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The Parliamentary Secretary was asked--

Office of Supervision of Solicitors

30. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): What progress is being made to improve the services of the Office of Supervision of Solicitors. [136350]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The number of complaints has come down from 17,074 to 7,728 and

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the OSS may be on target to hit the numerical figure of 6,000 by December this year. However, the Government continue to have very serious concerns about the quality of the complaints process. The only way to improve complaints handling is to resolve clients' problems at source, by instilling an ethos of client care throughout the legal profession.

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend will know that the OSS is based in my constituency, and I hope that he will agree that many of its staff are making valiant efforts to reach the targets that are set, but is he considering other reforms that may help to make further progress--for example, restructuring the funding and possibly using a polluter pays principle in relation to the fees paid by solicitors?

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He has been diligent in supporting the staff who work at the OSS, which, as he says, is in his constituency. It is right to say that the OSS and its predecessor were underfunded in the past and that clients suffered from a second-rate service as a result. I agree that there is a strong case for looking at the funding and the resources needed to operate the complaints and regulation arm of the Law Society. Perhaps those matters should be fixed by the OSS itself, then levied on the professions, rather than those who are regulated setting the resources available to the regulator, as is the current position.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): Will the Minister consider the case of a solicitor in private practice who has intervened in good faith in another failing practice to try to rescue the situation? In such a case, would his advice to the OSS be that it should continue to support that solicitor in trying to rescue the firm in difficulty?

Mr. Lock: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Where a solicitor's practice has to be intervened upon, by definition the public have been let down by the legal profession and the duty that the legal profession as a whole has to the clients who have been let down does not stop when the new solicitor is brought in. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the new solicitor has a duty to do his best for the clients he inherits, but the profession as a whole, through the OSS, must take all reasonable steps to support that solicitor and to provide him with the assistance necessary to make up for the damage that has been done previously.

Immigration Appeals

31. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): What further steps she proposes to take to reduce the time taken by her Department in dealing with immigration case appeals. [136353]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): May I take this opportunity--the first that has been presented to me--to welcome you to your new role, Mr. Speaker, and to congratulate you on your election as Speaker?

Since the spring, we have increased the number of courtrooms available to hear appeals to 103. Over the next few months, we will appoint an additional 40 full-time adjudicators, but further, to ensure that the courtrooms

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are used efficiently, in July I opened a centralised administration office in Loughborough. We are also conducting a full review of the case listing procedures.

Mr. Pike: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does she recognise that we inherited a real mess when we took over government in May 1997, and that it is absolutely essential that we take such steps if justice is not to be denied? Although I recognise that not all the delays are in her Department, what will be its target for dealing with such immigration case appeals to show that we are delivering the justice that she would like to see?

Jane Kennedy: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The aim of the one-stop appeal process, which we introduced in October, is to streamline appeals to provide exactly that faster, more efficient service to genuine applicants, while reducing the opportunity for spurious appeals. It is worth reminding the House that applicants must now disclose all their grounds for appeal at the beginning of the appeal process, which allows for only one appeal decision to be taken and all the issues to be considered at one hearing. Only if circumstances have changed will the possibility of delay be reintroduced and a further appeal be heard. It is my belief that that new system will significantly reduce any unnecessary delay.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): How many representations has the Lord Chancellor received about the new regulation, which will cost poor families seeking a visa visit to see a family friend £500? As that will cause much hardship to poor families in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, is it not an outrage that the regulation has been put through by the negative resolution procedure, without any debate whatever in the House of Commons?

Jane Kennedy: The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman's last question is no. I do not believe that the way in which the House has handled the regulation is an outrage. However, I recognise his concern. I have received a number of representations. I do not have the exact figure immediately to hand, but I will try to get it to him as soon as I can.

Legal Aid

32. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What plans the Lord Chancellor has to review the house equity limits in determining eligibility for legal aid. [136354]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): The Government have no plans to do so. On 31 July, we published proposals that may affect the contributions that a funded client has to pay towards his legal costs once eligibility has been assessed. Consultation on those proposals closed on 20 October. No decisions have yet been made.

Dr. Cable: Is the Minister aware that my constituents--and, I am sure, many others--are being told that because their house is worth more than £100,000, which applies to almost all of them now, they cannot expect entitlement to legal aid? Is he aware in particular of the Holmes case, which figured prominently in The Mail on Sunday a couple of weeks ago--an emotional

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and difficult adoption fostering case, in which a family are having to pursue a dispute with the local authority through the national press because they cannot obtain the specialist legal advice that they need to pursue it through the courts, which is where it properly belongs?

Mr. Lock: The rule that equity of more than £100,000 bars one from legal aid has been in place for a number of years. The important figure for legal aid is the value of equity, not the value of a property. Only 6 per cent. of applicants for legal aid own their own houses outright, and the vast majority have equity of less than £100,000, so that particular rule does not bar individuals from getting funding in many cases.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): How on earth can the Legal Aid Board justify handing out large sums of taxpayers' money to City slickers who make a fortune? They have big houses all over the place and somehow manage to get the large endowment, while constituents of mine who have not got two ha'pennies to rub together work for an employer who is not insuring any of his employees. The result is that when they have an accident, the Legal Aid Board says that it cannot give them any help because the employer has no collateral, so it is not worth pursuing him. It is time that that was sorted out.

Mr. Lock: My hon. Friend, as always, eloquently explains why there should be a cut-off limit for legal aid, and why it is entirely justifiable for people who have equity of more than £100,000 in their houses not to receive a share of scarce public resources, which can be put to much better use to help people who genuinely cannot fund their own cases.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that the Parliamentary Secretary's reply to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) was couched in the soothing terms for which he is renowned, will he take the opportunity to confirm that the proposal that has been issued for consultation is that the client in receipt of assistance should henceforth make a greater, not a lesser, contribution?

Mr. Lock: I will attempt to soothe the hon. Gentleman, as he assumes I soothe others. I assure him that that is correct. The proposal is that those who have considerable equity in their properties should make some contribution to the cost of the legal funding provided by the taxpayer. A number of representations have been made to us. We accept that the move will create a more level playing field between publicly funded clients and those on middle incomes, but the Lord Chancellor and I are listening to those who are objecting. We are listening positively and sympathetically to the arguments advanced in response to the consultation paper. I am due to make our announcements next month.

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