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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I rise briefly to reinforce the statement made by the Minister. The consultation over provision of money to palliative care services has been extremely extensive and has tried to involve health care professionals in all walks of palliative care services. For that we are all grateful.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that comment. In conclusion, I believe that the Bill commands general support. It will help the National Assembly to make significant changes to the organisation of the health service in Wales.

On Question, Bill read a second time.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be committed to a Grand Committee.

On Question, Bill committed to a Grand Committee.

Access to Justice (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

1.6 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th December 2002 be approved.

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order is an important instrument for the people of Northern Ireland. It provides for the reform of the administration and provision of publicly-funded legal services in Northern Ireland.

The order before the House has been the subject of detailed consultation and scrutiny. A Green Paper, Public Benefit and the Public Purse, was published for consultation in June 1999. That was followed in September 2000 by the publication of a White Paper, The Way Ahead. The decisions in the White Paper were the subject of an examination by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in April 2001.

In May 2002 the Government published for consultation the proposal for a draft Access to Justice (Northern Ireland) Order. The formal consultation period on the proposal closed in July 2002. As part of our consultation we had the benefit of a report from the Northern Ireland Assembly and a debate in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. Our proposal to establish the legal services commission in Northern Ireland has been generally welcomed by consultees.

The order contains three key themes of reform which merit specific comment: first, the establishment of a new body to administer publicly-funded legal services; secondly, measures to take control of expenditure on publicly-funded legal services; and, thirdly, the establishment of a registration scheme and codes of practice to demonstrate that legal services purchased at public expense are of an appropriate standard and quality.

Article 3 of the order establishes a new administrative body, the Northern Ireland legal services commission. That is at the heart of reform of publicly-funded legal services. The order does not create an additional body; instead, it transfers statutory responsibility for the administration of legal services from the legal aid committee and legal aid department of the Law Society to the new commission. That proposal, widely welcomed, removes any perception of a conflict of interest from the Law Society and provides a modern basis for the administration of legal services.

There will be a chair and between six and 10 other members of the commission. All will be appointed by open competition. Members of the commission will bring a breadth of experience and knowledge to the whole spectrum of the commission's responsibilities, including judgment on obtaining value for money, the quality of services provided and an independent view of how best to provide legal services to the people of Northern Ireland.

The commission will be an executive non-departmental public body. It will be arm's length from government and will be responsible for important research and analysis regarding people's need for publicly funded legal services. That analysis will inform decisions on how services can be provided under the order.

The second issue that I mentioned was taking control of the costs of providing legal services. The year-on-year increases in publicly funded legal

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services in Northern Ireland are unsustainable. Expenditure has risen from 12.19 million in 1990–91 to 41.53 million in 2001–02—an increase in real terms of 149 per cent.

The Government's primary focus is not on cutting expenditure but on targeting expenditure on priority cases. The order addresses the issue by introducing the concept of allocated funds for the provision of publicly funded legal services, which the commission will manage. Legal service providers will be remunerated from these funds by payments on a per case basis of all-inclusive standard fees. Article 47 of the order provides for remuneration orders to be made. There will be provision for exceptional cases to be remunerated outside the proposed standard fee structure, although we envisage that the vast majority of legal issues bought at public expense will be remunerated by reference to standard and graduated fees. The first area of work to be remunerated under the new standard fees will be criminal cases. The commission will advise on the future work programme after that.

By taking control of the rate of increase in expenditure we will be in a position to target expenditure on the most deserving cases, which bring the greatest benefits to individuals. That will involve establishing priorities for the delivery of legal services. To ensure that funding is targeted at priority areas, a funding code will be established that will set out the criteria to be applied when determining whether civil legal services should be provided in a particular case.

The final issue I shall address is the development of formal procedures to demonstrate the standard of services provided. Article 36 addresses that by providing for the development of a registration scheme and codes of practice. Consultees argued for that approach at an early stage. The order provides a distinctive solution that is appropriate to the legal services' culture in Northern Ireland, but which has no equivalent in England.

