Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Nick Ainger: Nice try. However, it is clear from the debates in 1999 that the issue was not perceived as controversial. The abolition was accepted for the reasons that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs gave. There were clearly serious problems, which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) identified, in that the processes involved in the means test added significant delays to the justice system. A judgment was made at the time that abolishing it was a way of saving money, but more important, of speeding up access to justice. Hon. Members should be careful and, instead of crowing, accept that, at the time, the measure was perceived as a step in the right direction. However, our experience in the past four years or so and the various individual cases that have clearly abused the system show that something has to be done.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon mentioned certain other factors that drive the rising costs of legal aid. The reasons for the growth in expenditure are complex, and require an integrated approach if they are to be tackled successfully. "A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid", which was launched in July 2005, sets out a strategic vision for how this can be achieved. While the reintroduction of means-testing has a key role to play in that regard, it is by no means the sole focus of the strategy. For example, major
13 Dec 2005 : Column 1271
steps are being taken to address the budgetary concerns posed by very high-cost criminal cases. However, it is important to recognise that the savings that will flow from the Bill are significant, with at least £35 million of savings resulting from the implementation of means tests in magistrates courts alone. For that reason, it is right and proper that we continue to give proportionate emphasis to means-testing as a major element in the strategy.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said that the number of criminal practitioners—solicitors in particular—in his area was causing concern, and that sometimes only one solicitor would be available. We are aware of problems in certain rural areas, which are often less well provided for than urban areas. However, the Legal Services Commission is providing training grants to tackle that problem. In my experience, the number of students seeking to enter law school is continuing to rise considerably, and we need to ensure that a package is available to encourage those students to go into criminal representation.

Mr. Heath: The Minister is absolutely right; there is no shortage of keen and eager students going into law schools with high altruistic principles about going into legal aid criminal practice. The problem is finding places for them in firms such as those in my area, where training places are simply not available.

Nick Ainger: I accept that point. We have to look at the issue holistically, and perhaps it can be discussed further in Committee.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome raised the issue of the amendment that was passed in the House of Lords, and expressed his disappointment that we intend to overturn it. I should reiterate the Government's position on this policy. On the interests of justice case, the Government firmly believe that there should be an appeal to the court. However, when an applicant disputes the outcome of the means test, the Government consider that an administrative review mechanism is entirely appropriate. I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) made the point that it would not be justifiable to take to court a dispute over a calculation.

To provide for a full appeal process in respect of the means test would amount to a misuse of court resources, as the test is essentially administrative in nature and does not merit judicial intervention. I would add that that view is supported by members of the senior judiciary, whom we have consulted on this issue. At the end of the day, if an individual remains dissatisfied after the review has been carried out by the authorities, the individual could seek judicial review of the decision. It is for those reasons that the Government intend to table amendments in Committee to restore that position.

Mr. Heath: The Minister must know that judicial review is not a substitute for an appeal process, because it would only consider the way in which the decision was taken. It could not consider the facts ab initio as to whether the eligibility should have been granted.

Nick Ainger: The issue, however, is purely financial— [Interruption.] If we are talking about eligibility, the
13 Dec 2005 : Column 1272
issue is whether or not the individual qualifies for legal aid. That involves considering the individual's financial situation, and I reiterate that that is not a justification for the court—

Adam Afriyie: I disagree entirely with what the Minister has just said. This is definitely an access to justice issue, because how can one have justice if one does not have legal aid and one cannot afford to pay for legal representation?

Nick Ainger: First, there can be an appeal to the court on the interests of justice issue if aid is refused on those grounds. Eligibility, in purely financial terms, concerns whether or not the individual has sufficient resources to qualify for legal aid. That is not an access issue. With some of the thresholds that have been indicated, and the availability of resources test, this is a perfectly reasonable move forward. We need to keep the system relatively simple but fair, so that we do not return to the old system, which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate described so well, and the problems that occurred under it.

Jeremy Wright: Surely the Minister cannot have it both ways. If, as he says, the eligibility criterion is a straightforward mathematical exercise, an appeal on that basis cannot waste much court time, can it?

Nick Ainger: Why should the matter be taken to court when there is a review system? If the argument is about what someone earns, or what their outgoings are, the position should be relatively clear. I fail to see why this sort of issue should end up in court.

Mr. Heath rose—

Nick Ainger: I shall give way for the final time on this point to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

Mr. Heath: The Minister is being very generous, and we must not rehearse now the debate that we will inevitably have in Committee. I just wanted to understand the basic issue, which is not the simple addition of income in order to maintain eligibility. The most likely cause for an appeal would be in the case of estrangement or where there was a new partner who was not a spouse, on the question of whether their joint income should be taken into account for these purposes. The Minister is saying that it is all right for that to be dealt with administratively, whereas I am saying that, ultimately, a court might have to decide on the appropriateness or otherwise.

Nick Ainger: I always try to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, and I do not know whether he has read the supplement, which goes into considerable detail about the points to which he refers—[Interruption.] All that I can say to him is that if there is such a complex issue, it is perfectly reasonable for it to be considered by judicial review. The concern, however, is that we will again tie up our courts with people appealing on their financial eligibility for legal aid. It is recognised by senior members of the judiciary that that is not a good use of court time.
13 Dec 2005 : Column 1273

This Bill seeks to tackle a widely recognised and much criticised flaw in the legal aid system—that, on too many occasions, those clearly able to afford the cost of their own representation and perhaps convicted of some of the most repellent and socially corrosive crimes are receiving the benefit of taxpayers' money through the legal aid system. Cases such as that of Kenneth Noye and, more recently, El-Hadji Diouf, are mercifully rare but do no credit to an otherwise socially vital, well-conceived and accepted system.

This is a common-sense measure that fits well with much of this Government's successful modernisation of the criminal justice system. It is based on the incontrovertible, broadly accepted principle that those who can afford to pay for the cost of their own defence should do so. It also makes significant progress towards ensuring that the modern legal aid system is sustainable and available for the protection of both current and future generations. It is, in short, a return to the founding principles of legal aid, and I am happy to commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

Next Section IndexHome Page