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Baroness Crawley: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, is nothing if not persistent in the views expressed in his amendment. However, persistence is not necessarily a virtue in this instance.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. She asks how the legal aid budget will be controlled. Is she aware that over the past three years the budgeted costs have been under-shot? In the forthcoming years it is expected that the amount spent on legal aid will decline.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I am aware of the figures for the past three years, but if the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, selected years previous to the last three years he would see that the legal aid budget soared, declined and soared again. None of us has a crystal ball to see what will happen in the future. Therefore, I say that his amendment knocks aside the need for control in terms of a budget, which is at the very heart of the legal aid service.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, I attached my name in support of this amendment because I was satisfied that it advanced what is meant to be the desideratum in the Bill; improving access for the public. If the amendment is not accepted there will be a gradual restriction on the public in regard to the lawyers they can consult, a restriction that will be unjustified because the terms of the amendment presuppose that solicitors who are available, or wish to be available, will have passed all the necessary competency requirements. For those reasons I support the amendment.
Lord Hacking: My Lords, my noble and learned friend on Second Reading was at pains to emphasise the enormous importance of the quality of service that litigants should have in the conduct of their litigation. The noble and learned Lord said that one way of achieving that quality of service was for solicitors' firms that wished to offer legal services to enter into contracts with the commission. I venture to suggest that the most important test that the commission should apply, when considering an application from a law firm to enter into a contract, is to see whether such a firm has the quality of service that the litigant has every right to seek and obtain.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, specifies in his amendment a requirement that persons offering those services should meet standards set by the commission. Although he did not give details I understand that he has in mind the quality of service that a particular firm can provide. The noble Lord kindly nods in acknowledgment of the point I make. The
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I am a little surprised that I find myself debating this subject again with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. It was fully debated in earlier stages of the Bill; in fact, your Lordships have spent over two hours debating substantially the same amendment. Both my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and I have tried to explain to the noble Lord why his call for a guaranteed job for life for legal aid lawyers cannot be accepted by the Government.
The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, noted the noble Lord's persistence. In raising the issue yet again on Third Reading, I wonder whether the noble Lord is trespassing on the patience of your Lordships' House. I have heard nothing that dissuades me from my view that the noble Lord's amendment would rip the heart out of the community legal service. It would mean that the legal services commission would be forced to purchase services from any lawyer who wished to do legal aid work, provided that such a lawyer could meet the prescribed quality threshold but regardless of where he was located or the types of cases he proposed to undertake--regardless, in short, of any consideration of need and priorities.
We are embarked upon fundamental reform. We shall not settle for tinkering around the edges of the present legal aid system, which was designed in the first half of this century. That is why I have repeatedly said to your Lordships that lawyers must stop looking backwards and start looking forwards, as the Government are, to devise new ways of delivering help to the disadvantaged that are relevant for today and tomorrow.
That is why the commission, through the community legal service, will identify the needs of the people who find themselves in difficulty; and will then seek to match those needs by securing services from a range of legal service providers, within the priorities established by the Government or the commission, and the resources available. That requires a flexible system. Flexibility in securing legal services is essential because the commission is dealing with a real world and real people whose problems differ and change over time. The provisions I have brought before Parliament are not intended to provide a short-term solution. Much as I enjoy the cut and thrust of debate in your Lordships' House, I have no burning desire to take the lead part in bringing forward an "Even Better Access to Justice
Therefore, the Bill provides the commission with wide powers to do that. It does not seek to provide a blueprint for the nature of services and the manner in which they are to be procured and paid for; rather, it acknowledges that legal services will be procured from a range of providers, not all of whom will be lawyers in private practice, and that the services will be procured by a number of means which best match need and provide good value for money.
That is why we are proposing that, in future, services should be supplied only through suppliers who have contracts (or other arrangements) with the commission. I accept that in using the term "exclusive contracts" we may inadvertently have misled because the expression was misconstrued as signalling local monopolies for single firms. It never was intended to mean that, rather it simply means that only those with a contract (or other payment arrangement) with the legal service commission can receive public funding for work under the two new schemes. But the initiative must lie with the commission.
