Scope of This Part

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

Alert me about debates like this

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

I beg to move amendment No. 16, in page 6, line 40, leave out subsections (3) and (4).

The amendment would delete the arrangements that the Government propose for placing contracts for the provision of advice and assistance which, in practice, have the effect of excluding people from access to solicitors' advice under the green form advice scheme. The Government's arrangements would prevent people of moderate means from having choice and possibly from receiving any advice. If, in a fairly remote area, the Government chose to use a voluntary agency—the citizens advice bureau—for the giving of advice, problems of travel and of getting access to the advice centre at the appropriate times might rule out access to the advice.

The Government have still not spelled out exactly what is to be contracted out and excluded from access under the green form scheme. We know that they have been contemplating the exclusion of housing rights under social security legislation and immigration advice and that they have certainly decided upon the exclusion of advice on conveyancing of wills, even though there are a small number of cases in which advice on those matters might be useful. We know that the most likely candidates for contracting out advice are the citizens advice bureaux or other non-lawyer agencies. We cannot be certain about which subjects will be contracted out or to whom they will be contracted out.

In some ways, the Lord Chancellor is like Father Christmas—not because he wears a wig and red robes or because he gives away presents, because that is certainly not in his mind with the Bill, but because he gives out parcels that will not be opened until at least 25 December, and probably not until late next year. The problem about the Bill is that it is full of parcels that must not be opened and things that one must discover after it becomes law.

We do not like the contracting-out provisions, because they are likely to provide a second-class service for some people seeking advice. They are likely to restrict choice and to confer a monopoly in some areas. The provisions are likely to exclude advice from lawyers on important matters, such as housing and immigration, which are complicated parts of law. We dislike the sealed packet approach to law making contained in the Bill.

The very least that we want on Report is a definitive statement of the Government's intentions on contracting out so that, when the Bill becomes law, we shall at least know to which agencies work is likely to be offered and those subjects on which the Government intend to exclude solicitors' advice.

On matters of principle and matters concerning the basic rights of people to get advice affecting their future and livelihood, it is wrong that there should be the possibility of a Bill with blank spaces—the sealed packets that are to be opened once the Bill becomes law. I hope that the Solicitor-General will assuage the fears of many people about the contracting-out provisions and the exclusion of green form advice by telling us how limited will be the approach of the board and the Government to contracting out when the Bill becomes law.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery

I ask the Solicitor-General and the Government to bear in mind that there is a legal system outside the metropolis and the large cities. In dealing with problems of contracting out and deciding how to approach this part of the Bill, it is important to bear in mind the structure of the legal system, especially in rural areas. A wide range of legal services are provided in constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor).

The way that the system operates is wholly dependent upon private firms of solicitors. People go to the solicitors with all sorts of problems, ranging from complex probate issues through minor pavement accidents to criminal cases. The solicitor is generally competent to deal with most of the work. If he cannot deal with the work, and does not feel able to solve the client's problems, he goes to counsel for advice, or occasionally turns to another solicitor who deals with a specialist subject. The effect is that a reasonably full range of legal services is available in an area like my constituency.

We fear, as do organisations such as my local citizens advice bureau, that if contracting out occurs, and affects small areas, some small firms of solicitors will go out of business. If they go out of business, there will be a reduction in choice available to those who need legal advice. In a rural area, people tend to know all about the choices available for legal advice. As I am sure that the Solicitor-General will know, legal advice is very much a horses-for-courses matter, and the client in rural areas tends to know, or can find out quickly, which horse is appropriate for which course. In such an area, there is usually some horse that can be ridden on almost any legal course, and past every legal obstacle.

Legal services in rural areas need safeguarding. They are already in decline in some respects. I ask the Government to ensure that this safeguard is applied.

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

I am glad that we have had this short debate, because it is important that people should be clear about what the Government have in mind. The first thing to realise is that this is an enabling Bill. Nothing has been decided as to whether any particular part of the law should be contracted out and thereafter excluded from the local solicitors in a particular area. It will be for the new Legal Aid Board to give its mind to those questions. The Bill provides an opportunity to offer a better service in particular instances to different parts of the country, not a second-class or more restrictive service.

All who have practised in the law realise that in some sectors those who are not lawyers can provide a high standard of expertise. The Government have frequently mentioned welfare benefit law in this context. When we debated this matter in Committee, I said that I remembered my days in the DHSS and the enormous expertise in this subject that was provided by the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux in the King's Cross area of London. I do not think that any hon. Member would gainsay me on that.

