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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 26 October 2005

[Mr. David Marshall in the Chair]

Criminal Legal Aid

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

9.30 am

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I must declare an interest at the outset. Before I came to the House of Commons, I earned my living from the criminal legal aid fund. Occasionally, I still do short cases, usually in a recess when people who have more sense are on holiday. Again, that work is paid for from what actually should be called the criminal defence service budget.

The criminal Bar and the Government have recently been at loggerheads about the increase in criminal legal aid. We are told that between 1997—when the budget was £1.5 billion—and 2004–05, there has been a 37 per cent. increase in criminal legal aid, meaning that the total budget is now £2 billion. I shall make a few, fairly basic points. No one can have a fair trial, and all of our much-prized legal principles are as nothing, if people are not adequately represented. "A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid" committed the Government to quality services that were all fairly remunerated. Another fairly obvious point is that it is hard to cap the legal aid budget for crime because, although there are probably some core crimes that are reasonably predictable, one cannot predict when the next great train robbery and subsequent trial will happen. The budget cannot be capped.

There is a good analysis of the changes that have taken place in the criminal justice system over the period during which costs have inflated in some research undertaken by Professors Cape and Moorhead, which I have been privileged to examine. Crime is now falling, but that is a bit of a false point. The real point is: who is being caught and processed? Some 34 per cent. more people are now being charged with offences than at the beginning of the decade, and 18 per cent. more go to the Crown court than at that time. Between 2001–02 and 2003–04—these are the latest figures that I can find—the number of cases at Crown courts increased by 116,000. That is probably because magistrates are sending many more cases that could be tried either by them or the Crown court up to the Crown court, because there is a general trend towards taking cases more seriously and sentencing more heavily.

There are two elements to the average solicitor's costs. One has decreased over the period with which we are concerned and the other has slightly increased, but only in line with inflation, so in net terms solicitors costs have gone down. In the case of barristers' average costs—Members will not be surprised to hear that that is what I am most interested in—standard and non-standard fees, taken together, have sustained a 1.7 per cent. increase since 2001. That is well below inflation. The increase from £1.5 billion to £2 billion has certainly not been caused by lawyers' rates of pay increasing. The main rung of lawyers are getting paid the same.
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The increased number of cases that I set out in the estimates from the two professors that I mentioned account for about one third of the increased costs of the criminal legal aid fund. People often maintain that there is a clash between criminal legal aid on the one hand and civil legal aid on the other. It is said that because the criminal legal aid fund becomes larger, civil legal aid suffers. That should not be the way in which things work. There are many ways of setting aside civil cases without having to go to court. Mediation and all sorts of agreements are possible. Crime, by its very nature, must go to court, unless it is at a low level and can be dealt with by penalty notices or mediation. There is not a great deal that be can done to rebalance the criminal legal aid budget with the civil legal aid budget from that point of view.

There is a notion at large—I have seen it in the "A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid" White Paper—that there has been a wilful increase in or acceleration of cases going to court, and that that has been brought about by criminal defence lawyers. That, of course, is nonsense. Who is charged and investigated, what they are charged with, whether they go to court and whether and how their case is proceeded with is wholly in the hands of the police and the prosecution. It is daft to think that defence lawyers can influence that in any way; they simply respond to what they are given.

One third of the increase in the costs of the criminal legal aid fund has come from the increasing volume of cases. It is desirable that more cases should go to court; that is exactly what we all want. The fundamental legal aid review also found a range of reasons why each trial—each case going to court—costs more. First, the charging is better; it is now done by the Crown Prosecution Service, so it is more likely to hold and present a real trial. The combination of the ways in which people are charged has changed and that can have an impact on the costs of a trial.

Changes in the law and, in particular, in procedure and rules of evidence, make a big impact. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, hearsay evidence—not testimony from a witness who has seen the relevant incident, but from an intermediary—is now admissible, and is a complicated area in which to argue. The previous bad character of a defendant is now admissible and police officers investigating a crime interview about the crime and the possible bad character of the defendant. There is always an argument about whether the evidence about bad character is admissible.

Adverse inferences are drawn about people who choose not to speak when interrogated by the police. There is the thorny question, in respect of which the Government have rightly legislated, of the admissibility of the previous sexual history of a complainant in a rape trial, and that inevitably gives rise to a long argument in court. I am not complaining when I say that since we came to power there have been 700 new criminal offences. All that adds up to why there are not only more cases—that is good—but why they can take longer when they get to court.

I shall give one specific, strong example. We introduced the excellent Proceeds of Crime Act in 2002. It is used mostly for drugs cases, although I am not sure about where the bulk of its recovery comes from. Historically, it was possible for quite a long time to recover proceeds of crime at the end of a trial, but until
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the 2002 Act came into force, that was a bit of an afterthought and not pursued with a great deal of vigour; the point was seen to be to get the guilty man down, not so much to recover the money.

However, thank goodness, the Government had clear vision: the point is not only to give the guilty man his number of years, but to make sure that he does not just regard those as an overhead of his business because he has plenty of money to come out to when he has finished his time. We must take all his proceeds of crime away as well. That new imperative is excellent, but involves hugely complex proceedings—tracing money through all sorts of deliberate hiding places, examining evidence from the police, the involvement of the Assets Recovery Agency, complicated mathematics and complicated legal presumptions. All these things do not add to the number of cases coming to court because they are an addition to the cases that are already coming to court. They do not add to the conviction rate either, but are an extra charge of work that follows on, as night follows day, from any serious crime that has had monetary profits.

There are unforeseeable consequences, too. If somebody is charged with a serious drugs offence, they are looking at a long sentence, whether they are a suckling mother with a lot of social problems or a really hardened criminal. Sentencing for drug offences is much the same across the board. Perhaps people can be persuaded to plead guilty for a discount on plea if they are almost inevitably going to be convicted; they might get three years knocked off an 18-year sentence. However, one might have to persuade them to plead guilty even though a proceeds of crime action will follow, which will take their money away as well.

The presumptions in the 2002 Act are harsh, and rightly so, and they have had this effect: if a person does not have the money any more, and the Assets Recovery Agency says that they have had it, they will serve one, two or three extra years in custody. Someone might plead guilty so that their 18 years gets cut to 15, but if the sentence will go back up again to 18 years because of proceeds of crime findings, they will not plead guilty. They will have gained nothing by doing so. That is one rather extended example of how life in the criminal courts has become much more complex. It is almost always the case that when sentences are increased more people fight cases instead of considering pleading guilty.

That point stretches over other examples of our changes. In February 2000, our White Paper, "Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead", talked about injecting new resources into the criminal justice system—9,000 more police recruits, 7,000 extra Crown court sitting days and 2,600 extra prison places—but there was no indication that the implications on the legal aid fund were ever examined.

