Access to Justice (Northern Ireland)

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): May I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. McWilliam.

I should like to raise several matters that have been brought to my attention, largely by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Some have already been explored by other hon. Members, but I should like to ask the Minister whether certain issues have been answered or remain outstanding.

The Human Rights Commission is concerned that the order will not increase access to justice in Northern Ireland, although, with a number of other bodies, it welcomes the provision of the LSC—the Legal Services Commission. I have a real problem with ''LSC'' because it also means ''Learning and Skills Council'', so every time I say it I have to ask myself which one I am discussing.

The point has been made that the order does not necessarily meet the particular legal aid agenda in Northern Ireland and the proposals are possibly motivated by a need to reduce legal aid expenditure. The Minister referred to that, and I understand her situation: her Department is faced with a budget that has risen from £12.19 million to £41.53 million in a relatively short period. I also understand that diverting funds to other areas, such as housing and welfare advice, is necessary. However, although taking control of cost is obviously important, problems may build up because of other issues, to which I shall return. I agree that it is not possible to have a completely demand-led system. However, a balance needs to be struck in meeting need, not ignoring it, because legal aid services currently do not and cannot reach parts of Northern Ireland.

The lack of detail in the legislation has caused concern, although I heard the Minister's response and sympathise with her point of view. If the legislation were too detailed it would clearly be difficult to amend. I understand that the point of pre-legislative scrutiny is to try to come up with detailed information, but there is an issue about key points being left to future secondary legislation or the discretion of the commission and/or the Lord Chancellor. That area needs to be addressed before final drafting.

The Human Rights Commission asks for the protection of human rights to be listed in the LSC's competences, and I should be interested to know whether that matter has been addressed since it made its submission. It argues, as have the Liberal Democrats on a number of occasions, that

Column Number: 17

''representative of the Community'' should extend to gender, racial and social representation in addition to religious and political representation. There has been a great deal of argument in another place about whether it would be better to replace

    ''representative of the Community in Northern Ireland''

with ''reflective of the Community in Northern Ireland'', and I would support such a change in the commission's composition.

What plans does the Minister have to address the issue raised by the Human Rights Commission of whether a duty should be imposed on the LSC to consult widely on the extent of unmet legal need?

Does the Minister intend to address the issue, which has been raised by several hon. Members, about the Lord Chancellor being able to influence, and possibly dictate to, the LSC? As other hon. Members have said, that would seriously undermine its independence. The Human Rights Commission made it clear that the Lord Chancellor should be a statutory consultee rather than an influencing factor.

Legal fees have been mentioned, and the LSC should be able to keep them at a reasonable level that is not so low as to be unattractive to legal practitioners. I should be interested to know whether the Minister has picked up on that point.

Concerns have been expressed about exclusions from civil legal services. Has the Minister addressed the question of whether the blanket exclusion of legal aid from certain categories will impinge on the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights? Electoral rights may be excluded from the range of civil legal services, and the Human Rights Commission makes the point that

    ''Electoral rights are too important to be ineligible for such assistance''.

Concerns have also been expressed that investigation after a death must allow the family to have effective access to the investigatory process. The next of kin must be involved in the procedure to the extent necessary to safeguard his or her legitimate interest. The Human Rights Commission is unsure whether the measures will guarantee that.

Under recent reforms in Scotland, civil legal aid can be made available prior to industrial tribunals. Concern has been expressed about the lack of legal aid available before immigration appeals tribunals; I understand that such aid is available in England and Wales.

On financial eligibility, only the very poorest qualify for legal aid. Persons on low income do so if they make a financial contribution, but that often constitutes a disproportionate amount of their income, so many people cannot afford legal advice. The lower capital limit for financial eligibility should be upgraded in line with inflation for every year since 1983.

The Human Rights Commission is not in favour of the LSC's contracting-out provision for legal services. On the funding code, it believes that fixed budgets would contravene the European convention on human rights. Does the Minister share that view? I agree with the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) about

Column Number: 18

the possible consequences of failing to allow for flexibility to fund a case where the applicant requires the grant of funding.

The Human Rights Commission would be concerned if the Lord Chancellor's Department influenced priorities for funding, because the Government may be a defendant in many cases. If the Lord Chancellor could influence the LSC to do as he wished, reassurance that the power would not apply to the LSC's priorities would be required.

Other hon. Members mentioned criteria for the availability of funding for services to the individual which is not provided by the LSC. The problem is that if other organisations are expected to contribute, individuals may be excluded merely because of the slight possibility that another organisation such as the Human Rights Commission would be able to provide funding, when really it could not because it has very little funding itself.

I welcome the Minister's determination to make firms, bodies and individuals register for compliance with the code of practice. That should be required not only of directly paid bodies, but of those that offer services on a no win, no fee basis. It would be a great pity if people were turned away, forced to go elsewhere and then failed to secure the level of service that would have been provided by direct funding.

