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Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 210 and 211:

("( ) A reference in this Act or any other enactment or instrument to a provision of this Act shall (so far as the context permits) be taken to include a reference to a corresponding provision repealed by this Act.").
Page 59, line 32, at end insert--

("( ) The repeal by virtue of this Act of section 14 of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1996 (young persons convicted of scheduled offences) shall not affect its operation in relation to offences committed while it was in force.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendments Nos. 210 and 211 en bloc.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 128, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

Legal Aid: Gulf War Veterans and Sheep Farmers

6.36 p.m.

The Countess of Mar rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is the legal aid expenditure to date, and what is the projected funding, for the multi-party actions by Gulf War veterans and sheep farmers.

The noble Countess said: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am patron of the Gulf Veterans' Association. In addition, although I believe that I suffer the chronic effects of repeated low-level exposures to organophosphate sheep dip, I do not, and never have had, any personal interest in the ongoing litigation. Like those who have spoken to me about their concerns, I am having some difficulty in understanding what is going on. I am unhappily aware that "there is something rotten in the State of Denmark". I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be tolerant with me and that he will be able to clarify matters.

It is with reluctance that I raise this matter in your Lordships' House tonight. I have large numbers of letters from farmers and Gulf veterans in which the writers state that they ask only for recognition and treatment for their illnesses and that future cases are prevented. It is the culture of denial that has forced them to turn to the law.

I voice the severe reservations held by members of the Gulf veterans, the sheep farming communities and others involved with these cases, about the manner in which the group actions are being managed. There are huge amounts of taxpayers' money involved in legal aid spending. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will agree that the legal aid moneys should be spent wisely.

I accept that this type of action is expensive. Both these actions are breaking new ground and we are dealing with the cutting edge of scientific knowledge. I understand that the Gulf veterans' case is the first multi-party action to be brought against the Crown since the repeal of Section 10 of the Crown

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Proceedings Act of 1947. Some of the claimants are entitled to a full legal aid certificate; others will be required to make some contribution towards their costs; and yet others will be privately funded. Claimants who are required to make monthly payments are expressing very real concerns. They have already paid sums amounting to several thousand pounds. There is no clear time span. Rumour has it that their cases may continue for as long as 20 years, although I hope that that is not the case.

Recent events, which I shall explain, have caused them to have second thoughts about continuing with their action. They now find that they are unable to get off the financial treadmill because they will still be responsible for their share of the generic costs--an unknown sum. None of these claimants could be described as wealthy. Most are men and women with young families. They are struggling to work in order to maintain a roof over their heads despite chronic ill health. They can ill afford this additional monthly burden. Not surprisingly, they are worried.

These group actions have an interesting and extraordinarily complex history. As far as I am able to ascertain, the first sheep dip case was started in 1981. Since then, at least 60 firms of solicitors, from small provincial firms through to large, City firms, have been involved with a growing number of claimants. I know of several sheep dip cases that have fallen by the wayside after large amounts of legal aid moneys have been expended, leaving claimants confused and dissatisfied with the system.

The Gulf veterans had begun their actions by late 1994. By mid-1995 the Legal Aid Board had apparently granted a generic legal aid certificate to Donn & Company, a Manchester firm, for the Gulf cases. The Legal Aid Board then asked for tenders for the generic work from firms with certificates prior to March 1995. After an hiatus, the generic certificate was awarded jointly to Dawbarns of Kings Lynn and Wolferstans of Plymouth in January 1995. Those firms were tasked with carrying out research and co-ordinating the legal process. Late in 1996, it was decided that the sheep dip and the Gulf veterans' cases would be run in tandem because of the organophosphate links. At some later stage the decision was taken to split the Gulf cases involving post-traumatic stress disorder from the remaining Gulf issues, and the PTSD generic certificate was transferred to another Manchester firm, Linder-Myers. I shall disregard the PTSD cases.

In April 1998, the Norfolk legal team working on the sheep dip and Gulf cases moved to a London firm--Hodge, Jones & Allen. The generic certificates were transferred with them. By this time, a pilot study to support scientifically and medically the claimed link between the various factors that may have caused ill health in both the sheep farmers and Gulf Veterans had been set up. There had been some inevitable delays in setting up the study--for example, funding, co-ordinating a group of high-powered medical and scientific specialists, and the unforeseen death of one of those specialists. Then, in March 1999, the decision

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was taken to concentrate all the sheep dip claims on the High Court, and Master Miller was appointed to oversee them.