The narrowing-the-justice gap project was launched in 2002. The target is 1.25 million offenders brought to justice by 2008, which represents an increase of 150,000 on 2003 levels. There was no reference to the impact on defence legal aid as a result of that. The point is a pretty simple one: no one seems to cost the implications for defence legal aid of new legislative change. That is silly.
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To have excellent changes brought in with a fanfare but then to say, "Goodness me, there is a £130 million overspend on the budget" is no way to control a budget.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I could not have said better myself what the hon. and learned Lady is now putting before the Chamber. Does she recollect that when the Proceeds of Crime Bill was considered, the implications of the original rules which meant that somebody would be entitled to legal aid to resist a confiscation order because they would not be able to tap into their wealth during that period were pointed out? I regret to say that the Government ignored that and were obliged to change their position subsequently. She might also recollect that.

It is not a question of the Government not having had these things pointed out to them. There seems to have been a degree of their blinding themselves to the obvious about how the costs would be ratcheted up.

Vera Baird : I recall the hon. Gentleman being in Committee on the Proceeds of Crime Bill Committee with me and making that rather detailed and particular point about how the impact on legal aid would arise from the existence of resources in the hands of a defendant and from his eligibility.

My point is a broader one. If we are to have the criminal justice system to be proud of that we want, it is obviously imperative that there is proper costing. One fears that if there is no proper costing ahead of time and suddenly there is an overspend, the brake will be put on criminal legal aid, exactly as is happening now. It is quite easy politically to say, "Are we going to pay more money to these rich lawyers to defend all of these guilty people?". Let us consider the politics of the alternative. A Government cannot say that they will cut police costs to bring fewer people to custody or cut CPS costs to bring fewer prosecutions. There are brownie points and Crackerjack pencils for telling the public that cash is being poured into the police.

The costs of the criminal justice system generally, leaving aside legal aid, have increased by 46 per cent. in the same period that we are talking about legal aid having increased. It is hardly surprising that defence costs have increased as well.

I fear that it is too easy to take the option of attacking criminal legal aid and talking about lawyers and guilty people. Something obvious, but which needs saying, is that quite a lot of people who are brought to trial are not guilty; quite a lot of people are, but quite a lot are not. Perhaps they are found not guilty because they have been misidentified, which happens quite a bit. They might have been accused by their enemies, who were fitting them up. They might have been innocent dupes for other criminals. They might have been forced under duress to commit crime; many women are forced into drug crime by violent partners. They might have been pressurised by gangs, as many men are, into committing offences that they did not want to commit.

People who are charged with violent crime might have been defending themselves, and the argument is whether they have gone too far and whether they were entitled to do what they wanted. People who are charged with murder might have been provoked beyond any prospect of human toleration—for example, some women who
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finally turn on their violent partners. They are not guilty of murder. The question is: are they guilty only of manslaughter?

Some people are not guilty because they are mentally ill; there are quite a lot of such people, and some of them end up in our prisons. Some people are not guilty because they are charged incorrectly. Sometimes people are not guilty because scientific evidence is inappropriate; for instance, a paediatrician said that the odds against a repeated number of cot deaths in one family was one in 73 million when in fact it was substantially less, and that brought about incorrect guilty verdicts. Let us talk plainly: people are also fitted up by the police. I am not saying that that happens every day, but it does happen. It is imperative to understand that a lot of people are brought to trial who are not guilty and who are in dire distress because they are falsely accused. They must be represented properly.

I want to add a notion that is, perhaps, unpopular with the public: the guilty must be represented properly too. I found out clearly from my involvement in the Fawcett commission on women and criminal justice that there is a crossover; people who are victims one day are often criminals the next. Half the women currently in prison were previously the victims of serious domestic violence. We have failed them already by allowing that to continue. It is well known that on average there are 35 occasions of sustained violence before a woman makes a complaint to the public authorities, and those authorities do not then do a great deal about it, although we are improving. When someone is under the pressure of that sort of victimisation, and when society fails them once, it is not a big surprise if their lives then become chaotic, and they leave and start to steal to keep their children, or they turn to drugs to try to cope with their suffering, and they end up in prison.

Guilty people are not all black through and through. It is important that they are represented, not only for their sake, but for the public interest, because they must get a sentence that will help them get out of the situation they are in, or else they will just keep going around and around in the criminal justice system. We need good and adequately paid defenders.

Let us consider more closely the Bar's claim that it is being hard hit. I think that solicitors have some concerns as well; I see that some of them are present, and I am sure that they will raise those concerns. However, I have made it clear where my main interest lies. One third of the increase in legal aid is caused by the volume of cases, and one would guess that one third is caused by the increasing complexity and the addition of a range of new offences, but there is no increase in the Bar's rates of pay. There are, however, high-cost criminal cases. That situation must be tackled, and it is being tackled. The top 1 per cent. take half of the entire legal aid budget—that amounts to 2,000 cases. If we were to change the way in which they operate and make them cheaper, that would be the same as changing the 18,500 other cases that appear before the Crown court.

Apparently, a top 10 barrister earns on average £724,000 in legal aid. They work on fraud, serious drugs, murder, multiple defendant, and long and complex cases. Those cases last too long, so the Government will now have judges manage them. There will probably be too many representatives in multiple cases. Conflicts between defendants are often not as great as they first
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appear. There are often too many charges. There is often too much disclosure. All of that is being ramped back, and the Government's documents make it clear that they identify as the real issue the need for proceedings to be made shorter. Therefore, there will be no increase in pay rates, and where the increased costs have bitten hard in high-cost cases, the duration of the cases will be cut because they last too long.

Why are the Government cutting pay rates? There has been no real increase in barristers' fees—only 1.7 per cent. over the past few years. The Bar would say that there has been a decrease of 24 per cent. if everything is added up and inflation is taken into account. I am not prepared to arbitrate in respect of those two figures, but it is clear that the Bar is not getting any more money. Why are the Government seeking to cut Bar fees? They must think that the Bar was earning too much. Was it? That is a question primarily for Lord Carter and his review.

On average, the top 10 Queen's counsels earn £725,000. For most cases, most QCs are paid graduated fees, which have been at a fixed level since 1997. The fees are set at a fixed daily rate according to whether the case is in the A class in respect of a murder or in the B, C or D class in respect of pinching a car. There is an uplift for the length of the trial; it is a proxy for the complexity that is implicit in a longer trial.

