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Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that reply. However, I am not quite clear whether he covered the following point. Can he say how much was paid out to this gentleman and why it was thought necessary in any event to support the litigation of an undoubtedly wealthy foreigner in our courts?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, as I said, the total amount paid out to date is £2.8 million. The application of Dr. Hashim for assistance under the legal aid scheme was dealt with on the basis of the information provided in the forms that the Legal Aid Board requires. The application was dealt with on the basis of the rules that apply to everyone. Therefore, on that basis, Dr. Hashim was entitled to legal aid, being a litigant before the courts of this country eligible on financial grounds. The certificate has now been revoked in connection with consideration of the information provided in the original forms.

Lord Mishcon: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord tell the House why the certificate was revoked and why the information upon which it was revoked was not available earlier?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, as I understand it, the certificate was revoked on the basis of information which came to the attention of the Legal Aid Board, principally through the third of the major judgments. The case was an extremely complicated one. Judgment was delivered in the Chancery Division in three tranches. It was upon information contained in the third tranche that the judge decided contested matters connected with the property and assets of Dr. Hashim. In the light of information coming before the Legal Aid Board from those judgments the decision was taken to revoke the certificate. That decision is, of course, subject to appeal. I understand that Dr. Hashim has lodged grounds of appeal. That is why I say that the matter is subject to any appeal he may successfully make.

Lord Clark of Kempston: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the rules of the Legal Aid

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Board really do need amendment in so far as one can have an applicant who technically has no money but whose family is extremely wealthy? Surely, we should change the rules so that the whole of the circumstances of the family of an applicant are taken into account which, in this case, would have saved the British taxpayer some £2.8 million.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, your Lordships will know from an earlier answer to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that I intended to issue a paper consulting on these very issues. I have now issued such a paper indicating possible changes to the rules that might be considered. Those changes are not easy to make without affecting people other than Dr. Hashim. One has to examine the matter in the light of all the people affected. However, I have issued a fairly detailed consultation paper about legal aid for the apparently wealthy. I shall be extremely grateful to all noble Lords who feel inclined to contribute views about precisely what changes I should make. I have not found the subject particularly easy but, with the help of your Lordships, I am sure that the task will be made easier than otherwise it would have been.

Lord Wigoder: My Lords, if a person obtains legal aid by false pretences, is that a criminal offence? If so, have there been any prosecutions for such an offence?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, there are certainly criminal sanctions associated with giving false information. There are, of course, levels of falsity. I do not think that it would be right for me to go into the detail of this case because, as the noble Lord knows, I am precluded by the confidentiality provisions of the legal aid Act from knowing about the details of the financial circumstances given to the Legal Aid Board by an applicant. But there are, of course, possibilities both of civil and criminal sanctions in this area, subject to the availability of the person in question to the forces of law and order in this country.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone: My Lords, given that the matter is under appeal and that my noble and learned friend is therefore under some constraint, may I ask him this question? If the original application was based upon false information as to assets or means, is there any mechanism for recovering the money which has already been spent from the person who gave that information?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, as regards the person who gave the information, assuming the certificate is revoked it is treated then as never having been granted in a question between the Legal Aid Board and the applicant. Therefore the applicant is liable for all the moneys that the Legal Aid Board has paid out. Of course, as my noble and learned friend is well aware, legal liability and actually getting the money into the Legal Aid Board's hands are two rather different matters.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recognise that many on this side of the House are concerned with the availability of legal aid for the apparently not wealthy? Does it not seem rather strange—I believe this to be a commonly held view in your Lordships' House—that a

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man of the wealth of Dr. Hashim can obtain £2.8 million so far whereas citizens of this country who are barely above income support levels have no effective access to legal aid and assistance? Is there any sensible prospect of recovering at least this £2.8 million which many of us regard as a disturbingly lax disbursement of public funds?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the regulations under which the Legal Aid Board functions carry the authority of Parliament. As far as I am concerned, the regulations were applied in the case of Dr. Hashim. I am at least as concerned as the noble Lord about the availability of legal aid to those people who really need it. I am convinced that the rigidity of the present scheme militates against a really effective distribution of legal aid money. I should point out that the money was not paid to Dr. Hashim, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, suggested, but to practitioners in this country: they are the recipients of the money. I should perhaps supplement that by saying that one of the responses I have already received to the consultation paper suggests that the money in question should be paid to clients rather than to their lawyers.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can my noble and learned friend confirm that there is no question in the future of handing out very large sums, amounting to millions of pounds, of taxpayers' money in cases of this kind, and that this incident will not be repeated?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am certain that if it is possible to devise rules under the present scheme which have the effect my noble friend describes without detriment to others—it is a system of rules—then certainly, in the light of the consultation, I will seek to do so. I do, however, suggest to my noble friend and to your Lordships generally that it may be that a more radical change in the whole system is required so as to enable the Legal Aid Board to act in the light of other priorities than merely financial entitlement plus a reasonable case, and that a system under which local priorities and needs are assessed as a guide for the Legal Aid Board may be a useful addition to the present panoply of powers it has.


2.57 p.m.

Lord Jenkins of Putney asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the basis of their belief (Official Report, 12/12/94; WA 109) that Trident is a stabilising force while operating under British control but would become "dangerously destabilising" if acquired by another country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley): My Lords, in Europe we have a stable deterrence environment which has been established over a period of many years and the United Kingdom Trident force will make an important contribution to maintaining that. The proliferation of nuclear weapons outside such a stable deterrence system would pose great dangers.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, but is not the noble Lord aware that it may be difficult for the

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Government to reconcile the position which they adopt with their allegiance to the non-proliferation treaty? I believe that an important conference to discuss that treaty will be held in April. Is it not the case that the Government will perhaps be seen at that conference as advising nuclear disarmament for everyone else but themselves?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord is right to draw attention to the conference that is looking to further renewal of the non-proliferation treaty, which was first agreed to, as I think the noble Lord knows, in 1970 and was to last for 25 years. We are committed to securing an unconditional and an indefinite extension treaty at the conference that will start in April and we believe that an extension will be of benefit to all parties whether they are nuclear weapon states or non-nuclear weapon states. I would accept, with the noble Lord, that under the existing treaty we are committed under Article 6 to work towards nuclear disarmament in a context of complete and general disarmament. However, we do not believe that that is a practical or realistic policy goal in either the short or the medium term.

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