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Jeremy Wright : Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?
Vera Baird: I will in a moment. I know that the hon. Gentleman has an interest in this matter.
My chambers has hundreds of applicants every year, and I am aware of a number of young people who have now done all their training for the criminal bar and who
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would desperately like to get into it. They also have an ethic of public service, which helps. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) is aware of that.
Jeremy Wright: I certainly am. The hon. and learned Lady is right to say that I have an interest in these matters. I practise, as she did, at the criminal Bar. I understand that plenty of people might apply to chambers such as hers, to be at the criminal Bar. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said, the issue is how many people are going to be able to afford to practise at the criminal Bar, when there are many more lucrative options elsewhere in the legal profession. Does not the hon. and learned Lady agree that we should be attracting the brightest and best to criminal law, rather than allowing them to go elsewhere?
Vera Baird: If the Bar, made up as it is almost totally of white, upper-middle-class males, had some years ago paid attention to attracting the best, from whatever sector of society, the current imbalance in the Bar and judiciary would not prevail. The hon. Gentleman's point is not without foundation, however. There has been an understanding that because the rewards at the top of the Bar are goodas he knowswomen and men together should just tolerate what there is at the bottom. That is not really a practical picture any more, but the Government have their eyes on that. In my debate in Westminster Hall, on which the hon. Member for Huntingdon commented and which the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth attended, there was a clear understanding on all sides, particularly in the Minister's response, that what she called the "baby Bar" should, in the eyes of the Government, be given improved circumstances. That, of course, is what we all want.
There is a certain amount of agreement, and it is false to sow, as the hon. Member for Huntingdon did over the preceding 20 minutes, some sort of queer animosity about matters that are not in the Bill. That causes a fair amount of concern. He talked, for instance, about it being the Government's fault that there is a perverse incentive for barristers, who are paid a refresher for every day longer that a case continues, and who therefore have no interest in shortening it. Of course, that is not the Government's fault; it is the basis on which barristers have been paid for a long time. I recall it from when I went into business as a barrister, roughly at the time, in an unfortunate coincidence, that Lady Thatcher became Prime Minister. I noted then that it was a curious way of paying people at the Bar. It needs to be attacked, but it is nothing to do with this Government.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon must face the fact that many of the things that he highlighted, such as the way in which barristers are paid and the excessive amount that very high-cost cases take from the criminal legal aid budget, go back many years. It is not sufficient for him to say that the Government have not tackled those issues over the past eight years when his Government did not even try to tackle any of them. He shakes his head, but I am willing to sit down and listen to him tell me in an intervention exactly what his Government did about very high-cost cases, recruiting
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people of all classes to the Bar and trying to remove the perverse incentives about which he now complains. I am waiting for his intervention.
Mr. Djanogly: It is not a question of what this or that Government did, but of how we can move things forward. The hon. and learned Lady misrepresents what I said in my speech. I did attack the Government where they needed attacking, but I also provided a series of pointers to how the position can be improved. I think that she agreed with me to that extent. Perhaps we can move forward now.
Vera Baird: If the hon. Gentleman reads his speech he will realise that he said that magistrates are on strike, which is utter rubbish, and that the Bar is on strike, which is utter rubbishstrike action was threatened for a very few days but it was accepted that Lord Carter of Coles understood their interests. The hon. Gentleman misrepresented that. He also blamed the Government for the way in which those at the Bar are paid. It was a lot of rubbish and it was quite unnecessary. I do not know why he cannot focus on the issues, which are that the Bill will promote some savings but a good deal more fairness. He ought, like his colleagues in the other place, to welcome and try to include it.
The Bill provides a reasonably simple formula, which, in magistrates courts, where costs are quite low, will exclude from legal aid those whose income is above a particular level. The hon. Gentleman did not appear to have digested the fact that there is a separate system for the Crown court, which is now in a supplement to the framework document. That different model will allow for the much higher costs in a Crown court, with a barrier over which one cannot get legal aid and a barrier under which one gets it whatever, with those in the middle being dealt with through a refined and fairly reasonable, on the face of it, basis of means-testing. That comes with the important proviso, on which everyone should be able to focus, that someone who is acquitted, all other things being equal, should be entitled to a defence costs order. That is also subject to the proviso that there must be an interests of justice override where the sheer mathematics are such that the interests of justice are not represented in giving a grant of representation.
There is also the issue of fairnessfairness to us all because we all pay in the end, and legal aid must be well organised, and also an element of fairness in the establishment of equivalence with civil legal aid. There have always been contributions on a means-tested basis for the purpose of civil legal aid, but that has not always applied to criminal legal aid, which seems slightly odd. The theory may be that because criminal defendants have no option but to be in that position, they should not be required to contribute, but defendants in civil cases often have no option either. It is odd that both groups have not always been subject to means-testing.
The other important aspect of fairness is clear: no one who needs representation should not be given it. I am very pleased that in the House of Lords everyone coalesced around the interests of justice test, and that it is to stay.
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The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) levelled a criticism at the change of heart, but I do not think that it should have been a criticism. The idea behind the scrapping of the means test was pretty simple. The costs in magistrates courts are very low. The state probably pays less if it bears them than if it must engage people to calculate a means test on a very complex basis in order to recover a small amount at a rate of perhaps a pound or two a week. That must have seemed a very reasonable position to take. Moreover, there was a huge increase in legal aid certificates that could not rationally be linked to the changes, almost as if there had been carte blanche for everyone to receive a certificate. That has led to anomalies. No one could possibly cheer when well-paid footballers receive legal aid for antisocial behaviour without making a contribution, and there is clearly a need for change.
Mr. Burrowes : When I was practising as a criminal solicitor, it was proposed that means-testing should be abolished. Solicitors did not propose its abolition; they, indeed all practitioners, were saying "Let us deal with the implementation and administration of the scheme." It was the Government who went ahead and abolished it. We, or anyone else, could have told them that applications would increase. It does not require sophisticated judgment to conclude that once those accused of drink-driving offences, for instance, are allowed legal aid there will be an increase in the number of certificates.
Vera Baird: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The notion that the Government made the change without consulting the professions and other stakeholders widely is totally incorrect.
Mr. Burrowes: Did they listen?
Vera Baird: Of course they listened. I cannot comment on whether members of the hon. Gentleman's branch of the profession said what he tells us they said, but I was active in the magistrates court at the time.
Mr. Burrowes: It was made clear to me, as a member of the London Courts Solicitors Association, that the problem related to the practical implementation. The position is improving greatly, but the Government seemed to decide, no doubt in the interests of finance, to abolish means-testing without considering what the effects might be. That is symptomatic of their tendency to pigeonhole decisionsto make them at one end without seeing the probable outcomes at the other.
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