Registration with the commission will be a prerequisite for any individual or organisation wishing to provide publicly funded legal services. Firms and individuals registered with the commission must also undertake to comply with a code of conduct. Compliance with the code will be monitored. Failure to comply with it will result in a range of sanctions, including removal from the register.

In conclusion, I want to assure the House that the order will bring significant benefits to the people of Northern Ireland. It will deliver a modern, transparent publicly funded system of legal services, which is flexible and takes account of local factors in Northern Ireland.

Our immediate priorities are the establishment of the commission and the introduction of standard fees for criminal cases in this calendar year. We will then work with the commission in order to refine the detail of our implementation plan. Our approach will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. We have consistently stated that it would be neither appropriate nor desirable to implement all the proposed reforms to

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publicly funded legal services at one time. That is consistent with the clear message given to us by those who were consulted. Reform of civil and criminal services will be taken forward once the commission is established and is well placed to begin detailed research and consultation. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 19th December 2002 be approved.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

1.15 p.m.

Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the draft order to the House. Although I have some questions and perhaps the odd criticism, we, on this side of the House, welcome it.

Perhaps it is worth reflecting, as was done in another place, on whether this is the right forum for such an important piece of legislation. The honourable Member, Lady Hermon, strongly stated her views on it in another place in Committee and at Third Reading. I realise that the matter is still a reserved power so, unfortunately, this legislation could not have passed through the Assembly, but it was certainly felt by Lady Hermon that insufficient consultation had taken place within the Assembly.

While from the Opposition Benches we are doing our best to examine this legislation and to challenge the relevant parts, it is regrettable that only one member of the Northern Ireland parties is present today. It is also regrettable that we do not have any Members of the SDLP and the other parties in this House. That matter gets highlighted in situations such as today's.

This legislation sets up yet another Northern Ireland institution. We have too many of them, but, I have every sympathy with the Government for so managing the situation. This commission is probably the best way to carry out, and to take future responsibility for, the reform of legal aid in the Province. I should like to hear more from the Minister about the selection and appointment of that commission, both as to the commissioners themselves and its staffing.

The legislation states that it will be "representative of the community". We should not debate that matter again today. We have done so many times and I am sure that the Minister and Members of your Lordships' House are as familiar with the subject as I am. But it is important because this is not the kind of commission to which any group of—if I can use the word—"ordinary" people can be appointed. It requires specific skills and knowledge because certain judgments need to be made, in particular as to what cases should or should not receive legal aid. Therefore, I feel that some expertise is necessary.

My second point is that the size of the commission appears to be small. The Minister in another place suggested that the workload will not be that great—perhaps two or three days a week once it settles down. But quangos are quangos. I remember my own experience of being asked to be a member of the Millennium Commission. When I asked the official who sounded me out about the workload that would

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be required, he said, "Oh, probably one lunchtime for a month or two". It actually took something like three full days a week for quite a long time. That is what can happen with these types of new commission when they are first set up. I just point out to the Government—and hope that sufficient note will be taken of it—the workload that will be required of the commission and the commissioners in particular in its early stages.

I also wonder whether the commissioners will be remunerated and how and at what levels. I note, as the Minister pointed out, the significant increase in the cost of legal aid over the past 12 years. I also note, which I do not think he pointed out, that despite that 149 per cent increase in cost, there was no noticeable increase in the number of people aided. I sincerely hope that that will change; that more people will enter the net and that it will all be managed considerably better.

Can the Minister say how much he expects the budgeted running costs of the commission to be? How many people will it employ? And, what will be the total estimated cost, including the legal aid package awarded for 2002–03, bearing in mind that the figure for 2002 is 41.53 million, which was the top end of the 149 per cent increase? Where will the Government start their budgeting? That will give us a good idea of the scope that the commission will be able to cover. It may be asking too much, but, the person carrying out the budgeting, or who has carried it out, should have estimated or assessed how many cases in the Province will need legal aid.

I was slightly concerned and did not fully understand the point that the right honourable Member Lady Sylvia Hermon made about flexibility for different forms of remuneration in different parts of the Province. I am fairly satisfied on that, but I should be grateful if the Minister could give me more information on why flexibility is needed. In principle, we support the order.

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