Will my hon. Friend take further the welcome consultation on legal aid for the apparently wealthy by urging that a further look be given at cases in which legal aid is granted to those who have a long record of previous criminal convictions when those people are taking civil cases which are often entirely unmeritorious and constitute a serious nuisance to the law-abiding people who are often the defendants in those cases?
I shall certainly pass my hon. Friend's remarks on to the Lord Chancellor. Three of the proposals are that there should be a special investigation unit to handle complex cases, a discretionary power to include the assets of friends, relatives and children where these appear to be material to the life style of the applicant and the power to require an applicant for legal aid to transfer ownership to the legal aid authorities of any assets which he fails to declare in the application.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that in many cases apparently wealthy people have their assets frozen by injunctions during protracted and complex litigation? Can more be done following the hopefully successful end of that litigation to extract more money back from the beneficiary of legal aid by way of a statutory charge or other means?
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is a source of great anger that wealthy parasites such as Ernest Saunders and Roger Levitt should receive legal aid while many people with more modest life styles are refused it? Any action that my hon. Friend takes on that front will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House and across the country as a whole.
Does the Minister recall a question that I asked him recently requesting that he list the top 10 barristers and top 10 solicitors' firms gaining the most from legal aid funds? As that information must exist, does the Minister think that his departmental officials are being economical with the truth when they say that they cannot produce the information for him and for the House?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to come and see me about that. [Interruption.] I am keen that he should be satisfied about the matter, and I shall return to the Dispatch Box to put my answer on record, as the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) would like it to be.
How on earth can the Government justify handing out large sums of taxpayers' money to wealthy people such as Saunders, Selig, Levitt, the Maxwell brothers and Asil Nadir, when someone in my constituency who needs to fight a civil claim in respect of an accident at work was told by one of those tinpot solicitors that he would be looked after and get legal aid, but then halfway through he was told, "Sorry, but the case is not strong enough to win"? Not only are those wealthy people making a small fortune out of the taxpayer, but barristers and all the rest of them are raking it in because they can make a ton of money backing the wealthy but they will not make a great deal looking after some poor constituent with a civil claim.
I declare an interest as a lawyer, and I wait for my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to hang me. Will the Minister not rush headlong into what could be a catastrophic situation which will cost the country money? Much is said about large cases, but in efforts to reassess legal aid will the Minister bear in mind that it is sometimes more economical to grant legal aid at first instance in the magistrates court on the very first day of charging so that a matter is speedily disposed of, rather than to wait over several hearings for legal aid to be granted, with additional cost to the taxpayer and other sources, and achieve the same result in the end? Surely expedition is sometimes profitable.
But we cannot disregard the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Public Accounts Committee in determining the circumstances in which legal aid is granted in magistrates courts. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have no reputation for headlong rushing, but he need not wait long for the Green Paper on legal aid. It will be out later this week—on Wednesday.
Has the Minister discussed the recovery of payments with the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board? Will he take on board the situation involving a constituent of mine? When the recovery people attended the home, because no one was at home they started making inquiries of neighbours and informing them of the situation. That was totally deplorable and unscrupulous of those agents who are employed by the recovery section of the Legal Aid Board. Will the Minister impress upon the chief executive that such practices must cease and that people should not be subjected to such humiliation in front of their neighbours because agents acting on behalf of the Legal Aid Board behave unscrupulously?
I will gladly look at that case if the hon. Gentleman will give me the details. I am not entirely sure whether he is referring to recovery by the Legal Aid Board of costs out of winnings, contribution as agreed at the onset of the grant, or the statutory charge which operates after a case has been concluded. Solicitors are under a duty to explain to their clients how the statutory charge works so that they are left in no doubt. The application form is required to be signed by both the solicitor and the applicant on that score to say that it has been explained and understood.
Will the Minister reconsider? I suspect that any analysis would confirm hon. Members' suspicions and the suspicions put to me constantly by the citizens advice bureau in Stoke-on-Trent that a great number of applications for civil legal aid are being turned down, limited or otherwise impeded. People of quite modest means are being prevented from pursuing rightful cases because of the way in which the civil legal aid system works. That cannot be right, and I suspect that it is of general concern to all hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman refers to net income levels, but it would be very difficult to produce the analysis required because net income is disposable income and in the determination of disposable income many allowances can be made which will depend on the enormous variety of individual circumstances of applicants.
On the other hand, has my hon. Friend observed the type of case that I have come across in my advice surgeries recently, involving people who have previously been reported to be wealthy but who have passed the income assessment and been legally aided by the Legal Aid Board for civil cases? That cannot be right.
If the Minister has no plans to analyse the income of those currently denied legal aid, does he have any plans, belatedly, to deal with the issue of restrictive practices within the legal profession? Is he aware that there has been an increase of some 600 per cent. in the cost of legal aid to taxpayers while restrictive practices within the legal profession on the part of the Law Society and the Bar Council go unaddressed? Is it not time to redress the balance of legal aid in favour of the taxpayer and the consumer?
That must be an ever-present intention, but the hon. Gentleman should know that the number of people helped under the legal aid scheme—3.5 million in 1994–95—will increase by 25 per cent. by 1997–98. As for restrictive practices, he will know—and I invite him to welcome the fact—that under the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 monopolies of various kinds of legal practice are being steadily eroded. He will find, I dare say, that among the legal aid proposals will be that legal aid funding will be available to law centres and citizens advice bureaux supported by him. The Green Paper will be out on Wednesday—more then.