We contemplate that the board will look to see how advice is or is not being given through the green form scheme in particular areas. It will see what tenders or offers it receives from advice-giving agencies or law centres, or even from local solicitors in a particular sector. For example, in some inner city area, or part of a rural area, an advice-giving agency may say, "We believe that we could provide as good as or a better service than the local solicitors in this particular branch of the law"—for example, welfare benefits. Then the Legal Aid Board will consider whether or not to invite tenders for contracts to provide that type of service in that particular area. It will be open to all corners to tender, but invitations to tender will probably go to those who seem most suitable, for practical, administrative reasons. The matter will then be canvassed and considered by the board, but it cannot go ahead until it has received the approval of the Lord Chancellor. Therefore, nothing will happen overnight or without careful consideration. When it seems sensible to the board that particular types of advice can best be given, for example, by an advice agency in a particular area, then and only then will that type of advice in that area be excluded from the local solicitors.

Photo of Mr Alex Carlile Mr Alex Carlile , Montgomery 11:30 pm, 4th July 1988

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that over the years it has always been thought that the client, even if he is in receipt of legal aid, should have a choice of lawyer. Does he agree that his proposals remove that choice and therefore place the legally aided litigant, for the first time, in a different position from the private paying litigant?

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

I am not sure that I agree. However, even if the hon. and learned Gentleman were right, what the legally aided client may lose by way of choice, he may more than gain by way of opportunity. For example, a citizens' advice bureau might provide a user-friendly, open and available service in welfare benefit law and make that sort of advice and guidance much more widely available to people in that area than it would ever be possible for local solicitors to do.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng , Brent South

Let me put it to the hon. and learned Gentleman in another way from the experience that I have had practising as a lawyer in a citizens' advice bureau and in private practice. In private practice one often finds that while advising a client on a matrimonial matter, particularly in relation to the woman who has been deserted by her husband, issues of welfare law, tax and a whole range of other matters can arise. Is it feasible, or would it be desirable in such circumstances, for the solicitor to say, "I am terribly sorry, but I cannot assist you. You must go down the road to the local citizens' advice bureau, which is better equipped to do the job than I am"? That does not make sense. Does the Solicitor-General accept that we have fought a great battle on both sides of the profession over the past decade to equip lawyers to advise people on welfare law and on areas of law which, when I was studying, were regarded as being areas into which lawyers did not trespass? Will this not be a retrogressive step in terms of the service to the client and the education of our lawyers?

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

The hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to explain more fully—I do not wish to do so at tedious length—what we have in mind.

The fact that an area of advice had been contracted out to an advice-giving agency need not necessarily, under the regulations that we are contemplating, prevent somebody who is already receiving advice in a general area, such as matrimonial law, from continuing to receive from that solicitor advice connected with the broad area of her divorce or family settlements. The regulations still have to be drafted. The details will come before the House in the precise regulations. As I have said, this is an enabling Bill. What the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) has said can be taken into account during the drafting.

I do not believe that the hon. Member for Brent, South would argue that because that lawyer, who is already apprised of the problems of that client, might best deal with them, that should prevent us from looking ahead to what I believe is this imaginative and sensible new way of bringing legal advice to a wider audience than is ever likely to receive it from local solicitors. I hasten to say that we expect that the solicitors' profession will continue to be—perhaps for decades or for ever—the primary source of general legal advice in local areas. I hope that that is of comfort to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile).

The problems of country areas are different from those of inner-city areas. It may be for the board to consider whether in the early stages these ideas are more appropriate to the town or country. It may be found that people are receiving advice under the green form scheme on an inefficient and not cost-effective basis and that it is acceptable to local solicitors—although they would not be the ultimate judge—for an advice-giving agency to provide advice in an area. I do not think that solicitors or clients need be unduly anxious about this measure. The opportunity to contract out gives a chance for the provision of sensible and cost-effective legal advice to develop.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

If a person goes to a solicitor and is given negligent advice, it may give rise to an action for damages. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman's view of the regulations conceive of a person receiving negligent advice from one of the advice-giving bodies and being entitled to sue? If so, will people receiving advice from a citizens' advice bureau that they regard as negligent be able to sue the citizens' advice bureau?

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

I understand the problem, and I do not believe that it is incapable of solution. The advice-giving agencies will be working under contract. Anyone offering advice, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will understand, is already liable to be sued if he gives negligent advice. That would probably be as true of a citizens' advice bureau if it overstepped the mark as of a member of our profession. Advice-giving agencies would be expected to insure against it and the contract would take account of that.

I have dealt with the amendment in some detail, and I stand by my position.

Amendment negatived.