I beg to move amendment No. 20, in page 38, line 24 at end insert—
'7. An inquest, statutory enquiry, immigration appeal tribunal, social security commissioners, vaccine damage tribunal, and industrial tribunal where it is likely that the applicant would be substantially disadvantaged without legal representation.'.
There is a misdrafting in amendment No. 21, so I do not propose to discuss it.
Amendment No. 20 seeks at this late stage of the Bill to achieve a compromise over representation before tribunals. The matter was discussed at great length in Committee and in the other place.
There is now general agreement that representation should be available before a tribunal in cases in which the assisted person would otherwise be considerably or substantially disadvantaged as a result of not being represented. The Government have conceded that there should be representation in some cases before the social security commissioners and the Lands Tribunal, and the amendment seeks to extend the principle of representation before tribunals to industrial tribunals and inquests, where people might be particularly disadvantaged. Relatives of the deceased person might not be able to present the case properly themselves or put evidence to the test of cross-examination.
Complicated matters could arise before the immigration appeal tribunal. We are not suggesting legal aid before the adjudicator—we are modest in our demands—but we seek to make legal aid available before the immigration appeal tribunal where, under the regulations, the appeal can be only on a matter of law. We seek to extend the principle to other tribunals in which substantial issues are involved and where the assisted party would be substantially disadvantaged by not being granted legal aid. We are not suggesting any type of blanket representation. It would be within the power of the Legal Aid Board to set and define criteria by which the test of substantial disadvantage could be measured.
The Bill in part erodes the efficacy of the legal aid system. It enables the Lord Chancellor, at the discretion of the Treasury, to cut the cover of legal aid. The amendment provides a chance to extend the cover and to make advances, such as into vaccine damage tribunals, at a modest cost. I propose the amendment most reasonably. I have not given blanket approval to representations before tribunals, as I wish to achieve consensus this evening, and I hope that the Solicitor-General will respond in the same spirit.
Even if I cannot accept the amendment, I hope that I shall respond constructively.
We have often debated this question of representation before tribunals, and rightly so. The House will be pleased to know that the Government have initiated research into the important question of the effectiveness of representation at tribunals. It will understand, and the hon. Gentleman well knows, that tribunals were often set up so that lay people could come before them with legal and quasi-legal problems and have the ingredients of their case teased out of them constructively by members of the tribunal. Tribunals dealing with legal matters are composed entirely of lawyers, and those dealing with a mixture of legal and lay matters of a combination of lawyers and lay people who have a deep understanding of the particular subject. They rightly see it as their duty to do justice and not to allow the litigant's case to go by default just because he or she may not be represented.
The research carried out by Queen Mary college, which we hope will report in the spring of 1989, seeks to discover how effective representation is before tribunals. It may be effective and desirable in some cases and superfluous in others. It will give us better guidance on the extent to which we should extend the right to legal aid before tribunals.
Full legal aid is already available, and has been for some time, for hearings before the Lands Tribunal, the employment appeals tribunal and the commons commissioners. Advice by representation was made available by the Government in 1982 for the mental health review tribunal and, in 1984, for prison disciplinary tribunals, so we have made some progress.
The Lord Chancellor has made it clear that when the opportunity for further progress arises—I make no bones about it: it is partly a matter of cost—representations to social security commissioners will be a high priority. Whether or not, and in which order, if it be right to do so, we should extend legal aid to statutory inquiries or inquests—which would be a broad advance—to immigration appeal tribunals—where the United Kingdom immigrants advisory service already provides help to applicants—to vaccine damage tribunals and to industrial tribunals is a matter for debate. It is better that it should be an informed debate once the results of the research are known.
Our answer must be that we shall look at this and take it by stages as the case develops and resources allow. I am sorry that I cannot accept the amendment, but the hon. Gentleman would not have expected me to agree to it in such blanket form. We have made progress in the past, we are conducting research into the matter and looking at it carefully at present, and we hope, as resources and the case allow, to make further progress in future.