Legal Aid (Criminal Offences)

Department for Constitutional Affairs – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 7th September 2004.

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Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East 2:30 pm, 7th September 2004

What assessment the Department has made of the operation of means-testing for criminal legal aid.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

On 17 May, the Department published the draft Criminal Defence Service Bill, which will permit means-testing for those charged with criminal offences. It has been a long-standing policy of this Government and previous Governments that those who can afford to pay their legal costs and are found guilty should do that.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East

Clearly, when those proposals come into effect, overall access to legal aid for criminal cases will be reduced. What assurance can my hon. Friend give that the access that is provided is targeted where it is needed most?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The community legal service is helping 925,000 people every year in a range of cases, from problems with debt to housing problems, domestic violence and contact with children. That work must continue. However, it is right to give ever greater scrutiny to our criminal legal aid spend when we have experienced a rising budget. Against that backdrop, we spend more on legal aid than any other developed nation in the world.

Photo of Sir Sydney Chapman Sir Sydney Chapman Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Apropos of what the Under-Secretary has just said, will he confirm that the current legal aid budget is £2 billion a year? That represents an increase of at least one third in the past seven years. Two years ago, the budget was overspent by more than £250,0000. Given those facts, does he agree that there will be an economic madhouse unless a Government, of whatever hue, restrict the scope, range and amount of legal aid? If he presents sensible programmes, I for one will support a further restriction.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

We are all proud of the great Attlee invention of legal aid. At the same time, there has been an increase throughout the developed world in legal aid spend. Like previous Ministers, I have presented proposals to deal with that. We have asked for a fundamental legal aid review to examine the issues, root and branch. I hope that we can put forward proposals in due course. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, under the previous Conservative Administration, costs increased by 131 per cent. between 1989 and 1993. The issue of legal aid spend is not unique to this Government.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

How will the Government's new proposals square with any expansion of the salaried defender system?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

We have been keen to examine where a public defender system can add value. Indeed, the fundamental legal aid review will want to consider that and bear it in mind. It is extremely unlikely that the Government will move to a wholesale public defender system but there is a role to play where shortages exist. I am keen to observe the way in which the new public defender system will work in the context of asylum and immigration legal aid as it is set up in Birmingham.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

Can the Minister remind the House about how few years ago it was that the present Government abolished the means-testing of criminal legal aid? Does he accept that this cut may lead to more cases going to the Criminal Cases Review Commission? Can he assure us that there will be no cut in the budget for that commission?

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman will know that at about the time that we changed from means-testing, the concern on both sides of the House was about the lack of speed with which cases went through the system because of the bureaucracy previously attached to means-testing. That is why we have come forward, in the draft Criminal Defence Service Bill, with a range of options. However, it cannot be right that all of us in the House would be entitled to legal aid should we be charged with a criminal offence. That is why we are looking at the issue and are coming forward with a range of models. Of course, I cannot predetermine the outcome of the consultation.