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Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : Can the hon. Gentleman give the exact figure of how many people work for the Crown prosecution service, so that we may know by what percentage it is understaffed?
Mr. Vaz : The service is about 23 per cent. understaffed at the moment, and the total number of posts is about 1,200, but I am sure that when the Attorney-General replies he will give us the correct, up-to-date figures. Those are the rough figures, as I see them. Does the Attorney- General accept the proposals of the Public Accounts Committee, which would give the Director of Public Prosecutions more freedom to pay competitive rates for CPS lawyers? Over the past three years more than £40 million has been spent out of the CPS budget on private agency lawyers. Does the
Attorney-General know that an agency lawyer working full time for the CPS earns more than a CPS lawyer doing the same work? This afternoon when I spoke to the First Division Association I learnt that about £250 is the cost of an agency lawyer for a day's work in the CPS. That would give that person an income of £150,000 per year. I understand that that is more than the amount paid to any chief Crown prosecutor, except the Director of Public Prosecutions.
How can we justify the expenditure of such an enormous amount from the public sector on private solicitors? Does the Attorney-General accept that the Government are not getting value for money, given the criticisms that have been made about the calibre of the agency lawyers? What steps does the right hon. and learned Gentleman propose to improve that?
Those are important issues, but by far the most important current issue concerning the CPS arises from the evidence to the Select Committee. I found Mr. Allan Green, the Director of Public Prosecutions, a professional, honest and candid witness. In answer to a question from me he made an astonishing statement. He said : "The introduction of the service was a bitter pill for some police officers to swallow. Some are not co-operating fully and might indeed be obstructing it in certain respects. These are areas in which we do need, if we are to do our job properly, very much greater effort, co-operation and willingness on the part of the police."
I pressed him about who the officers were and their ranks, and asked how senior the officers obstructing the work of the CPS were. Mr. Green replied :
"It is a very difficult question to answer. I would say that at all ranks in the police force, from top to bottom, there will be certain people who are very much less willing to co-operate than others." His words "from top to bottom" included reference to chief constables and junior officers.
Does the Attorney-General stand by the statement of the Director of Public Prosecutions? Does he agree that
Column 45there are officers at all ranks who are refusing to co-operate, hindering, or wilfully obstructing the workings of the CPS? How many officers are involved in that action? When did the Law Officers first become aware of that? I know from a conversation that I had with the Solicitor-General on Report of the Children Bill that he was aware of it in October last year. What steps has the Attorney-General taken to refer the matter to his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary? What disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against officers who have been found to be involved in that obstruction? I now refer to the evidence of the police. The Police Federation maintains that there is a crisis of confidence in the CPS. Its evidence stabs the CPS not only in the back but in the front. The federation has become extra-ordinarily bitter. It asserts that the reputation of the criminal justice system has suffered as a result of the activities of the CPS. The federation is against almost everything that the CPS has done in the past few years. It challenges the calibre of agency staff, is critical of the plea bargaining system that the CPS has adopted, and attacks CPS lawyers for failing to make applications for compensation after cases. The federation also attacks the CPS for failing to keep witnesses informed and says that the actions of the CPS have damaged the morale of police officers. It challenges the way in which the CPS has taken prosecutions and decisions about the discontinuance of prosecutions. Does the Attorney-General accept any of the police criticisms that are set out in written evidence? Does he agree with the police that the CPS is in crisis? Has he received any representations from the Home Secretary about the matter? Does he accept the view put forward by the Association of Chief Police Officers that the police should be allowed their own solicitors in order to second-guess the decisions of the CPS? Crucially, does he accept the police statement in paragraph 1 of their evidence, that the CPS has damaged the reputation of the criminal justice system? Does he agree with the Director of Public Prosecutions or with the Police Federation? In respect of the evidence given last week by Mr. David Owen, the chief constable of north Wales, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman support the view that the evidence given on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers represents Mr. Owen's own views and that he is pursuing a vendetta against the CPS, or does he accept that Mr. Owen's evidence represents the collective views of the association?
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : On occasions I have had the advantage of being instructed by the north Wales CPS, under the leadership of its chief Crown prosecutor, Mr. Clarke, and I found that its Crown court preparation is of the highest possible standard.
Mr. Vaz : I certainly accept that. As I said, I shall join the other members of the Select Committee in north Wales tomorrow. I raised the issue of Mr. Owen because it has been raised with me in the past and was raised in the Committee. It is extremely important for the House to know whether the Attorney-General accepts Mr. Owen's views.
