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Mr. Burrowes: Will the Minister give way?

Bridget Prentice: I am just about to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright).

In a second measure to reduce delay, defendants will be able to apply for legal aid under an extended advice and assistance scheme running up to, and including, the first hearing, when a means-tested representation order will come into force. Qualification for the scheme will be determined on the interests of justice alone. That will ensure that the new system does not introduce any delay and that full advantage is taken of the natural pauses that already exist in the criminal justice process. For example, if a defendant who is charged with a relatively serious criminal offence for which he faces imprisonment is held on remand, he will appear in court immediately for a bail hearing. Should the defendant intend to plead not guilty, his trial will be adjourned to allow the defence and prosecution to prepare fully for the trial. Legal aid could then be sought in the period before the full trial started.

Mr. Burrowes: Given that it is likely that the Bill will increase the burden on magistrates courts' staff, does it not highlight the present damaging pay dispute involving such staff? Magistrates courts have great difficulty recruiting and retaining high-quality staff, which has a profound effect on the quality of justice. Such staff will be considering the interests of justice test and implementing the Bill. Unless the Government try to resolve the problem of the pay dispute, there is a worry that there will be a profound effect on local justice.

Bridget Prentice: I hope that the pay dispute does not result in industrial action and that there will be an opportunity before the time at which that action is supposed to take place for all parties to come together to find a constructive solution. I am well aware of the situation that magistrates courts' staff face.

Magistrates courts' staff do the administration for the scheme, and their jobs will be enhanced by giving them responsibility. They perform their roles under judicial supervision at the moment. It is important for us to say to them, "Here is an administrative job that you are doing very well, and we want you to continue to do so."

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) is wrong to suggest that the Bill is likely to increase the administrative burden on magistrates courts' staff. Although they will have more calculating to do, which is a skill that they are used to using—despite what the hon. Gentleman said, staff in magistrates courts are actually of a high calibre—it is expected that there will be between 10 and
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20 per cent. fewer applications because the means test will screen out an awful lot of people. The Bill is thus administratively neutral.

Bridget Prentice: My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. We think that the Bill might well screen out more than 10 to 20 per cent. of applications—perhaps up to 30 per cent. of applications. I am happy to reiterate her important point that the calibre of magistrates courts' staff is high. As I said, they already carry out similar work at the moment and that is likely to continue.

The proposed Crown court scheme will use a combination of powers within existing legislation and new powers under the Bill. Applicants for legal aid in the Crown court will be assessed on financial eligibility as well as the interests of justice. In contrast to the magistrates court scheme, individuals who fail the means test will still be eligible for legal aid. However, they will be expected to contribute towards the cost of their defence. Another notable difference between the magistrates court and Crown court schemes is the proposed capital test, under which liquid assets in excess of £8,000 held in cash accounts at bank and building societies are the subject of a single, one-off contribution. As with the magistrates court scheme, aggregation of means is a feature of that model. The Government propose a phased introduction in which the magistrates court scheme is introduced first and allowed to bed in before the Crown court scheme is launched.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): What is the reference date for that assessment? It would be all too easy for someone to ensure that they do not have liquid capital assets available for means-testing at a Crown court hearing if they knew that that would be a sensible thing to do in preparation for such an appearance.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid and important point. We will ensure that the assessment is made at the earliest opportunity, possibly at the point of arrest, before people have a chance to try to disperse their assets. I am happy to hold further discussions, however, about the best time for assessment.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): We are right to be concerned that people with limited financial means should have access to advice and legal aid, but what measures has the hon. Lady considered introducing, especially in complex criminal trials involving large assets, to deal with someone from a wealthy family who may have an offshore trust or who may be the beneficiary of another trust with assets that are not necessarily visible in the UK?

Bridget Prentice: As I said, we will look at liquid assets in an individual's personal bank and building society accounts. We should think carefully about whether we want to introduce a more complex system to assess assets, as the aim of the Bill is to try to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible. In the regulations we will make sure that we can identify those assets as easily and simply as possible. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are other laws to deal with the proceeds of crime and so on if someone is found guilty.
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The new scheme is outlined in greater detail in the supplement to the framework document accompanying the Bill. In developing the Bill, the Government have not only listened to, and acted on, the findings and recommendations of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on an earlier draft, but we have taken into account the considered opinions of a wide range of stakeholders. We have worked particularly closely with the Law Society to refine the means test model and produce a scheme that is both fair and sensitive to the circumstances of individual applicants without placing an undue burden on those responsible for administering the system.

We have addressed and, we believe, satisfied, early concerns voiced by the judiciary about the original appeals process. We firmly believe that there should not be an appeal to the court on the basis of financial eligibility, but we are satisfied that the case has been made that there may be an appeal to the court based on the interests of justice. However, an amendment accepted in the Lords removed the power to review decisions on financial eligibility from the Bill. Those decisions will now be subject to a full appeal to the court. That is unacceptable. Not only is it a misdirection of the courts' resources, but members of the senior judiciary agree that the means test is a wholly administrative assessment that does not require judicial oversight, apart, of course, from judicial review. We will seek to overturn the amendment in the Commons.

The Government believe that the Criminal Defence Service Bill is both innovative and practical. While we have placed a high value on measures to develop an administratively simple scheme, we have given equal importance to measures to ensure that defendants are treated fairly and consistently. The scheme will be transparent and measures will be taken so that it can be easily understood by defendants, solicitors and the court-based teams responsible for its administration. By streamlining legal aid and cutting bureaucracy we have created a strong, flexible legal aid system able to withstand the rigours of the modern criminal justice system. The new scheme will allow legal aid to continue to safeguard the rights of the vulnerable, but will also achieve maximum value for the taxpayer. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

4.5 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I begin by declaring any interests that I may have as a practising solicitor.

The Bill allows for the power to grant rights to representation to be transferred from the courts to the Legal Services Commission, introduces a means test for the grant of such funding and, where the test is met, provides for contribution orders based on means. Several amendments were made to the Bill in another place, and I pay tribute to the significant progress that was made there.

We, the Conservative Opposition, feel that access to justice is a serious matter that requires full and detailed consideration. Through the determined efforts of our noble Friends, such detailed consideration has already been possible. We welcome the restoration—by amendment in the other place—of responsibility for legal aid matters to the Lord Chancellor, as we welcome
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the amendments that have been made relating to appeals. I was sorry to hear the Minister say that she will attempt to overturn those at a later stage.

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