Draft Access to Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Mr. John Taylor: May I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner? You and I have been neighbours, but not any more. You have the authority and I am subject to it.

Before the Committee got under way this afternoon the Minister said that she intended to acknowledge the support that I gave her when this topic was last deliberated on in a Northern Ireland Grand Committee. So as not to contradict myself gratuitously I picked up the Hansard of that last meeting. I note that I said:

    ''The Opposition welcome the establishment of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission''.—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 24 October 2002; c. 12.]

That seems to be a fairly unqualified statement. Many of the long-serving Members on the Labour Benches probably think that now would be an appropriate moment for me to sit down.

I stand here, to some extent in contradiction of the general rule that seems to apply in this place that anyone who knows what he is talking about should stay away from the Committee Corridor. I offer that view to the Committee light-heartedly. On this occasion I want to offer a personal opinion, which is not necessarily binding on the whole of the Conservative party: I am a great believer in standard fees. I always have been. I should declare a very marginal interest. I used to be a practising solicitor and I took cases that were publicly funded. However, I have not practised the law since 1988. I have gone straight since then. It is all in the Register of Members' Interests, anyway.

There is one serious conclusion to be drawn; I always felt that publicly funded legal services, paid for by the hour, rewarded the muddled-thinking lawyer who took longest. Payment for legal services by the hour failed to acknowledge or reward the lawyer who could get to the point quickly, get the confidence of his client quickly, and make the limited points that needed to be made in a coherent manner to the bench. Because he spent less time, that idealised lawyer was paid less than his muddle-headed brother. I have never seen the logic in that. Lawyers should be paid to get on with it, not to trespass on eternity, as they sometimes seem to. So I am a fan of standard fees and would encourage their use in Northern Ireland.

On this Committee Corridor, I usually apply three tests to establish whether a Northern Ireland order is virtuous. The first concerns whether we are in danger, as British Members of Parliament, of running roughshod over the views of Northern Ireland elected opinion. I would never presume, as the Member of Parliament for Solihull, to try to tell the people of Northern Ireland what was good for them if they had a better idea.

My application of that test was the reason for my intervening on the Minister, who took interventions

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with great generosity, and never lost sight of her themes.

Lady Hermon: Is it not the timing of the order regrettable, coming as it does during a period, which we hope will be very short, of suspension of the Assembly? It is January, and with a bit of luck the Assembly will be back in May. The order could have been delayed, with fuller consultation with the Assembly.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Lady might be better employed in suggesting that thought to the Minister. I shall not presume to answer it. If she can tell me that the Assembly will be back in place by May, she is more prescient than I am. Probably the Committee would expect her to be. I am somewhat pessimistic myself about the timing of the restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions. I must also unburden myself of the opinion that there is not much point in holding elections to something that does not exist. However, that issue is not before us this afternoon, and I know that you would like me to return to the order, Mr. Olner.

The first test that I apply is that we should be cautious about expressing an opinion—in my case, an English opinion—that runs the slightest risk of being at variance with proper, legitimate, elected Northern Ireland opinion. That is why I intervened to ask the Minister whether there was broad consensus in favour of the order when it was debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly. She said that there was, so the order passes that test as far as I am concerned.

The next test that I tend to apply to Northern Ireland orders is: do they make the law in Northern Ireland convergent with the law in the rest of Britain? Broadly, this order does, so I commend it in that spirit, too.

The third test that I tend to apply, not quite so seriously, is: does the order introduce a new ombudsman or commissioner? This order fails that test, because it introduces a new commission. The best Northern Ireland orders do not introduce commissioners or ombudsmen, but that is not a serious objection. It is just my feeling that, whatever problems may ail the communities of Northern Ireland, a lack of institutions is not one of them.

The Minister said—I thought that this was perfectly fair—that some of the finalising would be left in the hands of the commission after it had been instituted. That is reasonable and I have no objection to it, but I couple that recognition with a sincere request to the Minister to ensure that the Law Society of Northern Ireland is fully consulted to the end. I hold no brief for the Law Society of Northern Ireland. I have not practised the law for many years and I am not a member of it, but I impress on this Committee, just as I did on the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, that

    ''the members of that professional body practise the system day in, day out, in offices, law courts and—from time to time—penal establishments. I trust, in the name of fair play, that the views of the Law Society of Northern Ireland . . . will be weighed and given the value that is their due. Its members are daily practitioners of the regime that the Lord Chancellor's Department is extending to Northern Ireland.''—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 24 October 2002; c. 11.]

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It could easily be thought by this Committee that I am speaking for my brethren, but I wish to dismiss that possibility—I am not. Indeed, during my occupancy of the Minister's position under a previous Government, I had a reputation for being something of an enemy of solicitors and for being a poacher turned gamekeeper. It was felt that I had a pretty good insight into what they were up to some of the time. I hold no brief for the solicitors of Northern Ireland, but I know that they have to work within the environment that we are discussing. They are experienced in these matters, and their experience should be heeded.