Are those rates too high? A Bar Council briefing paper that is intended to rouse sympathy about such matters states that a QC handling a top case—an A case in respect of a murder or other serious matter—will have had his pay cut by £6,000 for the average 20-day trial. He will have his pay cut by £8,240 for an average 25-day trial because of the recent cuts brought forward by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The principal element of the cut is that there used to be a mark up of 25 per cent. between an ordinary barrister and a QC. That has been halved. Thus, 12.5 per cent. of the fee has been reduced.

The Bar Council estimates that for a 20-day case, of the £6,000 less fees that the QC will receive, £3,800 of that sum is due to the halving of the special margin for QCs. Therefore, QCs have lost £3,800 by having 12.5 per cent. taken off their fee. What would they have received in the first place for a 20-day trial? That is pretty simple to work out. We must multiply £3,800 by eight, which is about £30,000 for a 20-day trial. That is an approximate figure; none the less it is telling. The raw point made by the briefing paper is that, overall, a QC will lose £6,000 for a 20-day trial. However, many people would be happy if they earned £6,000 in 20 days or even in a month.

Given what is intended to be a sympathy-evoking declaration by the silk level practitioners of imminent poverty, we need not worry about them too much. Although I am a QC, I come from an unskilled working-class home and the levels of pay at the Bar must be seen through my eyes. They are extremely high, no doubt because the Bar continues primarily to attract people who have a good deal of self-confidence, and that has an obvious resonance with those who attended public school. Although it happens less now, historically the Bar tended to attract confident, well-off public school people. Their expectations might be much higher than mine, but the fees are good.
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I should have thought that there is no problem at the top. If it were feared that QCs will flee into the commercial sector, all right. The Bar is pretending that it is having difficulty recruiting and retraining—and it is a pretence. I am beset by people who are desperate to join my chambers. People are trained, but they have no pupilages and they need to get into chambers. Given the figures that I have outlined, it is not surprising that many people are hammering at the door. Furthermore, it is an exciting life. Life at the Bar is extremely intellectually challenging and rewarding. It is a good job and there will always be people who want to do it.

I wish to digress for a minute. What I am about to say must be a forgivable aside. When I was at the Bar, I led as a junior for 12 years before I became a QC because my face did not fit with various Conservative Lord Chancellors. I was leading in cases with many QCs. I was the ugly duckling at the trial. One day, however, suddenly through the letterbox comes the transformation into the white swan—the letter. One gets a big thick letter if one fails to get a QC's job, and a thin piece of paper if one has succeeded. One is transformed by its receipt. One must immediately put on a different kind of jacket, walk considerably taller and not be talked down to in quite the same way by the judges at the Old Bailey.

One becomes worth 25 per cent. more in one's fees that day, and they never go backwards again. Now, the increase is only 12.5 per cent., but I wonder why I was worth any more on Tuesday than I was on Monday. We should think a little bit about that when we worry about the level of fees at the top end.

The lower end of the Bar is a different kettle of fish. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that the fee for the junior Bar for a one-day trial is about £400. However, the fee that sticks in my mind is her quotation that a three-day trial is worth about £1,300—a good rate of pay, as she would say. It is important to understand that "the junior Bar" has two different meanings. When my hon. Friend talks about it, she thinks that she is talking about the poor, young and new entrants. That is not the case. Everybody who is not a QC, who has not become a white swan, is a junior barrister. I once led a junior barrister who was 83 years old; it is just the name given to non-QCs.

Members of the junior Bar do not get three-day trials for a long time after they get the job. They are the ones who for £50 appear for a bail application. I know that my hon. Friend thinks also that they can do a dozen of those in a day, and that that is not a bad rate of pay; however, they are lucky to get two, or three at the most. They may have to prepare for an hour, talk to their client for half an hour and travel two hours from one end of London to the other to get their £50 and their wonderful exposure to a solicitor who they hope to goodness will be so impressed by the way they say "My Lord I apply for bail" that he will instruct them thereafter on £1,300 three-day cases.

They get £50 or thereabouts for a cracked trial or for a guilty plea. Some trials are always going to crack, and no one does a great deal of work on them; however, they often crack at the last minute when the defendant faces the door of the court and changes his mind. One can
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read a trial for two or three days, delve into the library for a month on one point, organise a conference with one's client and travel across London, and get £50 for it.

That is the life at the junior Bar for a sizeable number of years, and the pay is very poor. One hopes upon hope for the £1,300 three-day trial, but it takes a long time.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): As a former member of the junior Bar that the hon. and learned Lady describes, and in every sense of the word junior, I recognise a great deal of what she says. Does she accept that from those figures quoted for junior Bar earnings, one must deduct one's clerk's fees, taxes and anything else that one may need, which in another profession might be provided for? The figures that one ends up with are therefore much smaller than those quoted.

Vera Baird : The hon. Gentleman comes from old-fashioned chambers if he pays clerks' fees these days. We withdrew a long time ago our clerk's power to charge fees. However, there are chambers overheads. I have no idea what the hon. Gentleman's are, but mine are about 20 per cent. One must pay to get across London and to buy nice clothes to look respectable, so overheads certainly come out of that.

If the Bar Council is right that graduated fees have been kept the same since 1997 and there has been a 24 per cent. cut, we are visiting an awful lot of penury on our young people. It is a concern for young people that I primarily raise. The Bar has been an exclusive club historically, and I do not know how I managed to sneak in by the back door. However, it is breaking open to more people from ordinary schools with ordinary backgrounds who are keen to come through. It is in everybody's interest that the Bar represents a cross-section of our society. That is good in itself, as those people are entitled to the opportunity of having such a wonderful career, which it truly is. In addition, we want a judiciary that represents a cross-section of society. By and large, it is still chosen from the Bar, and probably will be for a long time.

Let us carefully consider the junior Bar. There are two sides to the story about the Government, the Bar and criminal legal aid fees. First, an enormous number of increases were not costed, and those increases have run away with the DCA's budget. Do not blame defence lawyers for that—it is not their responsibility. Secondly, the leaders of the Bar with whom the Government negotiate are at the overpaid, posher end. Do not neglect the younger, poor people at the bottom. The last time I went to the Old Bailey, the conversations at the senior end of the robing room were about skiing holidays and the nanny's sports car, but at the junior end they were about loans for tube passes and paying student debts.

10.1 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing this timely debate. She gave an expert oversight of the current position. I declare an interest. I am a barrister, and I occasionally practise in the criminal courts and do some criminal legal aid work. For 20 years, I was a solicitor doing such work.
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I want to discuss the situation pertaining to the Bar and some views put forward by the Law Society. The hon. and learned Lady gave a fair account of the concerns at the junior end of the Bar, but I take slight issue with the impression she gave that those who are leading the charge on behalf of the Bar Council are, perhaps, more concerned about their fees as silks than about the junior end. In fact, every communication that I have had from members of the Bar Council who are concerned about the situation has stressed the effect on the junior Bar, referring en passant to their own position. As she knows, the top end is very well paid—only a fool would deny that that is true—but, as she says, the pay can be meagre at the junior end.