Most of my remaining points have been made by hon. Members with much more legal training and knowledge. As you know, Mr. McWilliam, I found out that I was to attend the Committee about 24 hours ago, and since then I have been working solidly on a number of other issues. If I have made any sense at all, it is entirely due to a young man who has been acting for me as a researcher in the past week—a student from Manchester grammar school who has been with me on work experience. For the record, his name is Paul Stuart and I believe that he is likely to go very far indeed.

The Chairman: Mr. Stuart is to be congratulated, as is the hon. Lady. Most people do not recognise the authorship of their brief.

4 pm

Mr. Dodds: I am conscious that we are hanging on to the quorum by a thread. A lot of the issues have been dealt with, so I shall be as brief as possible. I also declare my interest—I am a non-practising member of the Northern Ireland Bar. Since I gave up the Bar, I have had less time to play golf. That has been a recurring theme in the debate.

Reform of the legal aid system is an area of particular concern for people in Northern Ireland. On behalf of my party, I welcome that reform, but I stress that there are concerns about aspects of the proposed order. As well as the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee in Northern Ireland has said that the proposals

    ''do not meet the needs of the legal aid agenda in Northern Ireland.''

The main objective of the order is increasing access to justice, so we have to be concerned that many people and organisations in Northern Ireland, not just those

Column Number: 19

with a vested interest—including the Northern Ireland Assembly, which considered the matter in great detail—have expressed concerns about whether it will meet that objective. The Assembly concluded that it would not. Many hon. Members argue that we should take account of politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly when the communities reach a consensus, as the Assembly did on this issue. That point of view should be carefully weighed in the balance.

Some people believe that the changes are primarily about reducing expenditure. There is a lack of detail. The figures that the Minister outlined show considerable increases in annual expenditure during the past decade. We recognise that, and it is clearly an issue for Government. However, it has been said to me on more than one occasion that there does not seem to be the same concern about the extraordinary amounts—tens of millions of pounds—of public money that have been spent on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. It is estimated that the inquiry could cost upwards of £150 million before it concludes. It puts matters into perspective to compare the sums of money spent on that tribunal inquiry to the legal aid bill.

Several hon. Members have referred to concerns about lack of detail. It has been difficult for consultees to give a detailed response to the proposed order without knowing the detail. I accept what the Minister said about wanting to involve the Legal Services Commission and hear its views, but it is difficult for us to address the issues when we do not have the detail that we need. It is important that legal aid be administered by an independent body, not the Law Society. As I mentioned to the Minister, there are concerns about the costs of creating another quango at a time when public administration is being reviewed in Northern Ireland. That is clearly an issue.

We have not had much detail on the prioritisation of cases. That is something that has been raised by several consultees. It is important to know what sort of criteria will be applied in prioritising cases for civil legal aid. I endorse the remarks made by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) on the possible extension of legal aid to tribunal representation. The Human Rights Commission found that an appellant's chances of success before a tribunal increased from one in four without independent representation to one in two with it. Advances have been made in Scotland so we should consider the situation in Northern Ireland. I, too, am concerned about the exclusion of categories of cases, such as election petitions. That is a very serious matter.

I am pleased that the new fund for criminal legal aid will not be capped. However, in my view, draft paragraph 30 restricts access to justice, in that the commission can determine the number and description of legal representatives. Lawyers and others in Northern Ireland have expressed the view that the level of representation should be determined by the court, not by a commission. I would be grateful for the Minister's views on that. I welcome the fact that the

Column Number: 20

commission has been given the task of preparing a criminal defence service code of conduct.

I am conscious of the time, but I wish to reiterate my concern about the introduction of a statutory basis for conditional fee agreements, to which several Members have referred. In reply to my intervention, the Minister talked about freed up money. Money not spent on damage claims makes it possible to focus public funds on other priority needs in England and Wales. The Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee does not agree:

    ''Since most personal injury cases result in a settlement or a victory in court, with the defendant's insurer paying the costs, there can have been so very little money re-focused in this way that the claim made for CFAs in paragraph 152 cannot be accepted.''

I would be grateful if the Minister would address that point. Her contention is that such agreements should be supported because money can be refocused and redistributed. That view is certainly not shared or supported by the Lord Chancellor's Legal Aid Advisory Committee. In fact, it comes down very strongly against that argument and says that there is no substance in it. It actually goes so far as to describe it as a ''demonstrable falsehood.''

Reform is welcome. In many ways, it is overdue. However, there are serious issues that must be considered. I appeal to the Minister to take account of the comments made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its Members looked at the proposals in great detail. As representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, they did so through an ad hoc committee. She should also take account of the views that have been expressed by many hon. Members today.

4.8 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 24 October 2002