I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 9, line 16, leave out from `(b)' to second 'the' in line 17.
We can probably deal with the amendment very briefly. The short point is that at present if an unassisted party has proceedings instituted against it and suffers severe financial hardship as a result of succeeding against a legally aided person, the court can make an order for the costs of the unassisted person to be paid out of legal aid funds. The one condition is that the proceedings must be instituted by the legally aided person. If they are instituted by the unassisted person, no award can be made out of public funds.
The Solicitor-General generously sent me an extract of a report into the operation of the arrangements for the costs of unassisted parties, and I thank him for his courtesy. The report says that few applications are made and little interest is shown in the way in which the law operates. I was somewhat surprised by that, given the interest taken in the matter by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
Reading through the material supplied by the Solicitor-General, it seems that there would be a small risk to public expenditure by being even-handed about the costs of unassisted parties, whether they institute or defend the proceedings. In the light of the findings before the Solicitor-General, I hope that he will accept the amendment.
The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) put the argument so charmingly and gently that it might have seemed to slip through my armour. I hope that I will not seem over-armoured when I reply.
The point to highlight is that the amendment has curious deficiencies, because it relates only to advice by representation and not to legal aid. For that reason alone, it would be a strange amendment to accept.
Under the present system, if someone is sued by an assisted person, he can obtain his costs out of the legal aid fund if he is likely to suffer serious hardship as a result of the rule. I emphasise that the serious hardship test is nothing like as difficult to overcome as is widely believed by the public and by both halves of the profession, and I urge solicitors, especially, to examine on their clients' behalf whether they can exercise their rights more widely in cases in which they are sued by an assisted party.
The amendment would widen the provision much more than the hon. Member for Norwood realises. If it were accepted, both for advice by way of representation and for legal aid, it would give the opportunity for a large number of defendants—some of them limited companies and some of them with very substantial means—to obtain costs. That cannot be our highest priority. The report that I provided for the hon. Gentleman goes into the cases quite carefully. It is available to anyone who seeks a copy, and it makes the case for the status quo more strongly than is generally realised. There is always a matter of priority in legal aid.
The amendment does not embody a high priority, and we must therefore resist it.