In a recent pronouncement, the Minister said that it is possible to do between 10 and 20 bail applications a day. That is palpably ridiculous. I am not sure how that could possibly be done, even with the ill-fated night courts, which have been discontinued. Also, the Government paint a picture that everybody at the Bar is rolling in money and that they do not know what to do with it all. That is simply not true.

Vera Baird : I hope that I do not appear greedy by intervening on the hon. Gentleman straight away.

I am worried about the poor representation of the younger Bar by the more senior Bar because of the "strike", which was, frankly, encouraged by the Criminal Bar Association. Members have been asked to decline to take any brief that comes in after a particular date in October.

When I was a silk—it will be the same for the hon. Gentleman, who is a senior member now—my case diary was full for months, perhaps even a year ahead. Not taking a case after 1 October would have been no skin off my nose, if I may use a colloquialism. Long before the strike ended, I would have had plenty more cases coming in, and I already had a year's work. The youngsters who get a brief today and have to go to the magistrates court with it tomorrow are the ones who will suffer. That situation was encouraged by the leadership, and I do not like it.

Mr. Llwyd : The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely correct. Several people in my own chambers in Chester are agonising over the problem. I suppose that, by nature, barristers are not likely to strike, but many junior members of my chambers are very concerned. They do not want to stand out and take work that might have gone to others who have declined to accept it. At the same time, exactly as she said, they are at the lower end and have bills to pay.

Also, everyone in chambers has received a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service. The letter sent to those on the Wales and Chester circuit and the letter sent to those on other circuits have common paragraphs, one of which is rather threatening. I forget the wording now, but in effect it says, "We are watching you. If you decline briefs now, we will see how we get on when this is all over." That is very worrying for a junior member of the Bar.

There is also the issue of preferment. Many in the judiciary privately believe that the action is right, but that it will inevitably create some difficulty in the courts—not at the higher end, where the diary is full for
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18 months, but at the lower end, where people decline to take briefs for the reasons outlined. There is concern that that might impede appointments. All those things have to be considered, but members of the junior Bar are desperate. That is why they are taking action, as I said. They do not lightly undertake what is tantamount to a strike.

I will truncate what I have to say, because the hon. and learned Lady put the case extremely well, but I shall give a bit of background. The graduated fee scheme was introduced in 1997. It was meant for one to 10-day cases and provided weightings to reflect different elements in cases. The original rates for 1997 were based on 1995 fee levels. They have not been increased since then, and that in itself is a real-terms cut of 24 per cent. In 2001–02, there were more than 17,000 one to 10-day cases, and the average cost was £1,587. In 2003–04, there were 19,000 such cases, but the average cost was lower, at £1,541. There is already pretty firm control in that area, and I believe that that is right—there has to be a control on public spending; that is obvious.

In 2002, the graduated fee scheme was extended to cases of up to 25 days, with a gradient introduced for longer cases. That in itself provided an important weighting to reflect the gravity and complexity of the longer cases, but there was no increase in rates. In fact, the figure delivered proved to be much lower. So there had been another significant cut to what had been paid before.

Finally, in the summer of 2004, the Department for Constitutional Affairs accepted that it had got it wrong. It increased other weightings to make good the shortfall for future 11 to 25-day cases, and extended the fee scheme to 40-day cases. More than two years had passed and the payment was written off, but the DCA promised a vital review of the whole system, to start in May 2005. In the meantime, the total spending on criminal defence rose by little more than half the rate of inflation between 2001–02 and 2003–04.

Everybody here, and, I am sure, those outside, will be concerned about very high-cost cases. As the hon. and learned Lady said, up to 50 per cent. of the budget goes on a very small number of cases—perhaps as small a proportion as 1 per cent. Clearly, that needs to be addressed. However, to put a fair case forward, that probably would not detrimentally affect the junior Bar.

With regard to cracked trials, the Criminal Defence Service (Funding) (Amendment) Order 2005 cut the amounts to be paid when cases "go guilty"—in other words, for cracked trials. Guilty pleas are often entered on the day when the trial is meant to commence. That order took £15 million out of barristers' Crown court fees. The saving has not been redistributed to the underpaid one to 10-day cases. On 5 July the DCA announced the removal of the gradient for cases of over 10 days. That reduced the fees payable in those cases to hard-pressed members of the junior Bar by an average of 15 per cent.

Mr. Grieve : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the approach to cracked trials is particularly bizarre? It is desirable that trials should be resolved as early as possible to escape some of the costs. A cracked trial saves money because it is an indication that the trial itself will not take place, yet a series of penalties seem to
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visited on the Bar in relation to them. Does he share my view that that is a bizarre way of approaching the problem?

Mr. Llwyd : It clearly is. To add to the problem, the preparatory work has all been done. Often, all that remains is to have a final conference with the client. Then, suddenly, the client finds out who the judge is and decides to change his plea, or changes his plea for some other reason. There is a perverse logic in there somewhere, but I am not sure where it is. However, the work has been done and should be paid for. If cracked trials could be foretold, that would be entirely different. With his experience of the Bar, the hon. Gentleman knows that nowadays there are forms to be filled in on everything. If there is even the least suspicion that a case is going to crack, a form might be filled in weeks beforehand. So I agree: it is a strange position.

In summary, the DCA proposes, first, to reduce payments to Queen's counsel for every type of case by 12.5 per cent. and, secondly, to remove from all advocates the entire length of trial uplift in fee cases of more than 10 days in length. The effects on Queen's counsel defending in longer terrorism, murder and other grave trials will include a reduction of between 20 and 30 per cent. in the fixed fees agreed in 2001. For junior trial advocates, the reductions will be even more severe. In a five-week serial rape trial, the defence counsel's fees would be reduced by more than 40 per cent. on the 2001 rates. Can anyone imagine having to live with that reduction? That is what will be visited on the middle junior rank—if I can put it that way—of the profession. The Bar Council clearly believes that the measures will have an unintended and disproportionate effect on the junior Bar.

I also want to say something about the Carter review. The Bar Council has been engaging positively with the process and with the legal aid procurement review that is being conducted. The Government are giving the impression that barristers have said no and that they are selfish people who have walked off and thrown the papers up in the air. That is absolutely untrue. There has been meeting upon meeting about this problem over the past months. The case of the junior Bar has been pleaded on several occasions, although perhaps not as vehemently as it should have been, as the hon. and learned Lady said. The response is still developing as far as the Bar is concerned.

