Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill — Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 5th March 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench 9:00 pm, 5th March 2012

My Lords, I encourage the Minister to accept the amendment. I do not think for one moment that it cuts across the Government's own policies or-as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, continually tells us-deficit issues. Looking at this might improve those deficit issues. If we do not have good expert witnesses, the consequences could be very high costs in some cases.

I have to declare an interest as the vice-chair of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. Lady Faithfull was of course an eminent Conservative in the House of Lords. She developed the foundation to work with abusers, and the foundation continues that work. One of the things that we do is make assessments in very complex cases so as to make recommendations to the courts on whether some individuals are safe to remain with their families. It is absolutely crucial that these experts are maintained. However, at £63 an hour, the foundation has to subsidise that work at the moment. We cannot do that for long. I use that as an example of one of many organisations that find themselves unable to produce these experts.

I also declare an interest as having been the chair and vice-chair of CAFCASS for some eight years. I absolutely agree that there are too many expert witnesses. Children's cases have been held up in court over the years because reports have been commissioned by judges and have had numbers of witnesses. Many of these have been commissioned by people who, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said, can afford to commission the reports themselves. That is a difficulty. We have a serious administrative muddle. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, gives the Government the opportunity to review and sort this out.

No one is saying that we want to maintain the high level of expert witnesses in the court. We want to ensure that, where expert witnesses are needed, they are available. If they are not available, that would be a really serious miscarriage of justice for children. Mistakes will be made and children will be put in danger. It is quality not quantity that really matters on this issue. If you talk to judges, social workers who work in the courts, or expert lawyers, they will always tell you that this will be the consequence.

My only other point is that the assessments being made by the Legal Services Commission are usually based on some sort of broad criteria that have little to do with expertise but have to do with qualification. If you are a poor social worker, you come very much at the bottom of the pile in terms of what you are worth, whatever your extra qualification might be. Lucy Faithfull Foundation social workers are experts in their field-psychologists and psychiatrists do not come near them, as anyone will tell you. Yet, in making their assessments, they are still paid at this sort of level. I encourage the Government to accept the amendment, not because it will mean that every expert is preserved but because it gives an opportunity to put the system on to a safe footing.