Legal Aid and Advice

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:34 pm on 19th November 1984.

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Photo of Sir Patrick Mayhew Sir Patrick Mayhew , Tunbridge Wells 10:34 pm, 19th November 1984

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and my hon. Friends the Members for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) and for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) for their contributions to this short debate and for the welcome that has been given to the upratings.

I think that all hon. Members would agree that there are advances that we would like to make, but anybody who knows about litigation knows that legal aid support falls short of what most of us would like to see. One must concede that there are many people for whom litigation is a considerable personal hardship but who none the less fall outside the respective criteria. On the other hand, I know that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery and my hon. Friends will recognise that that must take its place in the substantial and keen competition for existing resources and we must simply do the best that we can. I am glad that we have been able to make the advances that are embodied in the regulations.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery asked about capital limits, and in particular the inclusion within assessable capital of small land holdings. I cannot hold out any hope to him that there will be the amendment that he proposes. On the other hand, I can say that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that the legal aid and advice committee is, at the request of the Lord Chancellor, considering the whole question of eligibility for legal aid. It is expected to report to my noble and learned Friend in December, and I do not doubt that that is one of the questions it will wish to take into account.

The hon. and learned Gentleman's last point related to a recent speech by the Master of the Rolls. Any speech by the Master of the Rolls is entitled to considerable attention and respect. It was made recently. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will wish to give that speech full consideration, and he will note what has been said today by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham said that the financial criteria for legal advice and assistance under the green form scheme are different from those for legal aid. He is right about that, but there is a relatively simple explanation. The average bill for advice given under the green form scheme is about £50. In other words, it is a low-cost scheme, and in those circumstances much lower criteria in terms of personal assets, whether of income or of capital, are appropriate. Therefore, I cannot hold out any prospect of the kind of change that my hon. Friend would like to see, although that is one of the questions that the committee appointed by the Lord Chancellor will, I do not doubt, consider.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the Benson committee's recommendation that the criteria for legal aid and advice should be merged. What I have said already comprehends the answer to that and to his second point that financial criteria should be scrapped and a sliding scale substituted. He was, as he nearly always is, fair enough to concede that that would involve substantial increases in costs, and I have to say the gloomy thing that we all have to say about resources. None the less, the committee is considering that and there is not long to wait before its report in December.

My hon. Friend asked why take into account, when looking at capital assets, the proceeds of a successful redundancy claim and a successful claim for personal injury compensation. Everyone must have some sympathy for that idea, but if it is looked at closely it does not stand up. The purpose of legal aid support is to enable somebody who lacks the financial resources to do so to bring proceedings. It matters not very much that a person's financial resources have entered his bank account by reason of a claim for personal injuries compensation or whether by reason of, let us say, inheritance. For the purpose of deciding whether the legal aid scheme will support one, what really matters is whether one has the means of financing litigation onself. That is why I do not for my part see any prospect of meeting my hon. Friend's third question.

Finally, my hon. Friend raised the question of the contingency fee. I am dead against contingency fees. The contingency fee system, which is run—