference to the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, a former Permanent Secretary. However, in his long and distinguished career, I am sure that he too must have sat there with a Treasury demand notice and a programme of cuts to be pushed through.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, made a point on special educational needs tribunals, which have been designed to be easy and accessible. We are considering the points he made during consultation.
I am now being tugged at; my time is up. If points were made on which I have not had a chance to reply, I will write to colleagues. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach; this has been an extremely timely debate, because we are still in consultation. It has been extremely useful, because those who have contributed have done so from real expertise and commitment. We are listening. We have some tough decisions to take and we will not flinch from them, but neither will we ignore common sense when it is offered to us.
Lord Beecham (Labour)
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who contributed so seriously and constructively to the debate, and others who indicated interest and support but were unable to attend. I cite in particular the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, who very much wished to be here. I extend my thanks and sympathy to the Minister, who struggled manfully with the constraints of collective responsibility-or, as some of us would say, collective irresponsibility. I am sure that he will take back the opinions, facts and suggestions from today's debate and that we will see at least some of them reflected in the legislation that is wending its way towards us. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.