Low-Income Clients

Oral Answers to Questions — Lord Chancellor's Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th April 1999.

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Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South 12:00 am, 27th April 1999

What plans he has to ensure that low-income clients will have full and appropriate access to legal advice. [81019]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department

The Government's proposals for legal aid reform will ensure that scarce financial resources are targeted on the people and cases that most need them. We will treat as a priority cases involving social welfare and public interest issues, many of which are likely to involve people on low incomes. That will be supported by the creation of the community legal service, which will make legal help and advice more readily available from a wider range of sources.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

Does my hon. Friend agree that the poorest people are often concerned about debt, housing, welfare benefits and racial discrimination, which fall outside the ambit of legal aid? Will he confirm his commitment to me to develop those services within the community legal framework? Does he agree that solicitors might better spend their time developing such services within that system for those people, rather than spending £700,000 on a misleading, wasteful, scaremongering advertising campaign?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government's plans for the community legal service will target help on those most in need. In particular, we will establish social welfare cases as a priority, which will help people to avoid, or climb out of, social exclusion, especially in cases involving people's basic entitlements to a roof over their heads or appropriate social security benefits. That will mean that poorer members of society will benefit from the reforms as they are precisely the people likely to be involved in such cases.

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

Does the Minister agree with me and many others, including many Labour Members, that access to justice for low-income clients would be greatly enhanced if the Government were to remove the ban on personal injury legal aid in schedule 2 of the Access to Justice Bill?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department

I have made it clear repeatedly to the hon. Gentleman that there is a limit to the money that any Government can devote to legal aid. In deciding priorities within that limit, it is important that we focus resources where the money can do most good. If there is a well-established system of conditional fees that is operating well—as there is—whereby people with personal injury cases can obtain representation effectively and efficiently, it is only right that the money that would otherwise go to fund such cases is channelled into the creation of a community legal service to help the most vulnerable in society. I have explained that to the hon. Gentleman many times before.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

How then will the Minister ensure—indeed, guarantee—that someone without money who does not have access to a conditional fee arrangement because he cannot afford the insurance premiums necessary to underpin one will be able to prosecute a personal injury claim outside the field of clinical negligence?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department

The Government are confident that people with good cases will always find lawyers, insurance companies or others willing to fund the initial up-front costs, including the cost of an insurance premium. Many people already have access to a trade union scheme, under which their cases can be taken forward without any up-front funding. Many such schemes are being extended to include the relatives of trade unionists. A range of different schemes will be available. May I suggest something quite revolutionary to the hon. and learned Gentleman? Perhaps the lawyers will be willing to fund the up-front costs, because they will benefit from the profits that they make from winning the good cases.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Can my hon. Friend assure us that the case featured in the Law Society advertisement, of a black man who claims that he has been beaten up by the police and imprisoned, would qualify under his proposals for aid and support? Does he agree with the editorial in today's Evening Standard that the Law Society's claim for our sympathy is genuinely comical and that its advertisement is irresponsible scaremongering?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Minister of State, Lord Chancellor's Department

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the Law Society seems to have chosen four cases to highlight problems with legal aid in which we have made it clear that legal aid will not be affected. It is irresponsible of the Law Society to spend its members' money on running such a campaign. It is disgraceful that it is frightening people into thinking that they may lose entitlement that the Government have repeatedly made clear that they will still have.