Perhaps I may give the facts. In making these arrangements, the commission will be charged with securing adequate access for clients. We now expect there to be at least 5,000 first-round contracts for family work. But access should not be judged solely in terms of numbers. In future, no more than 200 firms with a clinical negligence franchise will be allowed to take medical negligence cases. That is an area where par excellence specialists are required to ensure quality. However, access is also ensured because the Legal Aid Board has a freephone number that potential clients can call to find out where the nearest franchised firm is to them. If the client is unable to travel to the solicitor, the contracts include terms requiring the solicitor to make arrangements to go to see the client.
As I have made plain, the Government are not wedded to any one model of contracting (be it "block contracting" or some other system). There will undoubtedly be different types of contract for different categories of work and in different places. In other words, if those who argue that a particular type of contract will not work in a given area are proved right, they need have nothing to fear; it will not be adopted.
The noble Lord's amendment, however, would freeze the existing pattern of provision in place. The ability of the Government to redirect resources to areas of identified need would be removed, or severely restricted. That strikes at the underlying rationale of the community legal service. Guaranteeing work to solicitors' firms would also preclude the development, in the longer term, of any element of competition for contracts, with the scope that that may offer for maintaining and improving value for money. Indeed, I would argue (with, I hope, the greatest courtesy to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury) that the noble Lord is guilty of a verbal sleight of hand when he puts forward an amendment which contains both a guarantee for all existing providers and the aim of ensuring the
In addition, the amendment would tend to stifle the further development of franchising. Under this amendment, any future enhancements to the quality requirements would be resisted by some parts of the profession as threatening their guarantee of income from the scheme under the present quality criteria.
That said, I have sought to offer as much reassurance as I can to the solicitors' profession about how contracting will be developed in practice. We intend to proceed gradually and carefully to ensure that we get the details right, and to give the profession time to adapt to change. In particular, we have undertaken to contract with all firms with a family franchise in the first round of contracting for family work. As I said on Report, on the current application rate, and subject to applicants having their franchise application with the commission by the end of March, it would not be unrealistic to estimate that family contracts could be awarded to between 5,000 and 6,000 firms. That would cover about 96 per cent. of current family legal aid spend, with most firms doing a volume of work similar to their current caseload. I would expect that a roughly similar number of contracts would be issued to solicitors to provide advice and assistance and here, too, that is subject to solicitors having their applications for a franchise in by the closing date of 31st March.
We have heard again today that the need for this guarantee is not some lawyer's trade union restrictive practice, but a consumer-oriented desire on the part of lawyers to ensure choice and access to justice. Unwittingly or otherwise, I am afraid that the proponents of this measure are in substance making a trade union point for it does not recognise the reality of the needs of those who seek help. When people seek access to justice, that is not synonymous with seeking access to lawyers. What they need is the right help to get access to justice, which may not necessarily involve lawyers. I am determined that the community legal service will ensure that they get the help they need (including the services of the lawyers where this is appropriate) in the right way from the provider who best can meet their needs. That is why the community legal service as a whole has to encompass not simply the legal services commission and lawyers' groups, but local authorities, citizens' advice bureaux, law centres and other not-for-profit sector suppliers.
I am absolutely determined to ensure that public money buys the right services, of the right quality, at the right price. I am determined also to ensure that we identify areas of unmet need and do the best we can to ensure that the need is met. I cannot, therefore, tolerate attempts, however well intentioned, to build into the structures contained in the Bill guarantees which are vested in the provider of the service rather than the procurer of the services.
I hope that I have explained why I cannot accept the amendment and why the fears that underlie it are truly misplaced. In the light of those observations-- I apologise for them taking a little time--I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, will agree to withdraw his amendment.
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