What is to be done? Clearly, issues do exist and there must be a brake. It is impossible to have a cap, but there must be some form of adjustment. When I was first elected in 1992 I suggested to the Government that the criminal legal aid budget could be cut by £47 million per annum. I realise that that is not a lot in comparison with the total amount today, but it was quite a substantial sum then. When I first started as a solicitor, I frequented county courts, where a tight appointments system operated. If a person's case was listed at 12 o'clock, they appeared at a quarter to and were not left hanging around. However, in the magistrates courts, I was very often one of a dozen people who were sitting around all day waiting to have their case dealt with. We were all being paid on legal aid rates at the time.
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I suggested that there should be a proper appointments system and good case management—that term was not used in those days, although it is very much in vogue now. There should have been some intervention at that stage and, had there been, figures from various university departments showed that a saving of £47 million could have been made without any detriment to the person before the court or to the legal profession. That would have been a more efficient way of doing things. To my knowledge, that has not happened, and I am sorry about that. Hopefully, that might be re-examined because it could produce a substantial saving.

It is clear that we need to examine the role of the judiciary in efficient case management and to have better listing, enhanced use of IT and quality control. In most Crown courts, two or three trials are still listed for the same day and someone will not know until they get to court that their case will not be heard that day—although it might be heard later on if one of the cases cracks. A huge amount of time is wasted and practitioners are paid for that wasted time. That should be examined far more carefully. We could make savings without having an impact on anybody. Practitioners could be elsewhere—doing work in chambers, for example—and could come to the court when they know that their trial is about to commence. That is a common-sense approach, which unfortunately has not curried favour with those in power in the Department.

The hon. and learned Lady referred to the work of Professors Cape and Moorhead, so I do not propose to go over what was said. However, lots of complicated drivers are involved. It is not a simple case of lawyers being paid more in some way. That is the last thing that has happened. More people are coming before the courts. More people are being sent up for sentencing from the magistrates courts to the Crown courts. In addition, the work being done in the magistrates courts is of a broader range than it was; district judges—who used to be called stipendiaries—take some serious cases in the magistrates courts. Things have changed and there has been a speeding up of criminal offences. As she said, more than 700 new criminal offences have been created since Labour came to power.

There is something unfortunate about the timing of the Carter review, because cuts were made to the level of fees while it took place. We are now supposed to wait until May 2006 to find out what Lord Carter thinks about that. That is an extraordinary way to do things. We should wait for the review and then introduce whatever measures it suggests. That is a common-sense and business-like way of doing things, but it is not the way in which the Government decided to proceed. Some of us thought that they were going head on into this collision and that they intended to do so.

We read about the so-called fat cats on their vast fees here, there and everywhere. If I may digress, the current Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor are not exactly slim Jims themselves. It appears that they have little knowledge of the criminal system, but great knowledge of the civil system. They were adequately paid in their days in the profession. I would not level the term "fat cats" at them, but they were not slim Jims.
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I agree that some changes need to be made. The very high-cost cases need to be addressed, but in addressing them the Government should not think that the things they do will not affect the junior Bar badly, because they will. It is vital for the process that there is a good independent junior Bar. Both the Law Society and the Bar Council are agreed on that.

The idea of price competitive tendering for criminal legal aid in the solicitors' profession will be detrimental. That is not because the solicitors' profession is not prepared to enter into a competitive field. It is already in a competitive field; it now advertises. In my day, that was taboo, but advertising is done in the strangest places every now and then. The problem with PCT is that unrealistically low tenders are made to secure the work. Something is inevitable: unrealistically bad advice might well ensue, and that has an impact on the public. The system is not consumer-led and might well impact badly on the public. That concerns lawyers. They are not always obsessed with themselves. They are concerned about their clients and the system within which they work, and they can see that competitive tendering is a very bad idea indeed.

Means-testing in magistrates courts is sensible and it should have come back a while ago. I could not understand why it was done away with and I applaud its return. If a person can pay for part or all of their costs, why should they not do so? I fully endorse that; it should assist matters. However, I hope that the money recovered will not be swallowed up in administration. I recall how easy it was in the 1970s to make a legal aid application in court—it could be done within minutes of a hearing. If it worked then, it should work now. Let us keep it simple and not have a huge bureaucracy and a means-testing Tsar in every court, and that kind of palaver. Let us ensure that the costs recovered go in the correct direction.

I am worried about the effect of competitive tendering on the solicitors' profession, but also about the current proposals for the junior Bar. I hope that the Minister will listen to what has been said and is prepared to enter the final months of the Carter review process with an open mind. That, I am afraid, appears to have been lacking in the past few weeks. She said last week that getting legal advice should be as easy as buying a can of beans. With respect, her Government's proposals do not add up to a row of beans.

Mr. David Marshall (in the Chair): I intend the wind-ups to start at 10.30 am

10.22 am

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): First, I declare an interest: I practised for 11 years as a criminal solicitor and I am a consultant solicitor-advocate.

It should be acknowledged that we criminal legal aid practitioners are due a makeover. It would be interesting to see what Trinny and Susannah would make of us; the public perception of us is dim and, given the Government's approach to legal aid, their perception must be similar. We seem to be fair game for cuts because the public perception is of well paid lawyers ripe for picking.

The reality is, however, that criminal legal aid practitioners perform very good services, and I shall concentrate on the solicitors' end of the system. Few
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professions have to deal with the demands and pressures that are placed on criminal solicitors. There is little appreciation of what our working environment is like: it is often an airless, smelly police cell or, if we are lucky, an interview room. We can be working at any time of the day or night—indeed, we often have to give advice in the middle of the night and we deal with the most vulnerable in our community. Many of our clients suffer from mental illness and some are dangerous, but all have their liberty at stake and are dependent on quality advice. That is the reality that faces many solicitors day in, day out, but they also face the reality of their pay having effectively been frozen since 1993.

It is important not to pigeonhole things, however. The case for criminal legal aid is not so much about how good solicitors and barristers are, but about how good a criminal justice system we want. In many ways, the Government's approach is piecemeal, because they pick off issues. First, they remove means-testing in the lower courts and then try to return it in the Criminal Defence Service Bill. If they had asked us practitioners, we would have told them that costs would rise if they took away means-testing, but they did not listen to us. They then quite properly brought in a case-management approach, but did not test how that would work or deal with the costs.

We have had a plethora of new legislation, and the effect of new criminal offences is seen in the courts. There are profound demands on the lower courts and there are changes in sentencing. Solicitors often have to pick up those pieces and apply them in magistrates courts. In youth courts particularly, one has to perform incredible mental gymnastics, straddling the statutes over many years to provide a proper service to clients and the courts.

