Legal Aid

Oral Answers to Questions — Lord Chancellor's Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17 February 1998.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 12:00, 17 February 1998

When he next proposes to meet (a) the chairman of the Bar Council and (b) the president of the Law Society to discuss legal aid. [28101]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I am meeting the chairman of the Bar Council on 9 March and the president of the Law Society on 11 March to discuss the Government's proposed reforms of civil legal aid.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

When the Minister meets them, will he discuss the proposed blend between legal aid and conditional fees? Does he not consider that the Lord Chancellor's speech made last autumn, relating to the prospect of conditional fees being introduced by 1 April, is now dependent on a total shambles? Would it not have been advisable for the Lord Chancellor to discuss the proposals with consumers and the professional groups involved? Has he not made a cardinal error?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

The Government have consulted widely, and, indeed, have been consulting ever since the Lord Chancellor outlined the proposals some four months ago. We have received a number of thoughtful and helpful suggestions as to how to take the proposals forward. We shall publish soon a consultation paper based on those suggestions and listen to the responses to it. By the time the proposals are put before Parliament, we expect there to have been at least seven months of consultation.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Is my hon. Friend aware that it is difficult to sell the argument about cutting legal aid and changing it quite dramatically for people who in many cases need it? Does he accept that it is made even more difficult by the fact that the Lord Chancellor is not helping matters along either? He is supposed to be the brightest brain in the legal profession, but his political judgment seems to be lacking. We cannot sell the idea when at the same time he is spending £69,000 on wallpaper and £8,000 on beds.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I hear my hon. Friend's remarks. Questions relating to the reform of legal aid are clearly within my departmental responsibility, but I hope that he will accept that questions relating to the expenditure on the Lord Chancellor's residence are entirely within the responsibility of the House of Lords.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

One major disadvantage of replacing much legal aid with conditional fees is that they pitch the interests of the client not only against those of the lawyer but against those of the insurer, if there is one. What investigation is the Department making into establishing a contingency legal aid fund to fill the void in access to justice for middle-income Britain?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

That was one of the helpful suggestions that we received from the Bar Council and the Law Society. We are considering carefully the suggestions that have been made. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will await the publication of the consultation paper so that he can see how we propose to deal with the helpful suggestions that have been made.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Will the Minister confirm that,.after the consultation, he will be prepared to look carefully again at the proposals, which not only reduce access to justice for poorer litigants but would deprive those same litigants of much of the fruits of their litigation? Does he accept that it would have been a lot better to have had proper consultation before announcing the proposals rather than afterwards?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

The Lord Chancellor made it quite clear in his speech in October, in which he outlined the proposals that we are discussing, that we would contemplate the withdrawal of legal aid only where there were adequate means to ensure that the great majority of our citizens had access to the courts. That remains the case. That principle will condition all the proposals that we introduce.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

What progress he is making with the introduction of his legal aid reforms. [28102]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

A consultation paper will be published in the next few weeks setting out the Government's proposals for the extension of the conditional fee scheme and for changes to the scope of civil legal aid. Decisions will not be made about the reforms to be introduced until the responses to the consultation paper have been fully considered.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

The Lord Chancellor told the Law Society last year that he intended to introduce these proposals by 1 April. Is not the policy in a complete shambles? Would it not be better if the Minister's noble and learned Friend spent more time dealing with the needs of people on middle incomes, who are concerned about these proposals, rather than, as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, spending taxpayers' money lining his apartment? Does the Minister understand that the gross arrogance of his boss, the Lord Chancellor, is a grave embarrassment to the Government?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

I have already explained to the House that the Government have embarked on a detailed consultation process. We have received helpful suggestions to which we have given serious consideration. Before we act on them, we shall produce yet another consultation document, which will allow people to make representations on the Government's intentions. The matter will then be placed before Parliament, which will allow a further debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied that the process is exhaustive, if not exhausting, and takes account of all the affected interests.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Has the Department considered the problem faced by people who have had to take legal aid to defend themselves against malicious claims that have eventually been withdrawn, who have then lost the money that they had to pay up front for that legal aid? Surely those people should be proteced.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

We are aware of the particular position of defendants in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes. I hope that he will be satisfied by the reference to that problem in the consultation paper.