I urge the Attorney-General to act to stop this disgraceful public row, which must be having a profound effect on the public perception of two of three partners in
Column 46the criminal justice system. I ask him to tell the House the steps that he will take, either on his own or with the Home Secretary, to end the feud.
The public evidence submitted by 23 organisations is a damning indictment of the Crown prosecution service. Everyone who gave evidence, including representatives of the Home Office, was critical to some degree. One of those giving evidence said that the CPS was in a shambles. Perhaps the problem lies in the lack of co-operation between the police and the Crown prosecution service. Those are serious matters that have attracted a great deal of public comment, and I hope that the Attorney-General will give us the assurances that I seek.
There is a view that, because of the enormous damage to its reputation, the Crown prosecution service should be scrapped, refurbished and re- established with a new name, and that it should be given the support that it has never received. I should like to know whether the Attorney-General shares that view.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman because I am anxious to learn whether he is criticising the police or the CPS. His solution to the problem is to change the name and re-establish the service. Does he accept the concept of an independent prosecuting authority--which is what the CPS is? If he accepts that, why will changing the name make the army fight any better?
Mr. Vaz : As is so often the case, the hon. Gentleman missed the beginning of my speech. I am sure that he was delayed elsewhere on parliamentary business. He will therefore not have heard me say that I am a great supporter of an independent prosecution service. I offered the example of the American system and said that we need to get away from the damaging criticism of the CPS. A change of name and a new approach may do much to reassure the public and the elements of the criminal justice system that we wish to begin again.
There is a crisis in the provision of legal aid. I welcome the announcement that the Lord Chancellor made in November of a review of the legal aid system. However, I question why it will take so long for that review to reach a conclusion.
In the past 10 years, 15 million people have lost the right to qualify for legal aid. Many proposals in many reports published over the past decade would, if implemented, directly benefit citizens. They include the same flexible upper limit for civil legal aid as for criminal legal aid so that people of all means will qualify, subject to an appropriate contribution ; abolishing the means test in personal injuries cases ; and bringing the capital rules for green form advice into line with those for civil legal aid. A single person who has savings of more than £890 is excluded from the scheme, however low his income. Legal aid should be extended to tribunals, particularly the social security commissioners. The commissioners are referred to in the Select Committee's report as a decision-making body, from which, as the Attorney-General knows, the next step is the Court of Appeal.
The Department of Social Security is almost always legally represented in such cases. Only 3,000 cases were decided in 1987--the last year for which figures are available. In written parliamentary answers, the Attorney- General conceded that only about 200 cases led to hearings, which on average take two hours. At current
Column 47rates, the cost of advocacy would be no more than £20,000. Parliament is legislating for rights that cannot be enforced because citizens cannot pay.
The decline in legal aid and assistance is real and substantial ; 8 per cent. fewer people used the green form scheme in 1988-89 than in 1987-88. That is the largest, and only the second ever, drop in the use of the scheme, from 1,077,054 people to 994,066.
There was a 3 per cent. drop in civil legal aid certificates over the same period, whereas previously there had been a steady rise. Fewer and fewer citizens qualify. This year, 56 per cent. of the population are eligible, whereas the figure for 1979 was 79 per cent. Justice is being cash limited ; I call it justice capping. Never before has there been such a need for people to be given proper legal advice and assistance. Does the Attorney- General accept that fewer people qualify, and does he think that that is a healthy development?
The duty solicitor scheme is in danger of collapse. Research from Birmingham university, which was published at the end of last year, shows that the safeguards that were built into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 have not worked. Only 25 per cent. of suspects in police stations seek advice, and fewer receive it. Research shows--and I am sure that the Attorney-General is familiar with it--that 22 ploys are used by the police to discourage requests for advice.
Citizens can obtain advice only if solicitors are willing and able to administer the scheme. Fewer and fewer solicitors are taking part in the service, which places greater strain on those who participate in it. The scheme does not provide adequate compensation for being on duty overnight or at weekends. I should be the last person to argue for a pay rise for solicitors--I have yet to meet a starving solicitor--but the quality of advice that is given must in some way reflect the number of solicitors who are taking part. What is the Attorney-General's solution to the problems of the duty solicitor scheme?
I am deeply concerned about how the contracting-out of legal services will be operated. Franchising may be good enough for McDonald's, but it is not appropriate for justice to be treated as a junk food chain. Will the Attorney-General tell the House what progress and decisions have been made on franchising?
