My Lords, legal aid must provide access to justice in criminal, civil and family cases. A disproportionate amount is spent on a small number of high-cost criminal cases. That money needs to be spread more evenly across all categories of case, civil, criminal and family, to ensure access to justice and fair remuneration for practitioners. I have asked my noble friend Lord Carter of Coles to develop a package of reforms. He will report early next year.
My Lords, I thank the Lord Chancellor for that reply. Are the Government aware that too many lawyers are currently withdrawing from criminal legal aid and that in consequence both advocates and litigants are at this time being unduly and unfairly prejudiced? Does he recognise that criminal legal aid is increasingly failing to provide the sort of cover originally envisaged—a situation which, in my view, can no longer be tolerated—and that the further delay he has outlined is unacceptable?
My Lords, over the past eight years the amount spent on criminal legal aid has gone up from about £750 million to £1.2 billion. The problem is not the amount of money being spent on criminal legal aid, but how it is distributed among practitioners; the problem is not in relation to the quality of cover given to defendants, but unfairness and disproportionate amounts of expenditure on those very big cases. We need to redistribute the money, not just to the more normal-sized criminal cases, but also to civil aid. Where I am most concerned about lawyers leaving is not in relation to criminal legal aid but in relation to civil legal aid. Very few new practitioners come into that field, and there too many areas where people cannot get proper advice.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord referred to the importance of cutting the amount spent on high-cost criminal cases. Does he not agree, however, that under the Criminal Defence Service (Funding) (Amendment) Order, against which I shall be praying on Friday, the cuts are not just to the rich lawyers at the top, but also to junior lawyers doing ordinary cases? Would these cuts be acceptable to those in other branches of the public service?
My Lords, the cuts we introduce in the order to which the noble Lord refers were targeted at the highest-cost cases. We sought views from both the Law Society and the Bar Council, and they did not suggest that we reformulate them to get at another bracket. So, after consultation, we promulgated them, believing them to be targeted at the right category of case.
My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that before I came to your Lordships' House I was the General Secretary of a trade union representing hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers? Following the abolition of wages councils I fought strenuously for the introduction of a national minimum wage. Can my noble and learned friend tell the House the extent to which the income of many solicitors and members of the junior Bar compares with that of millions of people on the national minimum wage?
My Lords, despite what one reads in the press, that income compares very favourably with the national minimum wage.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that the Sudbury office of my firm has a criminal legal aid franchise, although it is now completely uneconomic and barely any work is being done under it.
Noble Lords may say that, but no one in this House should underestimate the seriousness of the crisis regarding the defence of criminal cases in this country. There are now black holes of provision in Devon and Cornwall, the Isle of Wight, Lincolnshire and many other places. Is it not about time that the noble and learned Lord abandoned these endless reports, of which the Carter report is the latest, and just looked at the bare facts; that the remuneration rates for solicitors in criminal cases are one-third of the Court Service's recommended rates for civil litigation?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that something urgently needs to be done about the matter. The money that has gone into criminal legal aid has increased dramatically, but it has gone to the wrong place. That is why there needs to be a redistribution. That is what my noble friend Lord Carter is seeking to do, and do it in such a way that he can bring the legal profession with us.
My Lords, from what I have understood of the press notices, there is no longer any resistance on the part of the junior Bar to accepting briefs. A number of them refused to accept briefs in order that the public should realise, first, that their remuneration had not moved for eight years, and as a result was 30 per cent below what it should have been; secondly, that a review was promised in May but never took place; and, thirdly, that there were unilateral cuts. Having made their points, and, I think, obtained a fair amount of sympathy, they have now returned to accepting work, awaiting the Carter report. Is the noble and learned Lord aware of all those facts?
My Lords, in parts of the country certain members of the Bar refused to take work for a period of about two weeks. That has now ceased. I do not know what their motivation was. It is worth pointing out that junior barristers are paid on average £650 for a one-day trial and £1,300 for a three-day trial. People can judge for themselves whether those are reasonable rates.
My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware of the case that I read about recently in which there were three main suspects for a crime: a rich lawyer, a poor lawyer and a tooth fairy? Needless to say, the rich lawyer was arrested because the other two were figments of the imagination.
My Lords, it does the House no credit to do anti-lawyer jokes.