We now come to the actions that have caused so much concern. By April 1999 there were rumours that the Norfolk team had left Hodge, Jones & Allen for another legal firm. These rumours were eventually confirmed. For several weeks none of the claimants knew whether the generic certificates were to remain with Hodge, Jones & Allen, whether Wolferstans was still involved, or what was happening to the individual cases. The Gulf Veterans' Association officers had contacted the Legal Aid Board as early as February to express their feelings of disquiet about the way their members' cases were being handled. Initially they dealt with the Cambridge office. At the end of April, they were, exceptionally, granted a meeting--which was originally to last for a quarter of an hour and eventually lasted three and a half hours--at the London headquarters of the Legal Aid Board. The National Gulf Veterans and Families Association was not advised of the changes officially until 9th July 1999, and the Gulf Veterans' Association was never formally advised. The secretary of the latter organisation wrote to Mr Mason at the Cambridge office of the Legal Aid Board on 13th July 1999, again expressing his concern and pointing out the shortcomings of the various courses being pursued by the solicitors and the fact that more than 250 veterans had complained about the way in which their cases were being handled. Nothing seems to have come of those representations.

I have a letter from one of the sheep farmers. He has told me that for some time it has been impossible to get any sense out of the lawyers. The whole issue was behind the "generic contract" wall. He says he found that he was being sent to an inappropriate medical co-ordinator, chosen by a lawyer without any reference to the expert group, and whose summary evidence was then thrown out by Master Miller. He goes on to say:

    "It looks very much as if it was deliberately handled in a way that would maximise the lawyers' profits while minimising the chances of any case's success".

The first advice to the medical and scientific specialists of the changes within Hodge, Jones & Allen was received by one of them at the beginning of July 1999. It rapidly became clear that the new legal team did not understand what it was that the specialists were supposed to be doing. Instructions were confusing and contradictory; there was a failure to grasp simple science and a failure to understand that junior solicitors had neither the mandate nor the understanding to design medical investigations. No arrangements have been made for further essential control group studies which would give authority to the medical findings.

Of enormous concern is the fact that the medical data for the sheep dip cases were sent out to individual clients' lawyers in a corrupted form. The wrong medical results were attributed to the wrong clients. Raw medical data were sent to farmers themselves, without explanation and without medical or scientific

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approval. Until the Legal Aid Board was asked to intervene, solicitors took upon themselves medical decisions about whether experts could contact clients' physicians. The senior partner of Hodge, Jones & Allen threatened one of the orthopaedic experts.

The next development was that Mr Peter Bright of Wolferstans was instructed to hand over all his generic and individual sheep dip cases--some 500 cases in all--to Hodge, Jones & Allen without any satisfactory explanation.

In the middle of December 1999, Mr Augustus Ullstein, the QC who had been involved with these cases for five years or so, wrote to the senior partner, Mr Patrick Allen, asking what was happening. On 23rd December, Mr Allen informed Mr Ullstein that he was reviewing the whole team, and as he did not see eye to eye with Mr Ullstein he was dismissed from the case. His replacement, Mr Stephen Irwin, QC, was, I understand, totally unfamiliar with all that had occurred previously. Thus the entire working relationship and trust between the carefully chosen experts and counsel was destroyed at the whim of one man with no scientific understanding.

Since then there has been a lack of any consultation with clients or clients' solicitors. Everyone, from individual clients through to the experts, has been in the dark about what progress is being made. Rumour has it that the plaintiffs' evidence is to be simplified and that it is now intended that the valuable scientific evidence gathered so far will not be built upon or even used. If that is the case, I understand that the claimants will be liable for the cost of the work that has been funded by legal aid, said to be £900,000.

As I said, these two group actions are totally different from any previous actions. It is significant that, unlike other successful personal injury group actions that the lawyers cite in their curricula vitae, it would be extremely difficult to take the simplified route whereby the claimant is expected to show that on a particular day at a particular place he or she was exposed to a particular hazard that resulted in a specific harm to him or her. The sheep farmers and the Gulf veterans both recognise that it is essential that the science of causation is proven. Many of those who set out in the hope that they would see justice done are now totally disillusioned. With the passage of years they have seen no progress. What hope have they?

