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Vera Baird: It really was not as clear as that. If the hon. Gentleman shows me some brilliant document from the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association suggesting a better mechanism for means-testing, I shall be very surprised. There was undoubtedly wide stakeholder consultation on the proposal, and it was a realistic possibility that it would be cheaper not to means-test than to means-test. However, there was inconsistency in the ways in which various magistrates courts were granting certificates. In some areas, it was seen as an invitation to open the floodgates; in others, that did not apply to the same extent. A number of
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certificates were issued that would not have been issued before, but there was no match between the change and the increase.

Mr. Heath : Surely at the time there was a trade-off between increasing the speed of legal proceedings by removing what was seen as an obstacle and a potential increase in costs. The view taken at the time was that removing the means test was likely to involve more benefit than disbenefit. Now it appears that the opposite view has been taken.

Vera Baird: Yes, that played a significant role but, in addition, removing that layer of bureaucracy was intended to be cheaper. Clearly, there are unacceptable occasions when someone who is very well to do receives legal aid, which has pointed to the need for a new look at the whole system. I hope that we will end up with a smarter, slicker, neater means test. It should not hold back justice significantly, especially given the high calibre of the people who will implement it through the service level agreement. The scheme should be coherent and consistent. The LSC has the background responsibility, but it will be delegated to those on the front line who have the practical skills. Therefore, one hopes for consistency and simplicity of application, so that we can get the best out of it.

I said that I thought that the scheme was a combination of fairness and savings. The savings are estimated to be around £35 million. Of course, they are well worth having. I guess that they will come from exclusions, from 10 to 20 per cent. fewer applications and from contributions. I do not know whether there will be any administrative savings as well, but it is key that, essentially, the same people will be involved, who will have the knowledge. I know that the Bar was worried about handing over the decisions on merits to the LSC when it was not front-line, court experienced. I think that that has been managed sensibly through the scheme.

As I have mentioned, it is imperative that we use legal aid in the civil system to ensure that we attack social exclusion. We have to disperse our available legal advice and other advice about debt and so on, and ensure that the poor, who cannot in another way obtain such advice, are resourced to get it. Many poor people do not know their rights. They are at the bottom economically, with no power of that kind to fight back. They can be pushed around by authorities, those who have better resources, organisations, Government and local government, because they do not have that power. Their rights can and will be abused if they are not given sufficient resources to have, as it were, a friend on their side who can advance their case. That imbalance must be addressed and legal aid in the civil sector is an important part of that.

It is also important that there should not be any lessening in the adequacy of support in the criminal sector. We are getting more cases to court. Surely everyone welcomes that. The conviction rate is getting better. We have better investigation, charging and review of charging. There is support for witnesses under the no witness, no justice scheme, so that witnesses have more confidence to come to court. That is what we all want—to catch more criminals, to bring them to court and, we hope, to play a role in reducing crime and the fear of crime.
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That is all very good. It will inevitably increase legal aid costs, but we must keep the matter in proportion. There must not be any diminution of input into legal aid. I fear that, occasionally in these discussions, we lose sight of the fact that often people who come to court are not guilty and they need support to make their case. They can be found not guilty for a range of reasons, from mistaken identity or scientific evidence to having a legal defence. They may have been put into the frame by some criminal to get himself out of it. I have defended innumerable people who, on the face of the papers, I did not think would be easy to defend. I have found that I have been right to fight very hard for their cause because, in truth, they were not guilty. One cannot always see from the papers that that is the case. Therefore, do not let the savings be automatically allocated to civil legal aid if that is going to mean that there is inadequate resourcing of people on the criminal side.

The Longford lecture was recently delivered by Baroness Hale, the first Law Lady. She made another point that emphasises the importance of adequate criminal legal aid. She drew attention—her lecture was about women in the criminal justice system—to the fact that about 30 per cent. of women in prison have suffered from long-term domestic violence. About a quarter have been raped or have suffered sexual abuse—conviction rates for both offences are low—and they are highly unlikely to have received any justice. About half had either psychiatric or addictive behaviours in the year before they were taken into custody.

It is reasonably clear from that—though it would be a great jump if one were doing a research thesis—that trauma and chaos have been thrown into these women's lives and that they often turn to crime as a way of dealing with their poverty or with other problems. They have already been failed once—society has let the abuse be inflicted on them and given them no justice—so it is important that they are not failed again by not being provided with enough money to defend themselves.

David T.C. Davies rose—

Vera Baird: That was my last word, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

David T.C. Davies: The hon. and learned Lady is extremely generous in giving way on her last word. I share her concern about the levels of domestic violence, but is she aware that the statistics show that married couples are a quarter less likely to be involved in domestic violence than those who are either co-habiting or single? Does that not suggest that the Government should offer more support to the institution of marriage?

Vera Baird: The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. The figures show that there is more reporting of cases by non-married than by married people. He cannot rightly draw the conclusion that he has drawn. One worries that people hold on to marriages longer than they should because of the institution of marriage, but that is a very different debate.

I want to end by saying that the new fairness is very welcome, that the savings are very welcome and that I look forward to them being used even-handedly and wisely across the range of legal aid.
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4.46 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a pleasure, as always, to follow the hon. and learned Lady. As is also very often the case, I agree with a great part of what she said. In particular, I agree that we should not be ashamed of legal aid; rather, we should rejoice in it. I am one of the few non-lawyers—either practising or non-practising—who is contributing to this evening's debate, but I want to make it absolutely plain that legal aid is unequivocally one of the most important pillars of the welfare state. It is as important in its way as provisions for education, health or social security, because allowing people access to justice is the mark of a civilised society—and that means ensuring that they are properly represented if they find themselves before a court of law.

Our debate has encompassed the whole of legal aid rather than the specifics of the Bill on Second Reading—I think that that is entirely appropriate in the present circumstances. It is important that we say how important both the criminal and civil legal aid systems are. It is right to acknowledge how the criminal legal aid budget has unfortunately squeezed the civil legal aid budget to an unacceptable degree. We should recognise the Government's difficulties in controlling the budget. Of course we recognise that dealing with it presents a problem for them, but it is not unreasonable also to say that we do not entirely agree with the way in which they have addressed the problem, notwithstanding what is contained in the Bill.

What I have found particularly distressing about Government propaganda recently is the constant concentration on so-called fat-cat lawyers to the exclusion of those who provide day-to-day services throughout the country to people who truly need the support of a solicitor or junior barrister in the courts. The more the attention of the press, the media and the public is drawn to a very small number of QCs operating at the Old Bailey or elsewhere to the exclusion of the rest of the profession, the more we do a disservice to the totality of the profession and the legal aid that is provided. It is a diversionary tactic that is intended to provide a hate figure for more easily led colleagues. They say, "We have got to do something about these very rich lawyers," without recognising that there is a very thin dividing line between reducing the excesses of some and reducing the effectiveness of the whole.

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