Several hon. Members are present who support the concept of family courts. The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) was a member of the Commitee that considered the Children Bill. He and I tabled a new clause that would have realised a long-standing ambition--the creation of a family court. On Report, the Solicitor-General took the House by surprise by announcing the establishment or existence of what he called "a rolling programme" of the review of family law and administration. On Second Reading of that Bill in another place, the Lord Chancellor tried to placate the supporters of the family courts campaign by saying that the Children Bill allowed for the establishment of a family court in all but name.
If that is so, I cannot understand why the Courts and Legal Services Bill, which is currently being considered in another place, does not go the distance by allowing for the creation of a family court. What worries me is that there does not seem to be a time limit on the rolling programme
Column 48that was referred to by the Solicitor- General. In addition, its terms of reference have never been properly defined. Government agencies and Departments meet regularly, but Parliament is not kept informed of developments. We want a proper family court--not a series of piecemeal changes, but one comprehensive change that will allow the procedure to be adopted. We were told many times in Committee on the Children Bill that the substantive law has been codified, but it is now time for the court structure to follow. Without a court structure, substantive law will never be properly achieved.
Mr. Devlin : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but, as he knows, I have a great interest in this matter. Many parliamentary questions were tabled a week ago last Thursday, in answer to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General revealed that a programme of reforms was being worked on by an inter-departmental committee. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have met since last November, and many people will be concerned that the rolling programme does not appear to be rolling very fast. What has the hon. Gentleman to say about that?
Mr. Vaz : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree with everything that he said. He was in the Chamber on the dramatic day when the right hon. Member fo Blaby (Mr. Lawson) resigned, thus turning the Children Bill, which was being debated, into a controversial Bill when previously it had always progressed by consensus. We raised that matter with the Solicitor-General. The right hon. and learned Gentleman uses marvellous adjectives to describe the family court system, and he said that he was sorry that he could not provide the "all-singing and all-dancing" family court that we required. He went on to coin another phrase, the "rolling programme". As the hon. Member for Stockton, South correctly said, despite a number of parliamentary questions having been tabled in a completely unorchestrated way, the response by the Attorney-General was disappointing.
Mr. Devlin : I am sorry to keep interrupting the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is probably thinking that the hon. Gentleman has never specified what he means by a family court. When I moved the new clause in Committee, I was fairly specific about what I particularly wanted. I knew that there was not a consensus and that different people supported different ideas. Will the hon. Gentleman give us a better idea of how he sees the family court? My right hon. and learned Friend the
Attorney-General would be interested to hear it and would then be in a better position to respond.
Mr. Vaz : I shall not be tempted down that path and shall not turn the debate into a major debate on family courts. The Attorney-General is well aware of what we mean when we describe the need for a family court. I am sure that he has read at length the extracts from Hansard , including the speech of the hon. Member for Stockton, South. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman replies, he will probably say what all Law Officers have said from the Dispatch Box when this matter has been raised with them-- "No". We shall be interested to hear whether that "No" has been tempered in any way, in the ferocity of its delivery.
Column 49As I said, the county court system is in need of major surgery. Like so many other parts of the judicial system, it is
under-resourced and understaffed. There have been numerous complaints in cases where the inaction of the courts has resulted in a denial of justice. The proposals in the Courts and Legal Services Bill and the Children Act will result in more work being given to the county courts. When those proposals are enacted--the Children Act is not yet in force--it will bring the county court system to a grinding halt, unless there is a huge increase in resources and efficiency. Those who use the county court system pay for the service. It operated at a notional profit of £6 million in 1988- 89, yet the service in many parts of the country is appalling. The issuing of summonses has been delayed and there is a backlog in dealing with correspondence. According to the Law Society, Hastings county court is said to have a one-month backlog in dealing with its post. As at 1 November 1989, Birmingham county court had 8,000 unopened items of mail--the scenario that makes even Lunar house in Croydon look efficient.
I support the establishment of an ombudsman to investigate the complaints of maladministration or an extension of the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. I strongly believe that the public should be compensated when they suffer financial loss because of the state of the county courts. What words of comfort has the Attorney-General to offer them?
In passing, I should like to mention the state of the magistrates courts and the delays and injustices suffered there. Will the Attorney-General bring to the attention of the Home Secretary my worry and that of many others about the delays? In particular, I strongly support the idea of a fixed appointment system in the magistrates and juvenile courts as the best way of organising court business. That will help the system save a great deal of money. It will stop the legal aid fund paying out a great deal of money to solicitors for waiting around in the courts for cases to be called. It will provide a better deal for court users. The key must surely be proper liaison. I hope to see a structure of court user committees established in all local courts that will allow all those who participate in the legal service to be properly represented and to put their views.
