Legal Aid: Social Welfare Law — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:05 pm on 7th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:05 pm, 7th July 2014

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, 15 months after the coming into force of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, what is their assessment of the effect of the Act on the legal advice system in relation to social welfare law in England and Wales.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My Lords, we have made hard choices in reforming legal aid. However, we have retained it for the highest priority social welfare cases and we continue to spend an estimated £50 million per year on this area. Although the Act is relatively new, the reduction in legal aid for social welfare matters is broadly in line with expectations. We are monitoring the impact of legal aid reform and will conduct a post-implementation review within five years of implementation.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his Answer but he and the Government know that the effect on social welfare law advice has been devastating. In the year 2013-14 alone—this is from the Government’s own figures—there was an 80% fall in the number of social welfare law cases, including a figure of 45% in housing cases. These cuts affect the poorest and most vulnerable, including many disabled people, in our society. Are the Government to some extent ashamed of the removal of access to justice from hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, all caused by deliberate coalition government policy?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The noble Lord mentioned housing. In fact, legal aid remains available for eviction and possession cases, housing disrepairs, where there is a serious risk to health or safety, homelessness assistance and all debt matters which may represent a threat to somebody’s home. As to the cuts in legal aid, they are concentrated on matters where the Government, after careful consideration, have decided that having a lawyer is not always the answer.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I refer the House to my registered interest as a practising barrister. My noble friend’s department has in the past largely dismissed fears for the future availability of publicly-funded barristers, given the cuts in the scope of legal aid and in remuneration rates. Does my noble friend share my concern at the 38% drop in available tenancies in chambers over the year to 2011-12 and the long-term decline in the availability of pupilages, particularly in chambers doing legally-aided work? How can we reverse this trend?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My Lords, that is a little way from social welfare law. Of course we need lawyers to represent those in every section of society in all sorts of fields. The fact remains that there is less for lawyers to do and inevitably there will be fewer lawyers to do it. It is important that the profession maintains high standards but I do not think that I can comment on numbers in particular chambers.

Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench

My Lords, getting back to social welfare law, the Minister will be aware of the report of the commission, which I had the honour to chair, on the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law. One of the chief recommendations of that report was that the Government should develop a national strategy for advice and legal support in England and that there should be a Minister for advice and legal support within the MoJ with a cross-departmental brief to lead the development of such a strategy. Will the Government give serious consideration to the early implementation of that recommendation?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am indeed aware of the noble Lord’s commission and its report on the future of advice and legal support on social welfare law. Indeed, I answered a debate on the subject on 25 February this year. As I told the House, we keep the position under review and are keen that there should be effective mechanisms to help individuals. However, it was made clear in the Cabinet Office review of the not-for-profit social welfare advice sector that while the Government accept the role they have in supporting the sector there is a need for the sector to adapt to the new funding realities. Indeed, that was very much acknowledged in the noble Lord’s report and during the course of contributions made in that debate.

Photo of The Bishop of Chelmsford The Bishop of Chelmsford Bishop

My Lords, I, too, should like to make reference to the Low commission. The church, faith communities and charities are all too keenly aware of the impacts of some of the cuts in legal aid on the poorest communities in our country. Sometimes a professional lawyer is needed. Would the Minister still regard the proposals of the Low commission for a nationally resourced strategy to provide support and legal advice as an important priority?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My Lords, as I said in response to the debate, it was a valuable contribution. The LASPO reforms were implemented only in April 2013; it is relatively early days. We are considering carefully the effects of these reforms. We have not ruled out the possibility of further changes but, at the moment, the various steps we are taking are helping to ensure that those who need representation are receiving it.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, with regard to DLA, is the Minister aware that if an appellant submits a paper hearing there is something like a 20% success rate, if the disabled person attends there is something like a 40% success rate at tribunal, but if they have legal advice, there is something like a 60% success rate? Does this not mean, in all fairness, that legal advice denied is justice denied?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My Lords, I obviously cannot comment on individual cases. It may be that cases with lawyers proceed only if lawyers have advised that there are reasonable prospects of success. As to those cases which fail, I do not accept that the tribunals are not able to do justice in the absence of lawyers. Most of the tribunal members are extremely well trained. They are capable of eliciting the facts. Simply to say that there cannot be justice without lawyers is, with respect, simplistic.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

Will my noble friend accept that those of us who supported these changes because of the large sums spent on legal aid in this country as compared with other countries would still be concerned to ensure that what we thought was going to happen is happening? Is he aware that many of us feel that rather than waiting five years before we have the kind of assessment which is surely necessary, as we are dealing with the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, we really ought to look at this rather earlier?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

My Lords, I share my noble friend’s concern, as do the Government. My answer was “within five years”, and I take note of what he says: that five years might be regarded as too long. Nevertheless, I am sure he would agree with me that we need time to assess these matters, particularly in view of the fact that before April 2013 there was a spike in the number of applications so as to take advantage of the old regime. It will take a little time to assess the true effects of the reform.