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Clause 1. — (Power to Award Costs Out of Legal Aid Fund.)

Part of Orders of the Day — Legal Aid Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd January 1964.

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Photo of Sir John Hobson Sir John Hobson , Warwick and Leamington 12:00 am, 23rd January 1964

Of course, if any party has private funds, it is normal procedure to give half the costs, and the court can make an order that that half shall be paid out of public funds. There are many cases in which, for one reason or another, a party is not wholly successful. He will not, therefore, be in the position in which the courts would consider that he should have the whole of his costs met by the Legal Aid Fund.

The fourth reason which I suggest supports the view that a narrower construction should be applied is the one that involves the cost to the Exchequer. It would, indeed, involve a very heavy additional charge on public funds if we were to pass this Amendment. I said on Second Reading that it was estimated that the cost of the provisions of the Bill, if it remained unamended, would be about £55,000. This is, of course, a problematical figure and is best estimated by those connected with the Legal Aid Fund who know the number of cases, the rate at which they are successful and the general cost of litigation.

But in all these figures there is an imponderable, and £55,000 is the best total estimate that can be given. It might vary quite widely in any direction. For instance, if a case proved very expensive and an order was made under this Bill the total figure for that year might be more than double.

I also told the House on Second Reading that the cost, if this restriction were removed, would rise probably to about £340,000. I should explain that that was a figure that had been calculated some time ago. It has been reconsidered and some additional factors taken into account. It was thought at one time, as a result of the recalculation, that the cost might be very much higher but, as a result of certain set-offs—for instance, that divorce will be very largely the area in which the Bill will operate and that successful unassisted husbands in any event are not entitled to their costs—I think probably the estimate I gave is not far wrong. Again, however, I should not like to say whether it will be higher or lower because the calculation contains so many imponderables that it would be quite unreal to pretend to give anything like a precise figure.

The difference between passing this Amendment and rejecting it lies between £55,000 and over £300,000. That is a major consideration when one considers the rising cost of the Legal Aid Scheme and, as has been said, the very many purposes for which benefits could be given—perhaps more worthwhile purposes—under the legal aid scheme.

One must also remember that a substantial part of those affected, apart from those in the divorce division, will be defendants in the Queen's Bench Division and will include many large and prosperous companies to whom the amount of costs will be infinitesimal. There will also be many cases in which the nature of the action is either industrial injury or running down, and again these are cases where almost certainly the defendant will be insured.

Such persons have always been at risk of litigation from impecunious plaintiffs from whom no hope of any sums of money in costs may be expected. It is not right that the State should take over those risks as a special class of case, treated according to the sort of support which the plaintiff has, whether it is private or from the legal aid fund.