I speak as one who has worked in a law centre. There is no better way of providing public legal services in terms of legal advice and assistance to ordinary people than that system. Law centres, citizens advice bureaux, consumer advice centres, rights centres and the like have been established in many cities, but they are always beset by funding crises. Does the Attorney-General agree that they are an essential part of public legal services? If so, when will the Government come up with more funding for them? The case for a centrally funded network of law centres is unanswerable. Why should people be denied access to legal information and advice just because they live in a certain part of the country and their local authority, which is more than likely to be Labour controlled, does not fund a centre?
I commend my local authority, Leicester city council, for the way in which it spends its money so wisely in providing three excellent law centres--the Leicester rights law centre, the self-help neighbourhood project and the Belgrave and Highfields law centre--as well as assisting in the funding of consumer advice centres and citizens advice bureaux. Justice would be denied to thousands of my
Column 50constituents if anything happened to those important local organisations. Let us have a public commitment from the Attorney-General and let his assurance be simple--that more cash will be forthcoming for those important elements in our legal services. There are so many other matters that I should like to bring to the attention of the House that, if I were to carry on speaking, I would take up the entire time allocated for private Members' motions. I am sure that other hon. Members wish to contribute, including my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser)--who has a tremendous record on campaigning on these issues--and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). Unfortunately, time does not permit me to continue much longer. Justice can be made available to all our citizens equally only if the system works. In many respects--the Crown prosecution service, the legal aid system, the duty solicitor scheme, law centres, county courts and magistrates courts-- it is not working efficiently or effectively. Parliament must ensure that, in the interests of justice, those problems are resolved with a minimum of delay. If they are not resolved, millions of our citizens will suffer from injustice.
M. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : I have listened with interest to the rarefied contribution, if I may call it that, by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on various matters about which he plainly has thought deeply and has considerable experience. No doubt my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will answer many of the hon. Gentleman's questions.
I ceased practising at the Bar in 1976, before the Crown prosecution service came into being, but that leads me to declare an interest. Although I gain no money from practice at the Bar or from any other form of legal practice, I have had experience of such practice. I have held certain views on the country's legal services for many years, and the hon. Gentleman's motion gives me an ideal opportunity to express them. In doing so, I shall give rather wider consideration than he did to the legal aid services, the duty solicitors scheme, the county courts and the advice centres. Before I embark on more general themes, however, let me take up what the the hon. Gentleman said about the county courts. For far too many years the legal framework has been diversifying into an excessive number of tribunals and other courts that are not part of the central system--the structure containing the High Court, the county courts, the Supreme Court. So much money and so many staff have had to be found that, sooner rather than later, we shall need another adjudicature Act. That will mean taking a close look at the whole structure of our court system to establish whether matters are now being dealt with in the right courts.
Diversification has gone mad since the Tribunals and Inquiries Act 1958. It was a mistake to diversify too much, rather than concentrating on improving the system as it existed for many years. That system could have incorporated many of the cases now being heard before tribunals that are not part of the main structure--a remedy to which we must address ourselves in future years.
Parliament contains many legal experts, although, surprisingly, not many are present today.
The number of lawyers in both Houses of Parliament has always been considered a mixed blessing at best, and a curse at worst. I once read in a history of Parliament that in 1404 a parliament indoctum had been held in Coventry, from which all lawyers were excluded. That is obviously still a popular notion in some quarters, but the habit did not catch on any more than the cry of, "Let us hang all the lawyers" that was heard during the Peasants' Revolt 23 years earlier. Nevertheless, variations on that cry have been heard on many occasions, particularly from unsuccessful litigants or political revolutionaries, exasperated or frustrated by the pace of constitutional change and filled with a fervent desire to advance their own notions of liberty in the teeth of established law, custom or practice and the innate conservatism--with a small "c"--of any civilisation founded on the rule of law.
Mention of innate conservatism leads me to one of my themes, namely, what the present excellent Lord Chancellor is up against in promoting--by means of the Courts and Legal Services Bill--the reforms that are so crucial to the improvement of our legal services for the benefit of the consumer, or customer, who is foolish enough ever to attempt to resolve anything through a lawyer. From the White Paper onwards, my right hon. and noble Friend has been up against special interests that have been marshalled on a huge scale, particularly the existing power structure of the legal profession and the Bench. The judges' case--the Bar's case--against some of his more imaginative reforms must be examined on the basis of narrow and special self-interest, rather than that of the public interest that they profess to have so close to their hearts.
