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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:30 am, 19th January 2016

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Bailey? I congratulate Stephen Kinnock on having secured the debate. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed. This important subject is capable of arousing many passions, and I am pleased that the debate, although lively at times, has been conducted in a measured tone. I very much hope that will continue.

Let me be clear at the outset: the Government share the passion for a justice system that works for everyone. I have spoken previously about our commitment to one nation justice, which is fundamental to the rule of law. At the heart of one nation justice is equality. We are committed to making sure that our justice system delivers faster and fairer justice for all citizens, not just some. We are committed to a justice system that safeguards and protects the vulnerable and that works better for victims and witnesses. It must be recognised that legal aid is only one part of the balanced provision of access to justice, but it is nevertheless an important part, and I accept that there is a responsibility on the Government to ensure that it is available for those in the greatest need.

When the programme to reform legal aid commenced in 2010, the scale of the financial challenge facing the Government was unprecedented. The coalition had to find significant savings, which meant making difficult choices. Despite that, we have made sure that legal aid remains available for the highest priority cases, such as those where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where people face the loss of their home, as in cases of domestic violence, or where people’s children might be taken into care. It is also available in relation to the treatment and detention of people experiencing mental health problems and in cases concerning the best interests of people who lack mental capacity.

Tackling domestic violence remains a Government priority. For that reason, we have retained legal aid for the purpose of obtaining urgent protection via an injunction. In addition, in private family law cases—those concerning child arrangements and financial matters—funding may be available for those who will be materially disadvantaged by facing their abuser in court.

I hope hon. Members will accept that it is reasonable to ensure that the correct cases attract funding. However, we have listened and responded to specific concerns. That is why, during the passage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, we made changes to make evidence easier to obtain. In April 2014, we expanded the list of evidence accepted in applications for legal aid in private family cases. We also extended the definition of health professionals to include psychologists. We made further changes in July 2015, including by adding new offences to the list of domestic violence and child abuse offences. Further regulatory changes ensure that, once a particular form of legal aid has been granted, no further evidence needs to be submitted for someone to receive legal representation for their case. We will, of course, continue to keep the evidence requirements under review.

Mention has been made of exceptional case funding, and funding has been provided where it is required by law under European Union legislation or European convention on human rights regulations.