The involvement of government in both these actions is also significant. In the case of the sheep farmers, the Government are not one of the defendants, but the farmers were required, under successive sheep dipping orders issued between 1975 and 1992, to dip their sheep in approved chemicals that included organophosphates once or twice a year. Government were responsible for licensing the products.

I should like to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor one or two questions. What has been the total legal aid bill for all these cases so far and what is the projected expenditure? Does he believe that the taxpayer is getting value for money for the legal aid payments that have been made, particularly in view of

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the recent corruption of the work of the expert group? If he does, what is it that is of value? If he does not, does he share the concerns of the Gulf veterans and the sheep farmers that I have raised today? Does he have any proposals for restoring the momentum of these actions and getting them firmly back on the rails? Would he agree to a meeting with representatives of all the parties concerned if there is anything that is obscure and which could be cleared up?

Finally, the noble and learned Lord should know that I received a letter dated 3rd May 2000 from Mr Patrick Allen of Hodge, Jones & Allen. I found the contents of this letter disturbing in that they contained at least one thinly veiled threat. I am happy that the noble and learned Lord should see this letter and come to his own conclusion.

6.48 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, raises some important issues. In discussing the ongoing litigation, the first thing to establish is that all of us have at heart the interests of those who have been poisoned by organophosphates and those who are the victims of Gulf War illness.

I declare an interest both as a solicitor and as someone who formerly advised the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, an association for whose members, activities, expertise and commitment I have a high regard.

Like the noble Countess, my purpose is not to address the facts of the claims against the Ministry of Defence and the manufacturers of organophosphates but to look at the conduct of the legal actions, except in so far as they are subject to confidentiality or where they are sub judice. There are in fact some 300 to 1,000 potential claimants of Gulf War illness and some 30 to 60 potential claimants of organophosphate poisoning against a number of manufacturers. The latter cases--those dealing with organophosphate claims--are much more advanced than the Gulf War cases and it is expected that those cases will come to court perhaps within the next 18 months.

In discussing these facts and the cases it is important to note that they are funded under the legal aid regime applying before the Access to Justice Act was passed. As the noble Countess pointed out, there are not many precedents for this kind of case. There are vibration white finger cases, asbestosis cases, growth hormone CJD cases, haemophiliac cases and Opren MMR but not a large number of cases. They are the only ones that readily spring to mind as past and present examples of other group actions. These group actions are extremely complicated and require great skill in execution and a very large amount of medical and scientific investigation is required.

The Lord Chancellor and his department and the Legal Services Commission are to be congratulated on setting up a special multi-party contract unit in February of last year and a panel of some 18 or so law firms deemed qualified to act in this kind of case. In fact the number of firms on the list could, if anything,

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be tightened. What is clear, however, is that the multi-party action unit of the Legal Services Commission exercises very close oversight over cases such as those under discussion and as the multi-party contractual arrangements make very clear.

Proposals for research or medical investigations are looked at very carefully. If complaints about the conduct of a case are received, they are heard by representatives of the commission, formerly the Legal Aid Board, and if necessary they insist on a change in representation. That certainly has happened in these cases.

The law firm involved in the present case, Hodge Jones & Allen, is known to be highly competent as a personal injury law firm. It has worked closely with the Legal Services Commission and its predecessor, the Legal Aid Board, and is one of the few firms really well qualified to prosecute multi-party actions. Throughout the two actions in question the commission and the board have agreed on the investigations to be carried out and have granted legal aid to pay for it. Whether the commission will be able to recover those costs depends on the outcome of the action and the judge's ruling on costs at the end of the case.

I shall not attempt here a detailed rebuttal of what the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, but I can point to a number of areas where her account of matters is partial, to say the least. With regard to the relationship between the National Gulf War Veterans and Families Association and the senior partner of Hodge Jones & Allen, the senior partner of Hodge Jones & Allen addressed by invitation the annual meeting of the National Gulf War Veterans and Families Association on 25th March this year. I cannot say that that does not demonstrate a reasonably close relationship.

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