The public interest is often paraded as women and children are herded into the van of an army that fears attack and hopes by such means to inhibit and deflect the fire of its opponents. Fortunately, my right hon. and noble Friend has been assisted in his task from the outset by the hysterical virulence of the Bench and Bar opposition not only to proposals that might have been considered to need modification, but to any proposals that appear to pose the slightest threat to the status quo and that past investigations under a different leadership in the House of Lords had not recommended. Top judges, lesser judges, top barristers and lesser barristers alike, have fallen over themselves in the extravagance of their condemnation. It has been said--or, on many occasions, blustered in outrage--that my right hon. and noble Friend is attacking the independence of the Bar ; that through such action he is attacking the independence of the judiciary ; and that that in turn mounts an assault on the universal liberties that have been guarded so jealously for centuries by an independent judiciary. Those claims are bunkum, and should be examined far more closely before distinguished people parade them.
The Lord Chancellor is proposing to widen the rights of audience, which has been done many times before, not least in Devon and Cornwall. I have practised on the western circuit, and I know from personal experience what happened in those counties ; I have not practised in Wales, but the rights of audience have been widened there, as well as in county and magistrates courts. That has not led to
Column 52any loss of independence for the Bar, or to so much as a hint of its destruction, even where there is joint audience with solicitors. The extensions that have already been granted have shown that it must not be assumed that those who possess a right will use it. Like every other hon. Member, I have the right to apply to the Crown to be appointed steward of the Chiltern Hundreds or the Manor of Northstead--and I understand that I would be appointed if I applied. However, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), who looks extremely concerned at the possiblity of my making such an application, that I leave it to others to apply from time to time.
The same applies to many solicitors, who have rights of audience in the places that I have mentioned but choose not to take them up, preferring to get a barrister in. Every citizen has the right to appear to plead his own cause in every court of law, but few choose to do so. That is another indication that the conferral of a right does not guarantee that that right will be exercised.
With my experience of the Bar and my knowledge of its history, I have no doubt that it will prove strong enough--as it has for centuries--to survive change, not only the changes in rights of audience for general civil or criminal matters but those involving specialist knowledge of commercial, taxation or chancery matters. There will always be a need for good, independent contractors. The fact that some building firms have become very large and have in-house electricians and plumbers does not mean that independent contractors cannot continue to succeed. I see no difference, in principle, between their position and that of the independent barrister advising clients on intricate matters. Surely they have nothing to fear ; nor do many express fears. They will survive the moderate reforms that are being proposed.
Mr. Alex Carlile : I do not quarrel with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, will he explain how someone living in Devon who has a complicated chancery matter requiring attention and advocacy in the High Court will secure the services of an independent advocate skilled in that area of the law unless someone can advise him who those skilled advocates are? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a danger of people who are not competent to do particular types of work taking on such work?
Mr. Martin : That is a valid point, but the present position is no different. If a member of the public wants advice on a complicated matter, he can visit his local solicitor who may decide that he can deal with it himself and not recommend that counsel should be employed to give better advice. That sort of thing could still happen under the new arrangements. Adequate information must be provided and there should be wide advertising of barristers who have particular skills so that people in Devon can read The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, the Sun or whatever and see advertisements for the services of competent counsel, based in London if necessary or anywhere else, to whom they can have direct access. That would improve the present position in which solicitors have the discretion as to whether to bring in counsel.
Column 53as my grandmother used to say, his saying so does not make it so. He may be so conceited to believe that he is competent when he is not.
Mr. Martin : That is right and my hon. Friend has made that point graphically. Some people may believe that they know something, but they do not and often another person should be brought in to advise on the matter. Many complaints have arisen about that. Some solicitors always go to counsel whether or not they believe themselves competent to deal with the case and problems may arise when the client thinks that he has to pay two people when he could have paid only one. I do not believe that those matters will change significantly under the new system. They will certainly not change for the worse for the customer, but some proposals may improve the position.
I have no doubt that the Bar will adjust to the new arrangements. When the fees increase and standards of living are not threatened but improved, no one will admit to my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the
Attorney-General or my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General- -who will all probably have retired by then--that they were right and that the reforms did not mean the destruction of the Bar. People will not admit that the Bar is actually thriving when they did not think that it would. The Bar will thrive and those who said that that would happen will get no credit for saying so. An equally substantial charge about the reforms made against my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor was repeated last week at Exeter university by Lord Ackner. The charge is that my right hon. and noble Friend is making it easier to extend executive control and to deprofessionalise the legal profession. The Lord Chancellor is said to be arrogating to himself, through an advisory committee, unacceptable powers not only of widening the categories of those who will be entitled to plead, but of setting out clear codes or standards of education, training and professional conduct. Constitutionalists, whether they be self- appointed, elected or otherwise, throw up their hands in horror that so powerful a Minister should presume to exercise such awesome power in such a way, assisted and indeed "dominated"--to use Lord Ackner's words last week at Exeter--by people who
"do not have expertise in the very profession which it is their function to oversee."
