I welcome any increase in the legal aid limits and it would be churlish to over-criticise these provisions. However, several matters worry me. The first relates to capital limits. We all know the hardship that the supplementary benefits capital limit creates. In a constituency such as mine, many people own small amounts of land of no practical utility and virtually unsaleable; yet such ownership can exclude them from supplementary benefit. The same considerations can arise in relation to legal aid. I can understand the considerable reluctance of people to enter into litigation, however justified, if the price is the sale of their only remaining assets.
It is right to remind the Government that one cannot be glib or smug about the new levels set in these instruments. Private litigation is still fully available only to the very rich and to those who are at the lower end of the income bracket. Families in receipt of national average incomes, in the middle income bracket, will be virtually excluded from litigation except in the most desperate circumstances, because the financial limits still require substantial contributions to be made, even if legal aid is available.
To take a higher income bracket, I strongly doubt whether a right hon. Member who has only his parliamentary salary with which to keep his family could afford to go to law on a serious issue, because the cost of litigation would be too great a risk for him to undertake. It is regrettable that people on middle incomes are faced with the choice between possible bankruptcy and not going to law. I hope, therefore that the Government will accept that we have a long way to go before we have a fair legal aid system.
I now turn to a related issue which has caused considerable concern during the past few days. The Master of the Rolls, whose views we respect and pay great attention to, appears to have suggested that our civil litigation system should in some extraordinary way become self-financing. I hope that the Government will wholeheartedly reject that notion now. It is no part of our legal tradition—I am proud of that tradition and reject many of the criticisms made of it—that litigants should have to pay for the courts to which they take their cases, except in some arcane commercial spheres of which the Solicitor-General is aware. I hope that the Government will unequivocally say that the civil courts, the county court and the High Court, will remain open to all litigants and that judges' services and court services will not be charged for.