Community Legal Service (Funding) (Amendment No. 2) Order 2011 — Motion to Annul

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:34 pm on 26th October 2011.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 8:34 pm, 26th October 2011

My Lords, in moving this Motion, I make it crystal clear that we on this side believe that there must be cuts to the legal aid budget. Over the past 30 years or so, perhaps until a few years ago, the amount spent on legal aid went up a great deal, year on year, and that was particularly true in the criminal legal aid field until the amount spent on criminal legal aid, compared with civil legal aid, was totally out of kilter.

As part of the necessary cuts, we, when in Government, took action to reduce legal aid spending and I do not apologise for that. Almost the last act we took in government, before the general election of 2010 was called, was to cut criminal legal aid advocates' fees in the higher courts over a three-year period. It was not popular but it was necessary. Incidentally, that gives the lie to the present Government's claim that we, the previous Government, were not prepared to tackle the deficit. If we had won that election, we would have cut further. My personal view is that there are large savings indeed to be made in our whole criminal justice system. In any event, we had published a White Paper, Restructuring the Delivery of Criminal Defence Services, which, if followed through, would have made considerable savings.

However, there are two considerable differences that exist between our proposals and those of the Government. First, Her Majesty's Government are intent on cutting legal aid much too far and much too fast. They have not given any-certainly not enough-thought to the consequences of their policies, either in human or in financial terms. That leads me on to my second point. One of the areas in which they have chosen to axe legal aid, take it out of scope altogether and make savings in fees, is precisely the wrong area of law. They intend to remove welfare benefits advice and representation at all levels, including up to the Supreme Court; employment advice; much housing advice and even more debt advice; and some community care advice and education advice-in other words, advice to the poor and the vulnerable. They intend to save the sum of about £50 million per year through those cuts. Today, of course, we are not strictly debating the rights and wrongs of such an approach, but we shall be able to do that in short order when the Bill, currently in another place, comes to this House.

Tonight we are debating an order that in one fell swoop cuts 10 per cent from all-I repeat, all-civil fees, including family fees. To describe it as a rough and ready figure would be a gross understatement. It is a crude and ill thought-out measure with no evidential justification whatever. Although I am particularly concerned with the 10 per cent cuts to social welfare and community lawyers, the lowest paid of all the lawyers who do civil and family work, I acknowledge the powerful case put forward by other civil and family lawyers to me as a result of my Motion being tabled. I thank all those who have made their case. There may well be champions for them tonight, although I know that because of the lateness of the hour, various noble Lords whose contributions would have been very welcome on all sides have not been able to stay.

Interestingly, there are no comparable cuts on the criminal side-for example, in the sister order that accompanies this particular statutory instrument. This shows that the Government are quite ruthless when it comes to civil and family legal aid and as soft as butter when it comes to criminal legal aid. It is as though they have no sense at all of the fantastic value social welfare law has in our society, allowing, at comparatively cheap costs, early legal advice for many of those who could not possibly afford to get it, with the result that issues are solved and the courts are not full of hopeless cases and litigants in person. Noble Lords will perhaps have seen the concern of some Justices of the Supreme Court in the newspapers this morning. For some reason, the Government are determined to decimate social welfare law and drive out those hard-working, dedicated and, I would argue, poorly paid lawyers who practise in this field.

Who are these lawyers? They are often the not-for-profit sector; they work in law centres, citizens advice bureaux and other advice centres. Some are solicitors and barristers in private practice. Many, wherever they come from, sacrifice more lucrative legal careers in order to practice this type of law. If they do not practice it, who will?

Their fees are fixed fees brought in in October 2007 and raised by 2 per cent in 2008 but untouched since then. They are not overgenerous. We as a Government brought in the fixed fee and it undoubtedly caused problems in itself. We set up a study with many experts from this area of law to look into those problems, and we produced a document entitled a Study of Legal Advice at Local Level in order to attempt to tackle them. We as a Government refused at any time, and particularly during the recession, to cut legal aid spending on social welfare law. We increased it significantly from £151 million in 2007-08 to £208.4 million in our last year, 2009-10. We increased eligibility by 5 per cent, bringing in 750,000 more people, and increased the number of new matter starts. I am proud of what we did.