In other words, "Intelligent laymen--keep out. You have nothing to offer so far as those very important matters are concerned with regard to standards of education, training and professional conduct of lawyers."
If only those who had expertise were able to make judgments in those matters, very few Ministers would ever be appointed. In some cases, Ministers are appointed to oversee engineering, but they are not engineers. Lay people on both sides of the House must take highly intricate decisions when they are not necessarily qualified to do so. However, in our humility we do not say that we cannot take those decisions ; we take them. That is the same with regard to the lay benches. Lay magistrates have no legal training, but they give of their time and use their experience as people of the world. They offer their experience in that highly intricate--
Mr. Martin : Indeed, that is only part of the function of lay magistrates. As lay people, they have an important function in helping in the process of the law. They must take decisions about what happens in the courts while the clerk simply advises. The lay magistrate plays a very important role and I do not see why lay people should not be competent and so be part of the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee, which is to be chaired by a judge. Their common sense could be of great benefit to the profession. For generations, the office of Lord Chancellor has involved the most extraordinary totalitarian powers. Constitutionalists have commented on those powers on many occasions. The theory of the job is quite horrifying when we consider what powers are concentrated in the Lord Chancellorship.
The Lord Chancellor is the most senior Cabinet Minister. He has precedence even over the Prime Minister. With such Executive power in charge of the system of access to justice in this country, the Lord Chancellor appoints-- and people advise him about the appointment of--virtually irremovable judges. The Lord Chancellor decides who will practise as silks, Queen's counsel or senior barristers and he also appoints recorders. He receives advice, although not necessarily only expert advice.
The reason why the Lord Chancellor's powers do not in practice become intolerable or lead to the goosestep in this country is that they have been exercised in the true British fashion of good sense and restraint in the context of the firmly rooted traditions of a free country governed through an open parliamentary democracy.
Mr. Martin : I note the support that I hear from my hon, Friend. Parliamentary democracy is the main bastion of people's freedoms. In particular, the House of Commons has proved historically the best guardian of liberty. It is a fanciful notion that judges carry out that role in any but the most marginal of ways or that they have ever done so or are ever likely to do so.
The much-vaunted role of judges in administrative law, in protecting the liberties of the subject, is grossly exaggerated. Parliament holds Ministers to account and it makes and changes the laws. The fear of having to face Parliament, and in particular this House, and so preserve a majority in this place, is the real check on ministerial powers and actions ; it is not the apparent check claimed by judges. The judges have a role to play, but that should not be exaggerated.
The basis for the complaints made by judges lies in the power structure and influence that they possess at the moment. That applies in the courts, with rights of audience, and to the conduct of barristers and the Bar generally. It also relates to the Bar's promotion prospects. Those factors have an influence on the way in which people are promoted and the advice given to the Lord Chancellor about advocates. Wider influence in the way in which that advocacy is conducted will do nothing but good for the standards of independent advocacy in court.
There are bound to be amendments to the Courts and Legal Services Bill, and they will meet many of the criticisms that have been made. The biggest outrage is being done to my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor by people not considering the proposals in a
Column 55calm and reasonable manner. The atmosphere has changed because of the damage caused by those who went off at the deep end at the outset. Misrepresenting the proposals as an attack on the constitution and representing judges and barristers as the guardians of liberty, any erosion of whose traditional rights, powers and privilege will lead to the loss of our treasured freedoms, is just not on. In future years, when legal services are operated in the light of the new Act, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) on his success in the ballot. Legal services, including legal aid and advice, are to citizens' rights what the National Health Service is to their health, yet, in terms of parliamentary time, legal services are the Cinderella of parliamentary debate. The Government have not helped. Despite the importance of the subject, the Government gave Opposition Members no time to discuss the wide-ranging civil justice review. The Government have provided no time to discuss the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper, White Paper, or the reform of the profession. The Government have consulted virtually everybody except hon. Members. To emulate the example of High Court judges, we might have had a little more time if we had taken some industrial action. The House owes my hon. Friend a debt of gratitude for his luck and for his judgment.
