Draft Legal Aid (Prescribed Panels) (Amendment) Regulations 1999

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Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): I thank the Minister for his explanation of this secondary legislation. I note that it applies to England and Wales and it will be useful to know whether an equivalent power is likely to be exercised in Scotland. If so, will it be covered by a separate provision or will it be dealt with by the Scottish Parliament? It will also be useful to know whether it will be devolved legislation for Northern Ireland. If the Parliamentary Secretary does not know the answer to those questions now, I would not be surprised. Perhaps he could place a note about them in the Library at a later date.

I assume that the regulations will not affect the composition of the panels. As I understand it, they restrict what members of the panels can do, but will not change how people become members. Will the Minister explain how a firm qualifies to become a member of a panel and how individuals within a firm qualify to become members if there is more than a sole practitioner? Will one of the requirements be a recognised legal qualification as well as having the adequate expertise? For example, can someone become a member if he or she has expertise in the legal requirements for matters such as child and family relationships or immigration, but is not recognised by the Law Society or the Bar Council?

Will the Minister say more about why, under family relationships, judicial review is not included, but, under immigration matters, it is included? Is that just one of life's odd boundaries or is it deliberate? How long does it take to become a member of a panel. Is it likely that qualified people will be told that they cannot be members of a panel because there are sufficient people who qualify for such a position in a particular region, county or court jurisdiction, or can anyone become a member of the panel, if he or she can show the necessary competence, without necessarily being specialised?

My final point is rather detailed. Regulation 6(6) states

    ``Paragraph (5) shall not affect the Board's powers under section 32(2) of the Act (assignment, or limitation on selection, of legal representative).

Can I assume that that does not impose a greater restriction than exists at present? I understand it to be a matter of confirmation, but if it goes further than we expected, perhaps we could be told. I would have liked to have given the Minister notice of my detailed questions, but they have arisen from the debate and I thank hon. Gentleman for the way in which he introduced it.

4.48 pm

Mr. Lock: I begin by answering the points raised by the hon. Member for Hexham. He asked how the scheme is working. The clinical negligence panel includes 156 firms. That took effect earlier this year and it is an important part of the contract terms for those firms that they should travel to the client. We always think of the individual travelling to the solicitor's office but, in the case of someone who is the victim of a serious medical accident, it may be irrelevant whether the solicitor whom the person wishes to instruct is half a mile or 30 miles away because that person may be physically unable to travel. It is an important part of the contractual arrangements that the board has with those 156 solicitors that solicitors granted a legal aid certificate will, when appropriate, travel to the client.

The hon. Member for Hexham asked a fair question—how the scheme is going. I am afraid that the only answer that I can give him is rather negative. All the indications are that it is going well. My Department receives a large amount of correspondence from hon. Members whose constituents have expressed anxieties about perceived deficiencies in the legal aid system. Looking around the Room, I am sure that most hon. Members present have written to me or to one of my predecessors at some time on behalf of a constituent who has complained at a Saturday morning surgery.

We have received no complaints about the operation of the panel. In fact, that is to be expected, because the results achieved by the solicitors on the panel compared to those achieved by those not on the panel suggested that for each pound spent on legal aid, solicitors on the panel received something like four times as much in damages than solicitors with no proven expertise in the area. We can therefore be confident. I welcome the endorsement of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) of the specialisation of solicitors. He is right that, for the reasons that he gave, clients will be better served by a solicitor who is not only experienced and qualified but has experience, qualifications and expertise in the particular area of law in which he is operating.

The second matter that the hon. Member for Hexham raised was the possibility of judicial review arising from the granting of contracts. All that I can say at this stage is that we understand that that is a possibility. We have not seen the papers, but I understand that my Department will be served as an interested party. We are aware of the arguments in outline from the letters before action. Both the Legal Aid Board and my Department are of the view that the arguments are unlikely to succeed, and the board, which is the defendant, or the respondent, to the application, fully intends to resist it. We are disappointed that the application is being made—we understand, although I cannot confirm, that it is supported by the Law Society—given the broad consensus on the need for specialisation and in particular the broad consultation that has taken place and the co-operation between the Legal Aid Board and the Law Society.

The Chairman: If a judicial review is under way, the Parliamentary Secretary should confine his remarks and not say too much about it.

Mr. Lock: I take your stricture, Mrs. Michie, but was merely expressing my disappointment. Obviously the case will be determined on its merits, not in the House but in the courts.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: The Committee will understand what you said, Mrs. Michie. I understand that a case is not pending, but that notice has been given of the intention of a possible judicial review case.

Mr. Lock: That is right. We have not been served, and, as far as we know, no application has been issued. However, your strictures about a possible case are equally relevant, Mrs. Michie, and I shall go no further than to express my disappointment given the co-„operation and consultation that has taken place.

The hon. Member for Hexham also asked whether coverage in rural areas would be sufficient, a matter to which the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon also referred. We must keep the matter in context. There are 651 Members of the House—

Mr. Bottomley: 659.

Mr. Lock: Thank you, 659, and they cover a far greater area than England and Wales. I do not have the figure for England and Wales, but it is in the region of 500. We have 800 benefit officers in England and Wales, and 5,000 solicitors under contract. The coverage will give us a national footprint. It is true that individuals living in remote rural areas will not have specialist services, be they architectural, medical or of any other description, on their doorsteps. The only comfort that I can give the hon. Gentlemen is that, of the 11,000 firms that previously carried out legal aid work, about half did a small amount. Therefore, the number of firms carrying out any volume of legal aid work will not be substantially reduced by the regulations, but we have a quality control. That is the best answer.

The hon. Member for Hexham raised a specific point about whether a husband and wife would be represented by the same firm if there were only one firm in an area. The answer is no; that would not be permissible under Law Society rules. Again, I return to clinical negligence. We must not always assume that the mountain will come to Mohammed. If there are good reasons for solicitors to travel to clients in specialised cases, I trust that they will do so.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon asked several questions about the structure of the panels. Essentially, the structure will consist of those firms that have obtained the legal aid quality assurance franchise standard. It has been guaranteed that every firm that has a matrimonial standard will be granted a contract, and there are no case limits in the matrimonial part of the contract. Therefore, for matrimonial matters in the present year, a qualified provider will not run out of case limits.

I was asked how a firm receives those standards and satisfies the Legal Aid Board that it has sufficient expertise. There is a large manual and an audit procedure that such firms have to follow. The hon. Gentleman was in practice, and I can write to him with exhaustive details of the subject if he wishes.

Mr. Burnett: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his offer, but he does not need to write to me. I am especially anxious to know what qualifications are required for individual lawyers to receive the franchise. Are those qualifications obtained solely through years of experience in working, say, in matrimonial or immigration law, or do they consist of written examinations as well?

Mr. Lock: The assessment is primarily of the firm, but to meet the franchise standard the solicitors running a department of the firm must have supervisor standards. The Legal Aid Board will ensure that proper quality of training is available to those individuals. I do not believe that mere longevity is appropriate or a guarantee of quality. I am afraid that we have all come across lawyers who have been in practice for a long time, and whose ways and means have not been kept up with statutes passed in the House and different procedural rules.

The hon. Gentleman asked who would do the work. It is part of the franchise standards that the work done at a firm of solicitors by either unqualified or partially-qualified people—work will always need to be done in any legal case by more junior staff—will be undertaken in a proper system of supervision. The assessment of the supervision is an important part of passing the franchise audit.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon asked how we know that a solicitor will do the work. The work will be done either by a solicitor or by someone supervised by a solicitor in a supervision structure that has passed the audit.

I turn now to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Peter Bottomley).

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