It is important to realise what are the duties of solicitors in youth courts. They have a statutory duty to prevent reoffending; that is what they are involved in doing. To ensure that they are part of the proper operation of the criminal justice system and that there is quality advice and representation, they must be properly rewarded. Politicians and people in our communities go on about antisocial behaviour as our No. 1 priority, but no campaign leaflets mention a priority to increase the remuneration for lawyers to help ensure that we tackle antisocial behaviour. However, solicitors have a statutory duty to prevent youths reoffending.

There needs to be a proper appreciation of the role of solicitors, and they need to be properly rewarded. It is important to have good quality lawyers in the system, so that we have a criminal justice system in which the public have confidence and which ensures that we have fair trials, proper sentencing and that people do not re-offend.

The Government have rightly looked at high-cost cases, but they were wrong to look at the lower courts. They are dealing with the lower courts by introducing price competitive tendering and by squeezing solicitors' costs, but they should look elsewhere. When they criticise defence solicitors about adjournments, they are aiming at the wrong target. They should be looking at the listing in courts and the delays in coming from the prison van day in and day out, as people wait to represent their clients.
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On price competitive tendering, the Government are focusing on the lowest common denominator, which, in reality, will be price. That will undermine many of the worthy intentions in the criminal justice system, and it will effectively lead to time being called on local solicitors' firms. Local services will be undermined. Many clients will no longer have access to the representative of their choice. Many individuals employed in law firms and associated occupations will lose their livelihoods. The larger, out-of-area, specialised firms will take over. In London, there will be a particular problem. Black and ethnic minority solicitors and firms will be disproportionately affected by price competitive tendering because of the number of them in the capital.

The Minister shakes her head, but we should debate why that is happening. Let us consider the Criminal Defence Service Bill. Do we need savings while the contract regime is in place? There is no evidence that the costs of lower court work are increasing. Indeed, the Minister's Department recently predicted that there will be a decrease in her budget. Therefore, why is she focusing her attack on solicitors with price competitive tendering when there is good control? For the first time in many years, there is control of the criminal defence budget. As there is control in the lower courts, why are the Government pursuing the attack on solicitors?

In particular, why are the Government intent on introducing price competitive tendering? Why, when Lord Carter is conducting a review into price procurement, did the Minister two weeks ago go to a legal practitioner action group and clearly suggest that the auction process will begin in April 2006, that the Government's mind is made up, and that they will not even take into account Lord Carter's views on procurement?

I want the Minister to take on board what has been said about the criminal Bar and solicitors, and the need to support criminal legal aid. She should do so not so much with regard to the pay packets of solicitors and barristers, but in order to support the criminal justice system.

10.28 am

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I should also declare an interest: I am a non-practising member of the criminal Bar.

As the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said, the difficulty with what the Government have in mind in relation to criminal legal aid is that although the junior Bar would probably have no objection to the redistribution of money from the top ranks of the Bar to the lower ranks, that is not what is going to happen. The Government have indicated that cuts will be made at the lower ranks of the Bar to the criminal legal aid budget, but there will be no corresponding transfer to those ranks. That will create a number of significant difficulties.

There is no doubt that there is room for reform in the system of payments to the Bar. I accept that the current system is ridiculous. Based on the amount of preparation I do on a Monday night for a Tuesday morning case as a member of the Bar, I could be paid
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£46.50 or £1,500, depending on factors completely outside my control. Whether the defendant and witnesses for the prosecution turn up determines my fee. I do not suppose that many of my former colleagues at the junior Bar would object if the Government came forward with a sensible proposal for payment of criminal barristers according to the work that they do. The problem is that that is not the proposal and the Government are making cuts without completing the wide-ranging Carter review. The Government promised a review in May but it did not materialise. The criminal Bar has been waiting a long time for the Government to explain their long-term vision.

The hon. and learned Lady summed up the issue well. It is not whether we pay high-ranking barristers £200,000 or £300,000 a year; it is whether we can attract the best quality applicants to the junior criminal Bar, and not—this is where I disagree with her—because we compare the earnings of the junior Bar with average earnings throughout the country. We need to attract the best quality advocates to do the vital job of defending and prosecuting in our criminal courts because they could instead go into other strands of the legal profession, such as the commercial Bar. They could become commercial solicitors or go into other professions with far higher rates of pay. Barristers spend a lot of time and, now, money to train for the criminal Bar. We need to attract them and to retain them. It is not automatic that those who join the criminal Bar become silks and make the sort of money that has been mentioned. It is the junior Bar that needs the Government's attention. I hope that they will give it that attention and that they recognise the problems.

10.31 am

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We are all grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) who, as we expected, clearly and, I hope, effectively put the case for an honest appraisal of what the criminal justice system needs in terms of legal aid and the way forward. I have no fundamental difference with her. At the end of the debate, the Minister will have heard a collection of people from both sides of the House putting a collection of compatible views that I hope will be taken into account by her Department when it assesses the way forward.

For the record, I am a qualified barrister and a member of chambers, although I have not practised for several years. I do not come from a family of professionals or lawyers who had been to university for generations. Like the hon. and learned Lady, I was the first member of my family to go to university. I made my way with no spare income, living on almost nothing for many years, going not just around London but on the midland and Oxford circuit from Lincoln one day to Gloucester the next, often getting up at 5 am and returning at 11 pm. In the very early days I often went to court to find that what I had prepared to do did not happen, as the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) said, through no fault of my own. That has not fundamentally changed.

I shall refer to some of the comments that members of the Bar made in the survey of the criminal Bar that was carried out during the summer.There are some areas of agreement. Everyone agreed that the Government are
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right to concentrate, as the Lord Chancellor announced, on bringing down the cost of the most expensive criminal cases. Everyone realises that we must not be distracted by, but must deal with, the fact that some people at the top end of the profession have earned—and been well publicised as having earned—record sums from criminal legal aid. It is right that that is sorted out. It is also right that we give what attention we can to mediation and pursue non-court-based solutions for dealing with crime. The purpose of an initiative piloted in the Thames valley area where victims confront offenders is to get a more acceptable outcome than going to court and putting away offenders, who re-offend when they are released before going round the circuit again.

I want to reiterate and add to the points made about why we have seen so much increase in that area of spend, and I have a specific question for the Minister. The increase is because more offences are being rightly cleared up. There has been huge pressure to do so. The average figures showed that about only one quarter of recorded offences were cleared up. In London, the figure was 12.5 per cent. The greater the clear-up, the more likely cases are to go through the courts.

Charging is getting better. Many of us supported taking the responsibility for charging away from the police and giving it to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, it means that more work follows. It is true that the law is often complicated and that there are more trials within trials.

My assessment is that the number of new criminal offences is underestimated. I remember asking parliamentary questions some years ago, and then the figure since 1997 was 600 plus. It is now likely to be 1,000 plus, and after this debate I shall table the appropriate parliamentary question to obtain the latest figures.