The House creates many rights and duties and provides guarantees of liberty and fair play. At one end of the scale it provides for the right of silence --although that is under threat at the moment--and it provides consumer guarantees at the other end of the scale. It provides thousands of rights. However, rights and duties are meaningless unless they are understood and operate in practice with equal force, irrespective of the income, wealth, power or influence of those in whom they are confirmed. The scale of legal services and how they affect people's daily lives is much broader than that which is measured by the time that we have to discuss such matters in the House.
For instance, in the last complete year for which figures are available, more than 600,000 people received legal aid orders for the defence of criminal proceedings--incidentally, a rise of about 250,000 in 10 years, which goes to show how ineffective the Government have been in checking crime. Every year, about 2 million people are prosecuted for offences ranging from the most serious to the most trivial, but all those people have an interest in the efficiency and integrity with which our courts are conducted. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people will be the victims of crime. Their interest are often unvoiced or unheard, but they have an interest in the efficiency of our legal service and, in particular, the prosecution service.
It is said that it is better that 10 guilty men should go free than that one innocent man should be convicted, but it is much better that all guilty men are convicted and all innocent men should go free and that the guilty do not go free simply because of the incompetence or inefficiency of the system. Last year, about 250,000 people received legal aid for civil proceedings. Of course, many more will seek assistance and advice. Millions of people will seek advice
Column 56in one form or another--for example, advice on housing, social security, immigration and police matters--and millions of people are served by the green form.
Only last week, the Financial Times mentioned the need for advice. We were told that
"At least 200,000 households--1 per cent. of the national total--are in serious financial trouble because of the increase in the use of credit, according to a working party set up at the request of Sir Gordon Borrie".
The report went on to recommend an extension of advice services. Hon. Members are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East for raising several issues and giving hon. Members a chance to raise matters concerning legal services.
I did not wish to say anything about the duty solicitor scheme, but I hope that the Attorney-General will discuss with the Home Secretary some improvement in the way in which defendants are advised about the duty solicitor scheme at police stations. There have been reports of the 22 ploys that the police use to rob people of their rights to legal representation. There is great professionalism among custody officers. There has been a massive change since the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. All practising lawyers and academics come across cases in which people have asked for legal representation at a police station but have not received it or have not had their rights properly explained. One suggestion is that the person in custody should be required to make a positive statement that he does not require help from his own solicitor or from the duty solicitor, rather than ticking a box, which is what occurs at the moment.
I do not intend to politicise every issue. There are some issues upon which the Opposition will probably support the Lord Chancellor more strongly than we support the Attorney-General. We shall not turn it into a partisan debate. However, I shall say something about the competence, efficiency, effectiveness and coverage of some of our legal services, such as the prosecution service and legal aid, and then refer to some ways in which the Labour party sees the development of legal services, advice and representation at their broadest. I shall refer first to competence, coverage, efficiency and effectiveness and some of the matters for which the Attorney-General is responsible.
We welcome the Lord Chancellor's extension of legal aid for the elderly and for children, the extension of legal aid to some personal injury cases, and the disaggregation of some assets and income. We welcome the Government's long overdue admission--they have told us previously that the figures could not be collected--that only 56 per cent. of the population were eligible for legal aid before the recent changes were made. Although we welcome those changes, they do not go nearly far enough. The loss of legal aid eligibility is a massive blemish on any Government's duty to make civil and legal rights a reality.
In 10 years, the number of people eligible for legal aid has fallen by about 14 million individuals and 5.5 million households. It is almost as though we had said to 14 million people, "You no longer have access to a National Health Service hospital." That is a correct analogy. In the past two years alone, 1 million households and 2.5 million people have ceased to be eligible for legal aid. The reason is that the increases in the limits for legal aid--the allowances that enable people to qualify for legal aid and assistance--have increased far more slowly than either the
Column 57increase in the retail prices index or the increase in earnings. Taking 1979 as the base year, and giving each of the figures an index of 100 for 1979, we find that the increases in the allowances for a single person to qualify for legal aid have gone up by only 48 per cent., and the increases in allowances for a couple with two children to qualify for legal aid have gone up by 53 per cent. In contrast, since 1979 the retail prices index has gone up by 93 per cent., and average earnings have gone up by 134 per cent.
That is the plain reason why, during the past decade, the effect of successive reviews of legal aid eligibility limits has been to take more and more people out of eligibility. That is effectively to destroy the civil rights of millions of people who might want to claim damages for personal injury, apply for custody of children, or conduct property disputes. We simply cannot divorce civil rights for legal aid from effective enforcement and the provision of legal aid for those who are in need of advice and assistance.
