My Lords, I rise with a heavy heart to speak against this annulment Motion. It is with a heavy heart because, for all my professional life, I have been a devoted supporter of legal aid. I declare an interest as a barrister who over the years has done a great deal of publicly funded work. My first ever motion to a Liberal Democrat conference was on the promotion of legal aid. The Liberal Democrat Lawyers Association, which I chaired for a number of years, drank a toast every year at its annual dinner to the Legal Aid Fund, a toast proposed by a prominent lawyer. It is noteworthy in the context of today's debate that the toast was changed some 10 years ago to "justice for all", as an ironic response to cuts in civil legal aid made by the then Labour Government. I chaired a policy group entitled A Right to Justice, which helped to define Liberal Democrat policy on improving the legal aid scheme. My party has always taken as its starting point for discussion on this topic that access to justice is a crucial right and that legal aid funding provides a vital public service. There is no point in having rights enforceable at law if citizens cannot secure those rights in courts of law. I know from many years' experience of him that that is the position my noble friend the Minister takes as well.
However, while there was much to agree with in all the speeches that have been made so far in favour of the Motion, we live in difficult times. As the noble Lord, Lord Bach, fairly acknowledged, savings must be made. The provisions of the order are estimated to deliver £120 million of the £350 million of savings that the Ministry of Justice is required to make in legal aid over the spending review period from 2011-15. If we do not make those savings, matters can only get worse and later cuts will have to be deeper.
On a personal note, in Greece, my wife's home country, I have seen at first hand the effects of the extreme austerity measures cutting back public expenditure. The cuts could have been much less harsh had the Government there got a grip on the public purse earlier when all the signs of overspending were plain for all to see.
The need to make savings in the legal aid budget was recognised by the Labour Party in Government who made some 30 attempts to limit it, reducing fees in real terms across the piece as they did so, between 2006 and their leaving office. Furthermore, that was before the full extent of the deficit became apparent and the need for deficit reduction and cuts across the board became as clear as it is now. On
"Family legal aid costs have risen unsustainably from £399 million per year to £582 million per year in the past six years. We need to control these costs in order to protect services for vulnerable clients".-[Hansard, 18/5/09; col. 1201.]
In the consultation paper sent out by Ministry of Justice in July 2009, for which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, as legal aid Minister, was responsible, its proposals were described as follows:
"Our legal aid system is one of the best funded in the world. We spend around £38 per head on it annually in England and Wales, compared to £4 in Germany and £3 in France. Even countries with a legal system more like ours spend less; for example, both New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland spend around £8 per head".
I regard the fact that we still spend considerably more than comparable countries on legal aid as a matter for pride. That is still the case but it highlights the degree to which the legal aid budget must bear its share of the economies that have to be made.
The Labour Government's consultation paper continued:
"While we devote considerable resources to legal aid-£2bn annually-" the figure is now £2.2 billion-
"our resources are limited, and we need to review regularly how legal aid funds are being spent, and whether we are securing value for money for the taxpayer and providing the services that the public need".
The Government's response to the consultation, published in January 2010 and signed by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, said:
"The Government wants to ensure that we rebalance the legal aid budget as far as possible in favour of civil help for those who need it most. But we also need to ensure that the resources we currently devote to civil legal aid are being targeted appropriately, and that the rules for granting funding are as robust as they need to be to ensure that resources are expended on meritorious cases ... The intended effects are to redirect resources onto higher priority areas, and to ensure that funding is only granted to eligible clients".
The words "rebalance" and "redirect resources" would inevitably have involved real terms reductions in fees. Labour's 2010 election manifesto said:
"To help protect frontline services, we will find greater savings in legal aid and the courts system".
When this Government's consultation paper on legal aid was published, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, very fairly said, as he said tonight:
"It would have been hypocritical of Labour to say we would not cut anything. If we had, we would be rightly criticised".
It is beyond doubt that the reductions in fees embodied in the order, which the noble Lord seeks to annul, do make it more difficult for the already hard-pressed community legal practitioners, mentioned in the Motion, to thrive and will make it more difficult for barristers, junior and senior, who work on publicly funded work. We agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that such practitioners carry out an essential service for those least able to afford it. This order does involve a 10 per cent cut in their fees and in the fees of barristers for publicly funded work across the field of civil and family law, not just social welfare law. It includes-I would suggest rightly-a limit on experts' fees for the first time. It is going to be more necessary than ever for lawyers to practise as efficiently as they can and the harsh reality is that they will earn less from legal aid work. However, I am far less clear that their core viability is threatened.
We will be debating these issues-and the other issues about the scope of legal aid mentioned by the noble Lord, but not the subject of this order-in full when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill comes to this House shortly. I hope we will also be able to explore during the course of this Parliament other ways in which savings might be made without damaging the quality of the justice system. Progress is being made in exploring the achievement of savings through alternative dispute resolution procedures. I believe there is also room for improvement in the efficiency of the court system to produce savings. In the family field, I look forward with great hope to the final report of the Family Justice Review chaired by David Norgrove.
I would make it clear from these Benches that we have been, and are, heavily involved in discussions with practitioners and others , including many civil and family law practitioners, both barristers and solicitors, who have quite rightly expressed their concerns to us. We will examine closely with Ministers whether, and how far, the Bill achieves fairness and the protection of the vulnerable in the use of extremely limited resources. We would hope and expect that in due course, in a reviving economy, any gaps in provision that emerge will be refilled. However, that there must now be some cuts in fees is inevitable in these straitened circumstances.
In advancing this annulment Motion I suggest that the noble Lord and the Labour Party need to tell us what choices they would have made, or would make now, in cutting the legal aid budget. What were the cuts that he was intending to implement? How would they not have threatened hard-pressed community practitioners? Until those questions are answered fully, I suggest that, however regrettable the need for fee cuts in civil and family proceedings, it would not be sensible to divide the House on this Motion.