The reality is that the Government have created offence after offence. They often create offences and legislate, rather than improve administration. The reaction of this Government is always to legislate and to create more offences to deal with the problem, rather than sort out the administration.

Will the Minister consider the idea that when we put in the explanatory notes to a Bill on its financial effects, a section also sets out its financial effects on the criminal justice system? They should be assessed. I do not think that they have been, and I should be grateful if the hon. Lady would confirm that. If that is so, will the idea be considered not only by her Department, but throughout the Government?

My second question to the Minister is: how many failed prosecutions are there? Prosecutions will fail because many people are innocent. The hon. and learned Lady rightly reminded us that there are two basic principles: first, the human rights principle that everybody is entitled to a fair trial; secondly, if one is charged, one has certain rights under article 6 to be informed promptly, to have time and facilities to prepare and defend oneself on one's own, or with legal assistance of one's own choosing, or, if one does not have the means to pay, to be given it free.

Many people taken to court are not guilty, and they are rightly acquitted, but it would be helpful if the Minister in her winding-up speech were to remind us how many failed prosecutions there have been. A huge
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amount is spent on the preparation of cases that collapse. In the end, the money is wasted in some ways, but not on the recipient who has to do the work in any event.

There are other smaller causes of waste. I remember going recently to a magistrates court in the part of the world which the Minister and I represent, and just as before cases were listed in which not all papers were ready. That was not the fault of the prosecuting barrister or solicitor, but of the system in which the CPS had not caught up with its obligations. That still happens, and we shall never have a perfect system. The problem is to do with listing, planning and the necessities of courts.

If we are to ensure that costs are reasonable, the review that Lord Carter commissioned, which forms the background against which we are all speaking, must be a proper one. The fair system of legal aid announced by the Lord Chancellor must be complemented by a fair system not only for the taxpayer, but for those who are paid to do the work.

I wish to make two points about the two issues on the agenda. Along with those in the profession who have been consulted, I, too, presume that the tendering process has prospectively huge disadvantages. It means that one will not be able to take on the firm and the people of one's choice; one will have to bid for the lowest price, which may often be a low-quality product. The old, traditional system—the market—that determines that one gets the work if one is good and does not if one is bad takes care of that. I should leave that system to continue to work as it has done.

Secondly, I want to reinforce the point that the hon. and learned Lady made about pay scales and the position of younger people in their first 10 years in the junior Bar. I share her view that, at the top end, people may be well paid—indeed, excessively so. That is a matter that the tax system can deal with—if we have a Government who believe in progressive taxation—by making sure that better-off people pay more, and less well-off people do not pay as high a rate of tax.

There are some obvious examples demonstrating the hon. and learned Lady's point in the Bar survey, which I understand the Minister has read. One respondent to the survey said:

He went on to say that after preparing the case and after chambers' expenses, he

He then asked:

As the Minister will know, representation in court is sometimes a life-or-death issue––or certainly an issue of years inside or life outside.
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Another respondent to the survey said:

Another person said:

One respondent made a request, and I make it of the Minister, too. If we are to have a legal profession that is representative of all backgrounds in society, made up of women and men, and people of all classes and races—and we all argue for that—it must be a profession that has opportunity for all. The respondent said that there is

I would be grateful if the Minister told us, in her wind-up speech, how many days she has spent on the road with junior members of the Bar. If she has not followed a junior barrister, will she say whether she and her colleagues in Government are willing to do so before making any decisions?

10.42 am

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing the debate, and on the way in which she presented this difficult issue. She did so faultlessly; I found myself agreeing with virtually everything that she said.

It has been a particularly constructive debate because we have had input from not only barristers, but others, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) gave a solicitor's perspective, for example.

It is generally acknowledged that the Government face a considerable problem over criminal legal aid. The amount is large and growing. It is in everyone's interests that it should be controlled, but the question arises of how that can best be done. There is no doubt that the Cape-Moorhead report by the two professors is a very revealing document. For a long time, the message coming from the Department for Constitutional Affairs was that increases in costs were driven by the costs of the professions acting in a representative capacity in court. We have heard that message over and over again in the past five years; yet here at last is a report that clearly shows that not to be the case.

Leaving aside for a moment the problem of the very high rise in costs for certain criminal cases, the evidence appears overwhelmingly to show that the driver of cost increase is the way in which the Government have conducted a number of initiatives—on reducing crime, streamlining the court service, and introducing procedural changes in criminal justice—without having any regard for the financial consequences that would
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flow from those initiatives. That is what the Cape-Moorhead report says. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to that.

Of course, there are areas where the professions, be it barrister or solicitor, may cost too much. I should have declared an interest: I am a practising barrister, although it is some time since I have done criminal legal aid work, notwithstanding the fact that I recently received a cheque from the Legal Aid Board for 5p for a case that is at least 10 years old.

The hon. and learned Lady discussed silks' pay. Particularly for long cases, criminal silks' pay is disproportionate to and much better than the pay of the junior Bar, where the real crisis is—I fully acknowledge that. I believe that she quoted a figure of £30,000 for a 20-day trial, but it is worth bearing in mind that, on the basis of 20 working days, the trial would have actually lasted a calendar month and would have required a great deal of preparation if the person were doing their job properly, and that the person was probably bringing at least 20 to 25 years' experience to bear on the case.

The problem is that barristers from all sorts of backgrounds tend to judge themselves and their success by reference to their peers, including those who do not do legal aid work. The hon. and learned Lady may agree with that. It has always been accepted that legal aid work is work that is done at a discount—there is a long tradition of that—but if the disparities become too enormous, the profession simply will not attract people who can do the 20-day cases that require silks.

I am standing up for a persecuted minority that attracts little public support, but it is worth bearing in mind the overall amount that they earn relative to other professions. The point was well made about the hourly amount that a barrister in the High Court would be paid by the Government for representing them in civil matters.

I am conscious of the brief time left, so I shall turn to the other aspect: long trials. We await the report on the Jubilee line case, but there is no doubt in my mind that too often public money is wasted and costs are incurred because of poor planning. The point about avoiding very long criminal cases was well made by Lord Woolf. It would be nice to know that the Crown Prosecution Service, admittedly not a service for which the Minister is directly responsible, has taken that on board. My personal experience is that costs are needlessly ratcheted up because the prosecution fails to manage the case properly. Ultimately, the legal aid fund picks up the tab for legal aid cases.

