Access to Justice (Northern Ireland)

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Ms Winterton: The debate has been extremely useful. I welcome hon. Members' general support for the establishment of a Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission. The debate today is very much part of the consultative process; obviously, I shall take back many points. As hon. Members are aware, we are still consulting on certain issues.

Let me begin by making particular reference to the points that several hon. Members made about the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, some of which were quite detailed. The Government have welcomed the interest taken in the proposals by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which plays an important role in advising the Government on human rights issues, policies and legislative proposals. It has raised issues, some of which can be responded to simply with further detail. We shall take some of its points into account, but we may differ on others. Given the time remaining, the best way for me to respond to the detailed points made by hon. Members is to write to the commission, and I shall be more than happy to circulate that response to Committee members.

Many hon. Members have raised the general issue of the Lord Chancellor's powers under the proposals. It is important to recognise that we are trying to establish a commission that can reflect the local need for legal services in Northern Ireland and target and

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prioritise. However, that must be done within a framework set by the Government of the day. It is therefore right that the commission should be accountable to Parliament through the Lord Chancellor. That is an important principle, which should reassure hon. Members that the body will not be operating outwith the democratic process. It is important to stress that we want to achieve a balance between independence and accountability.

Mrs. Calton: May I ask the Minister to reflect on the possibility that the Lord Chancellor will be involved in deciding on cases in which the Government are the defendants? Would such a case cause the Lord Chancellor to take a particular view, or is there some way round such special cases?

Ms Winterton: The commission, not the Lord Chancellor, would decide individual cases. The hon. Lady is searching for a guarantee that the commission would decide on individual cases, irrespective of whether a Government Department was being challenged, which is often the case.

Mr. John Taylor: Would it be appropriate to say that the Lord Chancellor would not in any sense intrude into a decision, but would remain accountable for the expenditure, not least to the Comptroller and Auditor General?

Ms Winterton: Exactly. The point that I was making was that if an individual were involved in a case in England and Wales against, say, a public body, which one could argue has connections with the Government, that case would not be referred to the Lord Chancellor.

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Members for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) and for East Antrim. It is true that the Lord Chancellor sets the priority types of cases under the funding code. I gave the examples of civil proceedings involving a real or immediate risk of loss of life or liberty, social welfare issues or domestic violence. That said, the priorities set for Northern Ireland will reflect local needs and the code will be consulted on. It will be subject to an equality impact assessment and will be human rights compatible. The code will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny under the affirmative resolution procedure, so Parliament will be able to consider the priorities that have been set and comment on them. That is a safeguard that I think hon. Members want.

I think that the hon. Member for East Antrim described the order as skeletal. The way in which the system is being set up in Northern Ireland is no different from the way in which it was set up in England and Wales. Indeed, in establishing the Legal Services Commission in Northern Ireland we are in a privileged position because we can learn a lot from the experiences in England and Wales. Rather than concentrating on dotting all the i's and crossing the t's, we want to ensure that the commission operates in

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a way that takes into account local needs and reflects local priorities. We want to have a long consultation period about how that is to be achieved involving not only the professions but local organisations and local voluntary and consumer bodies, so that the commission will truly reflect local needs.

I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North. When we talk about the increase in costs since 1991, we should bear in mind the startling fact that the number of people who have benefited from legal aid has not increased by many. That is a key difficulty and a big problem: we have not been able to assist the number of people that one would imagine in view of the increase in costs. The system that we propose will allow for extension—it will enable more people to gain greater access to justice, and I take issue with the Human Rights Commission on that.

With regard to the power of the Lord Chancellor to give guidance, given the comments that have been made in today's debate, I wish to place it on the record that paragraph 8(3) of the draft order expressly prohibits the Lord Chancellor from giving guidance to the commission on individual cases.

Finally, on the issue of a contingency legal aid fund versus conditional fee agreements, as I said, we take the views of the Lord Chancellor's advisory committee very seriously. We have commissioned further work on the viability of a privately funded CLAF and will take all relevant matters into consideration.

Today's debate has shown that it is generally accepted that it is important that we reform the legal aid system in Northern Ireland. We accept that we must do everything to ensure that the maximum number of citizens benefit from the money spent. As elected representatives, it is important that we do everything that we can to ensure that public money is spent for the greater benefit of citizens.

I am very grateful for all the contributions made by hon. Members this afternoon. As I said, this debate is part of the consultative process and all the views expressed today will be fed back into it. I hope that we can get the process right and introduce a system that provides high-quality services to a greater number of people in Northern Ireland.

The Chairman: I thank all members of the Committee for their co-operation on what was a difficult afternoon and apologise if I was a little slow at counting on occasion.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the proposal for a draft Access to Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.

Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Four o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
McWilliam, Mr. John (Chairman)
Barnes, Mr.
Beggs, Mr.
Burnside, David
Calton, Mrs.
Dodds, Mr.
Ellman, Mrs.

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Hope, Phil
McIsaac, Shona
O'Brien, Mr. Bill
Smyth, Rev. Martin
Taylor, Mr. John
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.
Wilshire, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 117(3):
Murphy, Mr. Jim (Eastwood)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department)

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Prepared 24 October 2002