The proposed fees are set out in Table 1 of the order, to be found on page 4. These cases often take many hours' work. They involve face-to-face contact. Often the lawyer, having seen the client, has to speak to third parties in order to resolve the problem. They are by no stretch of the imagination well paid. There is an exceptional threshold, but a case has to be very long indeed and very complicated to come into that category.

There are currently 52 law centres in England and Wales. They are not profit-making. They have had to make efficiency savings with the introduction of the fixed-fee system. Many rely heavily for the excellent work that they do on legal aid. Eight generate over 70 per cent of their income through legal aid contracts. None of these law centres has a 10 per cent surplus and at present they monitor cash flow on a weekly basis. There is no fat to them at all. All eight are at risk of closure. Four centres are particularly vulnerable, two in London and two outside the capital. Eight hundred thousand pounds is immediately to be taken from law centres' funding overall by the 10 per cent cut. In the medium term, the combined effect of the 10 per cent cut plus the proposed scope cuts is that £8 million out of the £9 million in legal aid contracts that law centres enjoy will disappear. Eighteen law centres out of 52 will just not be viable-it may be more. Where, I ask, will people go to in order to get their legal issues sorted out?

I could make the same points about CABs, the citizens advice bureaux, which have a very high reputation, as do law centres, in Parliament and outside. Obviously CABs do not rely so heavily on legal aid, but many still rely on it, and at a time when local authority funding is, frankly, declining, CABs will also close as a consequence of this order. Noble Lords will remember that a few months ago there was news from Birmingham about the state of CABs in Britain's second largest city.

Private sector firms that do this work also work on the same legal aid rates. All day long I have been receiving e-mails from solicitors who do this work. Sometimes, of course, other parts of these firms subsidise the social welfare law part of a firm, but I have been told that the amount of money that legal aid lawyers of many years' standing get per year would make an extremely interesting data base. It is much less, of course, than that of a solicitor who does not do that work and compares extremely badly with other professionals-very badly indeed. Those who practice in this field and who do this absolutely invaluable work do not expect enormous rewards, but nor do they expect to be penalised even further.

I end with the story of Law for All. Law for All was in west London, and many noble Lords may have heard of it. It was quite a large organisation. It provided legal help in the fields of debt, employment, family law, housing and welfare benefits. It also provided representation for many people over many years. However, it has now been forced to close down in anticipation of the reduction in the fixed fee and, of course, the fact that 90 per cent of their work is being taken out of scope in the Bill that is currently going through Parliament. This is a tragedy for local people, who received legal help in 1,500 cases last year. The local authority in that part of west London is generous, but the Government's proposals have meant that Law For All has closed its doors. I have spoken this afternoon to the chief executive -or should I say ex-chief executive?-who confirmed that the 10 per cent cut that we are debating tonight and the taking out of scope have driven it to close.

It is important to point out that even where the area of social welfare law is not to be taken out of scope altogether, such as in some housing cases and some debt cases connected with housing cases, the order that we are debating tonight means that the continuing work in housing, for example, will be reduced by 10 per cent. All housing work that stays in scope will be affected.

Noble Lords may want to know how much this will save. It is estimated that the saving from the whole order, including the 10 per cent cut in civil and family legal aid across the board, is worth £45 million. The cuts as they affect social welfare law fees are all of £5 million. That is a figure that the Legal Action Group has confirmed. Of course it is a rough figure but it shows just how much or, rather, how little will be saved by this order. Saving £5 million in fees when Her Majesty's Government intend to spend £250 million on ensuring that there are weekly rather than fortnightly collections of rubbish is absolute nonsense. Have we not got our priorities entirely wrong?

In the Hansard published today, the Minister has answered a Question that I asked him. The information is that:

"In cash terms, spending on legal aid in 2010-11 was ... some £66 million (3 per cent) below provision".-[Hansard, 25/10/11; col. WA 137.]

Yet the aim is to save £5 million by cutting these fees by 10 per cent.

I am not allowed to seek to amend this order and I therefore have to pray against it as a whole. Whether I vote against it tonight will depend on what other noble Lords say in the course of the debate that I hope will follow and, of course, particularly on what the Minister says. I beg to move.