Committee (1st Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:12 pm on 20th December 2011.

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Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 4:12 pm, 20th December 2011

My Lords, the amendment is in my name and those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lords, Lord Faulks and Lord Hart of Chilton. It is an appropriate amendment with which to begin the Committee stage of this important Bill.

As the debate at Second Reading indicated, there is considerable concern about the contents of Part 1. There is widespread acceptance that in tough financial times legal aid must bear its share of the cuts in public expenditure and that the Government have to make difficult choices. However, there is widespread concern about the wisdom of the choices that are being made in Part 1 and whether it is appropriate to limit legal aid so extensively for those sections of the community that are most in need of advice and assistance to obtain the legal rights and benefits to which they are entitled.

The amendment seeks to focus this Committee's debate on the contents of Part 1, and seeks to remedy a considerable defect in Clause 1. The defect is that the clause fails to mention that the objective of Part 1 must be to secure access to justice, to protect the needs of individuals and to do so in an effective manner. Clause 1 fails to recognise that our debates about the content of Part 1 should take place in the context that legal aid is a vital element in securing access to justice, and that without access to justice, the rights and duties which we spend time creating in this Parliament by legislation are reduced in value and effect.

The drafting of Amendment 1 is closely based on Section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which imposes duties on the Legal Services Commission. When the Bill transfers those responsibilities into the Lord Chancellor's Department, the primary objective of securing access to justice by effective means to meet needs must be retained in the Bill. That point was made in the report of your Lordships' Constitution Committee, of which I am a member.

I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell the Committee that he can accept the amendment. It is carefully drafted to recognise, as does Section 4(1) of the 1999 Act, that the duty to provide access to services in order to meet needs is not absolute. It is a duty defined by reference to the resources available. The drafting does not impose an independent duty which trumps the specific contents of Part 1. On the contrary, it says expressly,

"in accordance with this Part".

I hope that the Minister will be able to accept the amendment as doing no damage whatever to the specific clauses which we shall be debating later in Committee. At the same time, the amendment ensures that the Bill recognises the vital principle which always has been and which should remain at the heart of our legal aid provisions: a commitment to providing access to justice. I beg to move.