[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair] — Access to Justice: Vulnerable People

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:41 am on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 9:41 am, 19th January 2016

It is a pleasure to be able to participate, and I thank Stephen Kinnock for setting the scene so well. Members present, including me, have a particular interest in this matter, which I shall discuss from a Northern Ireland perspective. Some things in Northern Ireland are not right and are not going well, and this is an opportunity to tell the House about them. Perhaps the Minister, having listened to my comments, can respond. In telling the stories from Northern Ireland, I want to show where we need to focus.

Legal aid is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, so the responsibility lies very clearly with the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland administers the statutory legal aid system, and although it is a devolved matter, that does not mean I cannot share views about Northern Ireland, and that is what I shall do. As the Member for Strangford, speaking on behalf of the constituents who have contacted me about this issue, it is important that we have those views on the record in the mother of Parliaments and at the same time stand up for fellow countrymen and women in England and Wales who may be affected by the changes to legal aid since 2012.

Over the previous parliamentary term, I had a number of discussions with the shadow Minister, Karl Turner. He has been vociferous about legal aid on the Floor of the House. There has been no mention of it without him being there to speak about it. I look forward to the Minister’s response as well. He is a compassionate Minister who knows the issues and what we are about here, so I would like to hear his thoughts.

Despite being devolved, legal aid has proved to be an issue in Northern Ireland. More than 600 defendants have been left without a lawyer as the dispute over legal aid continues to prove an obstacle to the efficiency of the courts. I have been in contact with the Minister responsible for policing and justice in Northern Ireland, David Ford, as well as with solicitors and barristers who have expressed their views to me, so I am aware of the issues that we have back home and where the problems are. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Aberavon spoke specifically about vulnerable people, and I will as well, because they are the people we are here to represent.

Across Northern Ireland, hundreds of Crown court cases are stuck in the early stages of the legal process as lawyers continue to refuse to take on new criminal cases in protest against cuts to their pay. It is a critical issue, and there is a balance to be struck. I understand that the Government are under financial pressures, as we are in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well. The financial constraints might start here, but they go out to all the regional Administrations, particularly the Northern Ireland Assembly. The stand-off about pay has caused mayhem in the court system, with a growing backlog of cases as the dispute intensifies. Lawyers have taken industrial action in response to the cuts, withdrawing professional services in criminal cases as part of the protest.

The latest figures were released just last week and show that there are currently 817 cases outstanding in Northern Ireland. Of those, 545 are directly affected by the legal aid dispute. The magnitude of what is happening there is mirrored elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The issues are financial, and perhaps there are more complexities; nevertheless, the breakdown of the figures include some worrying cases. The outstanding cases include seven murder suspects, four accused of attempted murder, 60 accused of sex crimes, 76 accused of drug offences and 39 accused of fraud. Without stakeholder agreement and a reasonable solution here on the mainland, we could see a similar, if not worse, situation arise.

I say this with great respect because I am not someone who attacks political parties—that is not my form, Mr Bailey, and I never do it—but the Alliance party leads the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, and its unreasonable approach has seen law firms operating at a loss as a result of changes to the legal aid system. Top solicitors in the Province have warned that law firms quite simply cannot continue to operate at such a loss without bankruptcy, and that with so many cases backlogged the situation can only get worse. Local solicitors in my town, Newtownards, and elsewhere in my constituency, have confirmed that.

Disputes over legal aid not only threaten the efficiency of the justice system but can lead to the erosion of the right to a free and fair trial for all. I have heard the shadow Minister say that on numerous occasions in the Chamber; I have not seen his speech, but he will probably say the same thing shortly in Westminster Hall. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society would depend on legal aid should they ever require legal assistance. We are talking about people who are unable to access justice because of their vulnerability. There are many more people out there who may need to call upon legal aid but will be unable to. As a House and as Members of Parliament, we have a duty need to ensure that such people are protected from changes to the legal aid framework.

To reduce costs, we must focus on those over-represented in the legal aid client base. Change is necessary to address that over-representation, but we must be careful of the unintended consequences. I do not think that the Government deliberately intended what we have seen, but there are unintended consequences, and we have already seen in Northern Ireland just how out of control the situation can get in a short space of time. The Government need to engage with pro-bono organisations, solicitors’ groups and other relevant bodies to ensure a comprehensive strategy to address over-representation in the legal aid client base while protecting the vulnerable people who might find themselves in genuine need of legal aid assistance.

The exceptional funding route for those who are disadvantaged is clearly not working. Not only does the Ministry of Justice fail to recognise that there are vulnerable people in our society who need this sort of funding, regardless of what the European Court of Human Rights, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission or the European Union says; it fails to provide, let alone implement, a strategy to ensure that no vulnerable person in our society is in such a position in the first place. We are elected by our constituents as Members of Parliament to speak out on their behalf about the issues that arise. That is what I do in this House, as do other right hon. and hon. Members. When vulnerable people are squeezed, pushed and coerced and find no one to turn to, we have to step up and do our best for them.

We have today an overdue opportunity to discuss legal aid, an issue that I am sure will not go away. That is why it is important that the Minister will respond and important to hear what the shadow Minister and other Members will say. It was also important to hear the opening speech by the hon. Member for Aberavon and the interventions by other Members. I hope that Members will take note of the experiences I have shared from Northern Ireland, and that they share my sense of urgency about this issue on behalf of my constituents. Everyone in a civilised country such as ours should have a free and fair trial and should be legally represented. The Ministry of Justice needs to go forth and resolve the issue in a sustainable, long-term and proper fashion.