Report (3rd Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 12th March 2012.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 8:15 pm, 12th March 2012

On the point that the noble Baroness has just made, I for one would certainly not be worried if the provision increased trade union membership. That seemed to me to answer the question of whether certain kinds of advice should be made because people take the precaution of joining a trade union rather than expecting the taxpayer to pay for their advice. As I explained in Committee, we have thought very carefully about which areas should be removed from scope. We also considered whether there were procedures that would allow people to resolve their problems without legal assistance, such as tribunals or alternative dispute resolution, and we have looked carefully at whether all the matters currently funded through the legal aid scheme are strictly legal work.

Employment tribunals are designed to be simple to enable parties to make or respond to a claim without the need for representation. The rules of the employment tribunal place a duty on the tribunal and its chairmen to deal with cases justly and fairly, including, so far as possible, ensuring that parties are on an equal footing. While we recognise that clients find advice useful in the preparation of their case, we have had to prioritise funding on cases that involve fundamental issues such as liberty or safety, and proceedings in which litigants are generally unlikely to be able to represent themselves effectively. We do not accept that the employment tribunal cannot be accessed or that justice cannot be obtained without access to legal aid for advice-a point made by my noble friend Lord Faulks.

I should also mention that the Government are looking at referring all employment cases to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, ACAS, before the employment tribunal to try to resolve problems early on. Indeed, ACAS itself offers advice through a free helpline and help is usually available from trade unions. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, made that point. BIS is still considering with ACAS the route forward on this issue. My honourable friend Jonathan Djanogly is in discussions with BIS and ACAS to take this forward. ACAS also offers a free arbitration service for some disputes concerning unfair dismissal or flexible working. As noble Lords will be aware, we propose that legal aid should continue to be available for claims relating to a contravention of the Equality Act 2010 in employment cases that are currently within the scope of the legal aid scheme.

As with other things, we do not believe that the changes will have the impact that noble Lords opposite have suggested. The answer to many employment and other issues is economic recovery, which will provide the jobs. That is why those issues continue to be our priority. I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.