I have nothing further to say, except that my party supports the order.

3.28 pm

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak on this order that is very important for the people of Northern Ireland. I apologise for intervening so often on the Minister and on the hon. Member for Solihull, but it may have been understood from my first intervention that I am deeply unhappy that an Order in Council was chosen as the method of making a major change. The Minister herself said that this was the first major change in 20 years to legal aid in Northern Ireland. She also said—I shall stand corrected if Hansard proves differently tomorrow—that the Government were not importing the English model of legal aid into Northern Ireland. That being so, I feel strongly that an Order-in-Council procedure is wholly inappropriate for such a major change.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Solihull, I made what I thought was a constructive point, namely that the people of Northern Ireland and their public representatives, whether Sinn Fein, Democratic Unionist party or Women's Coalition, came together in an ad hoc committee in the Assembly and arrived at the consensus that while they recognised that reform was necessary and overdue, large sections of the order were

    ''at best aspirational and at worst lacking in any degree of detail.''

Their final words, as I mentioned earlier, were that they wanted

    ''extensive consultation . . . before laying of the order in Council''.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am always quietly confident that common sense will prevail in Northern Ireland. The Assembly will be back and running in May; I do not believe that it would have prejudiced the changes in legal aid had we stayed our hand for a few months and allowed it to speak on the reforms.

I was pleased that the Minister made it clear that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 will apply to the Legal Services Commission. She will be interested to know that the phrase ''representative of the community'' is used time and again in legislation in Northern Ireland. She might, further, be intrigued to know that the phrase is used in the Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998, which sets up the Parades Commission. There is not a single woman on the Parades Commission. In the Evelyn White case, the judge—it was the Lord Chief Justice, if I remember

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correctly—ruled that in the context of that legislation ''representative of the community'' meant Protestant and Catholic. I join with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik): ''representative of the community'' does not refer only to ethnic, Protestant or Catholic communities, it should mean women as well as men. I appreciate the Minister's confirmation that section 75 will definitely apply to the membership of the Legal Services Commission, unlike the disgraceful case of the Parades Commission.

Can the Minister confirm whether the Lord Chancellor's Department intends the Commission to have a full-time membership? I hope that it does, because it is a very small commission with a huge responsibility. Article 4 indicates that the membership will be a chair plus between six and 10 other members. That is small.

In a previous incarnation I lectured in law at Queens university in Belfast, specialising in European law and in human rights. In relation to article 9, I am particularly keen that the Minister will confirm that article 177 references to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg will be possible on points of community law where they clash with Northern Ireland legislation. Because we had Stormont for so many years, there is still legislation on the statute book in Northern Ireland that is exclusive to Northern Ireland; it does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom. We therefore have clashes of Northern Ireland legislation with European Community law that do not arise anywhere else in the jurisdiction. I need confirmation that those would receive legal aid.

One of the best things that this Labour Government have done has been to bring home the European convention on human rights and to make it part and parcel of domestic law. Given that they did something so commendable, will the Minister confirm that cases that go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg will receive legal aid? The wording of article 9 suggests that they will, but I would like confirmation. Article 9(1) says:

    ''The Commission may not fund—

    (a) civil legal services, or

    (b) criminal defence services,

    relating to any law other than that of Northern Ireland, unless any such law is relevant for determining any issue relating to the law of Northern Ireland.''

That is ambiguous and I would like clarification.

I have mentioned my disquiet about the fact that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland do not appear—not even once—in this order. I do not always agree with the conclusions of those commissions; in fact, I am often critical of them, especially on recruitment to the police service. However, they were set up by the Belfast agreement. This Government claim time and time again that they wish fully to implement the agreement, so they should recognise the status and integrity of those two vital institutions. Unfortunately, it is too late to add their names to the order. However, attention should be given to that detail in future.

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Article 23 is about advice and assistance that is given to

    ''individuals who are arrested and held in custody at a police station or other premises''

or to people who are helping with investigations. I raised this point with the Minister in an earlier intervention: I find it extraordinary that the commission may not fund advice and assistance for someone in, for example, County Tyrone—I am originally from County Tyrone—in the west of the Province in the same way as it may fund advice and assistance for someone in County Down in the east of the Province. Why should there be territorial and regional differences? The issue of interviews in police stations continues to be very sensitive. I would like everyone in Northern Ireland—whether they live in County Tyrone, County Fermanagh, County Down, County Antrim or wherever—to receive and have funded the same quality of legal aid.

Although the Omagh families received some financial support for the inquest into that horrendous crime, in which 29 people and two unborn children died—31 people in all—

3.37 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.52 pm

On resuming—

 
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Prepared 23 January 2003