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There are no plans at present to extend the scope of the legal aid scheme to include defending libel actions. Successive Governments have taken the view that the outcomes of such cases are uniquely difficult to foresee and that, even if the general mechanisms against unmeritorious proceedings could be strengthened, they would still not provide an effective safeguard against the potential waste of public money.
I am disappointed by that reply. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will incorporate consideration of extension in the review of legal aid. Does he recognise that libel actions, and the threat of them, have been used by people such as Robert Maxwell to inhibit freedom of speech and abuse the course of law? Would it not be fairer to ensure that those who wished to publish articles could not be subject to unfair actions for libel from people who want only to shut them up?
After the previous Lord Chancellor's Question Time, the hon. Gentleman kindly sent me a copy of various documents produced by his party, one of which referred to the Liberal Democrat proposal that legal aid should be available for libel proceedings.
The hon. Gentleman also suggested a defence of offering to make amends. First, such a defence is included in the Defamation Act 1996, which provides for an offer to be made by defendants where certain circumstances are satisfied. Those procedures are not yet in force, but we are carefully considering whether they might appropriately be introduced. Secondly, it is possible for plaintiffs to bring proceedings in the small claims court, so long as the award is not more than £3,000.
Listening to the Liberals over the past eight or nine weeks, I get the impression that they have spent their 1p on tax about 11 times. How can the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) raise such cases, given the present limits on legal aid, when some people who take out compensation claims against employers cannot get legal aid because the employers argue that they have not got enough money to pay out compensation? Surely that should get priority over what has been put forward by these tinpot Liberal Democrats.
My hon. Friend is, as ever, understated in his response. He knows that Sir Peter Middleton is examining all aspects of legal aid and, in particular, ways to extend legal advice and assistance to those who do not presently enjoy their benefit. Only last week, we approved a further extension of existing pilot projects to allow the Legal Aid Board to support, for example, advice and assistance in advice agencies. That may well give legal advice to people who have not previously enjoyed its benefit in the cases to which my hon. Friend referred.
My hon. Friend also commented on the total cost of legal aid and the financial wisdom of extending it. I have made such points to the House before, but they bear repetition. Legal aid expenditure has trebled since 1989 and is still one of the fastest-growing areas of Government expenditure. Its cost doubled between 1990 and 1996. Those are significant factors that any responsible Government must take account of in considering the cost and extent of legal aid.
Would the hon. Gentleman be at all reassured to learn that his substantive answer is broadly supported on the Conservative Benches? Most Conservative Members believe that it would be a mistake to introduce legal aid in terms of either promoting a libel case or defending it. That said, will he consider the possibility of alternative funding methods, such as a contingency fee fund? I make a distinction between a contingency fee fund and contingency fees.
I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's support—or at least I think I am. The purpose of Sir Peter Middleton's review is to consider all aspects of the ways in which we can support those who need high-quality advice and assistance. I have received several suggestions—not least from the Bar—that useful work could be done exploring a practical contingency fee system.
My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor made a statement on that question recently in another place. He said—I hope that my hon. Friend will agree—that it is not so much court fees that deter people from going to court as the cost of lawyers who appear in such cases. If my hon. Friend is concerned about those people of lesser means—I suspect that he is—I refer him to a series of exemptions and qualifications that allow those in receipt of benefit, for example, to have their fees waived. There should be no reason why court fees should prevent anyone from accessing courts and justice.