There is the question of cracked trials. There seems to be an extraordinary notion abroad in the Department for Constitutional Affairs that cracked trials are a conspiracy by the Bar to collect large amounts of money for turning up in court and claiming for preparation time for cases that collapse at the last minute. Cracked trials are a problem and, clearly, are undesirable. It would be much better if defendants would give an early guilty plea so that large amounts of costs could be saved, but, by their nature, defendants in criminal cases are not necessarily the most reliable clients. It is simply a fantasy to think that barristers who have sweated long hours preparing cases for trial go away rejoicing when the trial collapses on day one. They may have expected 25 days in court and may have planned holiday arrangements
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and a host of other things around the trial. The Government must consider carefully how to provide incentives to prevent cracked trials and how to ensure that barristers are not needlessly penalised when preparation work has been done.

Jeremy Wright : Further to my hon. Friend's comments, what often happens is that however hard a barrister may work to resolve a case before it comes to trial and to obtain a guilty plea, if that is the appropriate resolution, he may not be successful because the defendant wants to see whether the witnesses turn up on the day of the trial. In such cases, the cracked trial is not in the barrister's control.

Mr. Grieve : I agree entirely. My hon. Friend also made compelling points about the extraordinary lottery that can lead to somebody being paid £46 or £1,500 for the same amount of work, depending on what happens on the day that he goes to court.

I am sorry that I shall have to discuss the junior Bar far more briefly than I should. There is no doubt that there is a crisis in the junior Bar, particularly at the bottom end of it in relation to the work that it does. I hope that the Government appreciate the magnitude of the problem that has been created. Quite simply, it is not possible for barristers to make ends meet doing criminal work.

The demoralisation into which the lower end of the junior Bar has been plunged is such that, while I am not supporting it, the decision to withdraw services was almost inevitable, particularly in the light of the fact that the Government introduced further cuts when the Carter report had not yet come out. I hope that it will be able to shed light and clarity on this difficult area, but the reality is that legal aid criminal work is now so poorly paid for the routine work that eventually the Bar will, I suspect, be driven out of it altogether.

If that happens, the Minister will have to answer whether the criminal defence service and paid public defenders will be able to take the work over. The evidence of the Government's pilot scheme is that that is not a cheaper option. My next point again brings me to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate. It is apparent that competitive tendering for criminal legal aid for solicitors will prove to be similarly disastrous, by driving solicitors out of this type of work as well.

The Government face some enormous problems. That said, this has been a constructive debate. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that and respond in that spirit. I am happy to listen to any sensible suggestions that are put forward and fully accept that the kitty is not bottomless.

The Government have consistently ignored the warning signs of the crisis in criminal legal aid. They have done some things that were barmy. I gave a perfect example to the hon. and learned Member for Redcar: the vacillations in relation to proceeds of crime and whether those who have huge stashes of money should draw on them for their legal representation or should be entitled to legal aid. The Government have landed themselves in this mess. Some constructive solutions from them would be welcome.
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10.52 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice) : One hon. Member said that they hoped that I would be listening and that there are two sides to this story. I have listened carefully to everything that has been said. We have heard the side from the legal profession. I rise as the only Member present who is not a legal professional. I am neither a barrister nor a solicitor. It is therefore with some trepidation that I dare to defend the Government's position against so many learned legal professionals.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) on securing this debate, which is an important and a timely one. I listened with great care to her comments, because her views on legal issues generally should be listened to and reflected upon. The response from all sides has been, on the whole, put forward in a reasonable way. However, I fundamentally disagree with many of the points that have been raised, and I will try my best to answer them all.

Let me just set out the Government's position in terms of access to justice. We want it to be at the heart of our social justice agenda. That is why we brought forward measures to protect people's rights in the community through bringing more offenders to justice and clamping down on antisocial behaviour while also ensuring that we safeguard individuals' rights and their access to them through the publicly funded legal aid system. It was a Labour Government who brought in legal aid and advice in 1949 and it is a Labour Government now who want to ensure that legal aid and advice is available, reformed and appropriate for the 21st century. It is one of the ways in which the state reaches out to individuals. I see legal aid as a public service; in the same way as we brought in the national health service in the 1940s, so we brought in legal aid and advice. We have an important and proud tradition. Our criminal and civil legal aid systems are at the centre of how the welfare state works. Just as the NHS exists to guarantee everyone medical care free at the point of use when they need it and the public education system exists to guarantee free education for everyone between the ages of five and 16, so legal aid exists to guarantee everyone the right to a fair trial or to advice on how to pursue redress when they have been wronged.

Legal aid provides that access to justice. For people receiving one of the 116,000 acts of assistance in the higher criminal courts last year, legal aid was crucial in ensuring that they had a voice in that court and that they were able to defend themselves in the eyes of the law. Such people are often the most vulnerable in society and do not have the means to support themselves. For the people who made one of the more than 210,000 calls to the community legal service direct phone line and the people who visited the CLS website, which had 500,000 hits last year, legal aid has made a difference by informing them of their rights under the law.

That is why legal aid is so important to us and why we are taking forward a wide range of work to improve its provision and to ensure that we use our resources effectively. The challenges facing us and the work we must do to meet them are set out in July's "A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid".
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I will briefly answer some of the points that have been raised. I assure my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar that I know the difference between the different sections of the junior Bar. We sometimes rather affectionately refer to the very junior Bar as the baby Bar, although we should not be as patronising as that. I understand what happens to those who are new to the profession. I agree with everyone who raised the issue: they are the people who we want to protect and to help. We want to enhance their working experience. That is why we have made some of the changes that we have made.

On the cracks and "guilty" issue, the payment in cracked trials in one to 10-day cases will be for all trial preparation, including the work that would have been done had the trial gone ahead. The only thing that is not paid for is the time that would have been spent at the trial. It is important to make that clear.

A number of people talked about case management. We are working hard to get it. I am just sorry that the Bar wanted to have extra money to take part in the pilots that we put forward. It was a pity that it was not prepared to participate.

A number of hon. Members also mentioned the costs of the extra laws that have come into force and the new offences. As a result of my discussions with the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, we now have, alongside the regulatory impact test, a legal aid impact test. Any Department that puts forward a new law that includes an offence where there is a possible need for legal aid for an individual will now have to have that assessment made before the legislation is introduced. I reassure hon. Members that that was done as a result of discussion with practitioners.

I cannot tell the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) how many failed prosecutions there are. If we can get that figure, I will write to him and to others.

The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) talked about the junior Bar not minding redistribution. I agree with him. We want that redistribution and that is part of what the Carter review will be about. Nothing will be done about compulsory price competitive tendering until Lord Carter has reported. We have put forward a timetable if Lord Carter, who will examine it, decides that it merits continuation. I assure the House that that is all part of the package within Lord Carter's remit. When he reports at the end of January, we will have the time to decide how to take the matter forward.

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