Report (3rd Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 10:15 pm, 12th March 2012

My Lords, it is absurd that we are debating such a crucial set of amendments as this at 10.15 in the evening. This is a crucial part of the Bill and the House should be much fuller. However, we have heard some very impressive speeches from around the House on Clause 9, which is a key clause in the Bill and, I imagine, a key clause in the Government's thinking on the structure of Part1 of the Bill.

We had a substantial debate at an earlier hour in Committee on these amendments, with the exception of Amendment 93A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. However, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and my amendments were debated. There was a widespread feeling around the House on that occasion, as there is tonight in a much emptier House, that Clause 9 is much too narrow in scope. It does not allow for the flexibility that is crucial if exceptional cases are to have any real meaning. In our view, this is such a narrow clause and it will be so difficult to put into practice that a great deal will be left to the director to decide. At the moment, we do not know under what rules the director will have to make his decisions, and it is a shame that we do not.

We still greatly support the amendment in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Carlile of Berriew. It seems to us a very sensible amendment and one that, if the Government do not intend what my noble friend Lord Judd was implying, they should accept. However, they do not accept it in those terms. The noble and learned Lord the Minister listened carefully when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said in Committee:

"My second point is that, although 'the interests of justice' is a rather general and vague subject, on the other hand if you turn it round and say that the director, before he allowed this ground to prevail, had to be satisfied that there was a real risk of injustice unless legal aid was granted in a particular case, that would focus on the issue in the case in a more distinct and direct way than the phrase 'the interests of justice'".

In response, the noble and learned Lord said:

"I am certainly interested in what my noble and learned friend said about turning the phrase around, which has a certain seductive charm."

That is the phrase that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, used. He continued, with his usual careful caution:

"I would not want to immediately agree to that but, without commitment, it is certainly something that I would want to think about".-[Hansard, 24/1/12; col. 989.]

This is the perfect opportunity for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to tell us whether he did think about it and what his conclusion was. It is an attractive offer. It is based on the original amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and on what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, had to say about it. I shall be interested to know his view on that. Amendment 93A fits in very well with the debate that we had earlier this evening, in which the Government found few friends around the House as regards their argument. I suspect that there are very few friends in the House at present as regards what the noble and learned Lord may say about Amendment 93A. We back it.

The first of my amendments is exactly the same as the one that I moved last time. It is based on a draft amendment by the Law Centres Federation. It is not necessary for me to praise the law centres movement yet again in the House; the House has a very strong feeling that it has done a fantastic job over the past 40 or 50 years. When it puts forward a draft amendment to a Bill like this, the very least that we can expect is that the Government take it seriously. It would have different criteria, having regard to the previous circumstances of the case, including: the client's vulnerability; the client's capacity to represent himself or herself; the client's health, including mental health issues; the actual availability of alternative sources of advice and assistance; the fact that the client is under the age of 18; or it is otherwise in the interests of justice. So we come back to the phrase in Amendment 93 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, rejected that amendment last time. I dare say he will do so again in a few minutes. I still wonder why, when it seems to cover so many of the crucial things that are of importance for any clause that deals with exceptional cases.

My Amendments 95 and 96 deal with the position of chief coroner, who barely survived, but survived eventually, even though it was the Government's intention to get rid of him before he started his job. It was good that the Government were persuaded to keep him. On Clause 9(4)(b), where the director has made a wider public interest determination in relation to the individual and the inquest, it would be helpful, rather than harmful or delaying, for the director to consult with the chief coroner. We still think that is a good idea and we cannot see why the Government reject it. These are important amendments and I know that they will be treated seriously by the noble and learned Lord, but to keep Clause 9 as narrowly based as it is on the ECHR and the European Court of Justice rulings is, in our view, much too restrictive and will in the end cause a great deal of concern for clients who really ought to get some legal aid under any exceptional provision but who will be barred from doing so because of the narrowness of the definition of Clause 9.