The Legal Aid Board

Orders of the Day — Legal Aid Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 11:15 pm on 4th July 1988.

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Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood 11:15 pm, 4th July 1988

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 19, leave out 'two' and insert 'three'.

This amendment will not detain us long. The Law Society has suggested that there should be three solicitors on the Legal Aid Board, as opposed to the two mentioned in the Bill. I should make it clear that I am not anxious to see a large number of places on the board pre-empted by lawyers. It is right that there should be a balance. We argued in Committee that there should be a balance between consumers and providers of the service, and a reasonable spread of membership by gender and by race. I am in no sense anxious to see the board monopolised by lawyers. On the other hand, 17 places are available for appointment. I understand that at present the basic number of solicitors to be appointed is two, and two barristers.

Once again, we can learn from the Scottish experience. I am told that the Scottish Legal Aid Board includes two solicitors and two barristers, and that the remaining 10 members are non-lawyers, mainly accountants. I am further advised that that has caused considerable problems because of the number of issues that the Scottish board considers to have a legal content and on which the Act requires that the board must be satisfied in a particular respect. In practice, it falls to the lawyer members of the board to ensure that those requirements are satisfied. Account should be taken of that experience to ensure that similar problems do not arise in England and Wales.

It is thus mainly for reasons of practicality that I suggest a modest increase in the number of solicitor appointees from two to three. Solicitors have been largely responsible for the management of legal aid in this country since the 1948 Act, so there is no shortage of people well experienced in the administration of the system. I am sure that the Government could accommodate the amendment without disturbing the balance of the board and the spread of interests that we wish it to include.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Solicitor General (Law Officers)

In resisting the amendment, I repeat, first, as I said on Second Reading, that the Government are extremely grateful to the Law Society for its handling of legal aid over the past 40 years, and I fully accept that there are many solicitors who are extremely expert on the subject.

I hope that it will be of comfort both to the hon. Gentleman and to the Law Society if I emphasise that the Bill provides, not merely that there shall be two solicitors on the board, but that there shall be "at least" two solicitors, so there is absolutely nothing to prevent the appointment of more solicitors, or, indeed, more barristers or accountants, if that seems desirable. The Bill provides that there shall be at least four lawyers—two barristers and two solicitors—and I emphasise the words "at least".

I hope that in my response I have highlighted the key point and satisfied the Law Society that its interests can be fully met if it appears desirable to do so.

Amendment negatived.