Legal Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:53 pm on 12th February 1990.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz , Leicester East 4:53 pm, 12th February 1990

I beg to move, That this House is shocked at the continued public feuding between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service which has developed into a crisis of confidence in two essential parts of the criminal justice system; and notes that the public legal services are in a serious state of collapse, in particular in respect of the legal aid system, the duty solicitors' scheme, the funding crisis of law centres and the failure of the Government to make progress on the issue of family courts. This is the first time in many years that the House has discussed the crucial issue of legal services. I am grateful to the Attorney-General for his presence in the House today, and I look forward to hearing his important contribution.

This debate is not just about lawyers talking about lawyers. At some time in his life, every citizen comes into contact with the legal services. I declare an interest as a former solicitor, who was employed at the north Leicester advice centre. I no longer practise.

In the time available I want to cover several crucial areas where I assert that the legal system is in crisis, and where I believe that early and urgent Government action is required. I shall begin with the Crown prosecution service.

As the House knows, the Select Committee on Home Affairs is conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Crown prosecution service. Members of the Committee, apart from myself, are at present on a site visit to Manchester. Tomorrow I shall join them in north Wales. Had they been here, I am certain that they would have wished to contribute to the debate.

On 23 January 1989, I asked the Attorney-General whether he agreed that the operation of the Crown prosecution service was approaching a crisis. He did not agree, and he stated in his reply to my request for an inquiry that he felt that it was an unnecessary disruption for an inquiry to take place.

Judging by the evidence given to the Select Committee by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr. Allan Green, and by representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation, there is little doubt in my mind that a serious crisis is besetting the Crown prosecution service. The public feuding between two essential elements of the criminal justice system has been astonishing. I felt that it was important to bring the matter before the House at an early stage, to seek the Attorney-General's views. The only people who could have an interest in the continuation of this quarrel are the criminals themselves, who have watched the proceedings, and watched the police and the DPP acting as sworn enemies rather than partners, as we have watched them.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Crown prosecution service for the work that they do under enormous pressure. I am a friend of the service, and I strongly believe in the need for an independent prosecution service. I pay tribute especially to the CPS in Leicestershire, which I have found to be efficient, fair and independent. All people agree that, from birth, the CPS has suffered from gross under-resourcing and understaffing. There are numerous complaints about the way in which it was established.

I ask the Attorney-General—I gave him notice of this and of several other questions—whether, with hindsight, he accepts the criticism that the service was established too hastily by the Government and without sufficient planning. Does he agree with the statement by Mr. Green to the Select Committee, that "I think the service was brought in too hurriedly."?

The inability of the Crown prosecution service to keep and recruit lawyers is legendary. Since its creation it has been understaffed by 23 per cent., or by 430 posts. In a recent parliamentary reply, the Attorney-General told me that, in the three years since its creation, 334 lawyers have left—304 resigned, seven retired, four were dismissed, 16 were transferred and three died. A total of £619,580 has been spent, until 14 November last year, on an advertising campaign to recruit more staff.