Legal aid is available in libel actions only for defending a counter claim made in legally aided proceedings. The Legal Aid Advisory Committee, in its Seventeenth Annual Report, did not consider that legal aid should be extended to other proceedings for libel and I agree with that view.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that reputations can be shattered by irresponsible actions on the part of the Press or the mass media acting without justification? Does not he think that a person who has inadequate financial resources is therefore put in a very real difficulty and unable to obtain legal redress? The Faulks Commission is at present considering the question of libel. Will not it investigate the question of legal aid as well?
The view has always been taken that legal aid was not appropriate in defamation proceedings. In the year 1972–73, it is estimated that legal aid will be running at a cost of about £19 million a year. In spite of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, I do not feel that it is necessary to bring legal aid into defamation proceedings. Circumstances do not often arise in which there is a need for legal aid.
Is not the exclusion of libel from eligibility for legal aid illogical? I emphasise "libel". I do not embrace slander in this observation. Is there not a case for allowing legal aid for a citizen whose resources are so limited as to qualify him for legal aid and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis), said, whose reputation and prospects and whose whole career may have been damaged seriously by a libel made by one of the powerful information media?
It has never been the view that it is necessary, nor have there been many cases in which there has been a real requirement for legal aid to bring defamation proceedings which usually, if they are against a substantial defendant in libel proceedings, will lead to a settlement, an apology, and so on. Hitherto, it has not been thought that there is a real demand for legal aid for these proceedings.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that if he were ever to extend the legal aid scheme to cover supporting actions for libel, it would be essential that the scheme should also cover the award of full costs to successful defendants; otherwise another broad spectrum would be put at the risk of being ruined, through no fault of their own?
My hon. Friend has referred to some of the complications and difficulties. There are also the administrative costs involved each time there is an application for legal aid. Many people might seek to get legal aid in these circumstances and have their applications rejected, thus increasing administrative costs.