Research by the London School of Economics and the department of statistical mathematical sciences has shown that the figures that were disputed by Cyril Glasser, which we quoted extensively during the passage of the Legal Aid Bill, were correct. We asked the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor to cease to deny the effects of the legal aid income limit and capital limit policies and, in addition to the cases that were recently dealt with by the Lord Chancellor, to restore eligibility to 1979 limits.
It is interesting that, although the number of civil legal aid certificates has remained relatively static over the past 10 years, the number of criminal legal aid orders has just about doubled, increasing from about 300,000 in 1979 to 600,000 in 1989. Of course, people who are accused of criminal offences must have representation and a fair trial. Indeed, they cannot have a fair trial without representation. However, those who have not even been accused of a criminal offence have equal rights to representation. What is even worse about the way in which we have whittled away eligibility for legal aid is that civil legal aid costs very little and, because there is a sieve, many of the cases are successful. Many cases involve the recovery of damages and of costs. Therefore, the burden of providing civil legal aid and of extending the limits is minor, compared with the expense of criminal legal aid work. In the light of the most recent research, I ask the Attorney-General seriously to consider restoring eligibility to the 1979 level of about 80 per cent. of the population.
Apart from eligibility, there are further problems with legal aid relating to the quality and choice of representation and to the efficiency and the quality of the legal system. I know that it is intended that the Legal Aid Board and the recent changes should improve efficiency, but it is an outrage that in 1988--the last year for which complete figures are available--in south London, part of which area I represent, the average waiting time for a legal aid application to be approved was eight months. Even now, it is not unusual for the granting of a legal aid certificate to take six months. That is not good enough.
The time taken to administer the legal aid system once a case is successful is also indefensible. I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members have often come across cases in which somebody has been successful in a claim-- it might have been settled or it might have been the result of going to court--and damages have been awarded, but because of the operation of the statutory charge and sometimes because of the inefficiency of legal aid committees it is
Column 58months, and sometimes almost a year, between the time that the damages were received and the time that they reach the assisted person. That cannot be right.
There is another thing wrong with the system--or where there is a great danger of something being quite wrong with the system. I refer to the choice and the quality of representation. There is a great danger that legally aided people will soon be offered a lower quality of representation simply because the rates of pay for legal aid lawyers are getting further and further behind the comparative rates of payment for those in privately funded work. Research has already shown that lawyers are tending to leave legal aid work in their 30s. As soon as lawyers become experienced, they are moving from legal aid work to more remunerative work. Other research has shown that about 40 per cent. of solicitors had given up, or were seriously considering giving up, their criminal legal aid work.
The gulf between the payment of legal aid work for lawyers and the payment of non-legal aid work is growing wider. Last year the pay settlement for those doing legal aid work was about 6 per cent. This year, rumour has it that the Goverment--no doubt for reasons connected with the ambulance workers and other considerations--have suggested a 6.5 per cent. increase in remumeration for legal aid work, which is much the same as the amount offered to other public employees. As a consequence fewer and fewer well- qualified solicitors or counsel will want to--or be able to afford to--do legal aid work. It is not a question of people being greedy because there comes a point in the running of a legal aid practice at which it is no longer possible to continue with legal aid work because it will be loss- making. As I have said, it is not a question of the greed of those who are operating on behalf of legally assisted persons ; it is the sheer necessity of life. If the payment for the work that is done is not sufficient to reward the service or to pay the rent, rates and all the other costs that are involved in running a legal aid practice, there is a great danger that the rates of reward will turn legal aid work into a second-class business and then it is only a matter of time before the quality of representation also becomes second class. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East referred to law centres. We ask the Government for a clear statement that funds will be made available to save the law centres that are currently supported or that were supported by the Lord Chancellor's Department and where the responsibility has been transferred to the Legal Aid Board. Law centres do an immense amount of good work and we in the Labour party should like to see them supported nationally, by a partnership with local authorities. The very least that the Goverment should do is to meet the case of the law centres and to continue the funding of those that are now supported from central funds. If they do not, at least two or three centres are bound to close because the necessary funds cannot be found elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East rightly devoted much of his speech to dealing with the Crown prosecution service. The Opposition are not satisfied with the efficiency and effectiveness of the Crown prosecution service. I do not say that with any joy or pleasure because we have always supported the concept of the CPS and of an independence of judgment about whether a prosecution should be brought. We do not share the sour grapes that have been expressed in some quarters about the CPS. I