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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, as a Member of the House with no legal qualifications who has not been involved with the process, this seems to me a matter of simple common sense. I shall listen with great interest to what the Minister has to say if he does not accept the amendment's principle. The Law Society's case, which it put before many of your Lordships, was well made by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. It seems common sense to me.
My noble friend Lord Newton from his experience of the Council on Tribunals made it clear that often an appeal is more complicated and takes longer if there is no lawyer involved. To have a situation where a lawyer may not dare to take on the case or may not want to because it seems too much of a gamble is a great mistake.
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, we have considerable sympathy with the general approach of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, in the amendments that he proposes, without necessarily agreeing with the specific approach that he takes in each case.
I have already indicated that there is a plain dissonance between the test for review that the Government have now adopted in the first amendment of the day and the criteria for furnishing legal aid in circumstances where someone meets it. That is a profound and inexplicable irrationality that goes to the heart of the Government's legal aid proposals.
I should say at the outset that I am opposed to conditional fees altogether. I said so consistently during the debates in your Lordships' House on the Access to Justice Act 1999. However, the objections to conditional fees are even more firmly based with
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regard to public law; and, in particular, the human rights aspects of public law; and, especially, in asylum cases involving human rights issues.
There are a number of reasons for that, some of which have already been canvassed by noble Lords. The first is that the outcome in asylum cases is particularly difficult to predict because of the central role that the issue of credibility plays. Yet a high degree of accuracy of prediction is vital for the operation of a successful conditional fee system.
Secondly, in a conditional fee system, the client insures himself against losing a case so as to reimburse the solicitor for his expenses in the event of losing. An asylum seeker will be in no position to do that, but who will pay the insurance companies if they are not paid by the asylum seeker?
Perhaps the most fundamental objection of all is this: conditional fees are not appropriate to human rights cases, which require, as the judges have repeatedly reminded us in the High Court and above, the most anxious scrutiny. That, indeed, is the view taken to human rights issues with respect to every other public law matter in the country. In this respect, I find the Government's disposition particularly bewildering. They introduced the Human Rights Act to make Strasbourg remedies available in English law, in English courts; yet they are not now prepared to live up to these new responsibilities, which they imposed on themselves, by seeing them properly reflected in the legal aid system.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, in responding to amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I shall speakand not before timeto government Amendments Nos. 46A, 47A, 48B, 49A, 50A and 58A. In doing so, I shall also respond to Amendments Nos. 47, 48, 48A, 49 and 50.
Amendments Nos. 47, 48, 48A, 49 and 50 are concerned with the provisions for new legal aid arrangements for the review and reconsideration process. Essentially, we are considering how to craft a new system that allows cases in which there are good grounds for there being a fault of law by the AIT to be properly considered by the High Court. We are not trying to reopen the situation, which I hope the House recognises took place, in which a substantial number of judicial review cases were brought on asylum matters to the courts without substantial merits, with the predominant aim of gaining time so that the asylum applicant whose case had not been found to have merit could defer his removal from this country.
We should not fool ourselves: this is not the dilemma with which we in a liberal society are trying to grapple. We want applicants in whose cases an error of law has been made to have an opportunity for redress in the higher courts; we have listened to the House in that respect. However, we do not want to reopen a situation in which there is an incentive for the applicant to continue the case, since it is in his interest to string out the process for as long as he possibly can, as that will delay or perhaps even avoid the date when he can be removed. We want as well to avoid the
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situation in which the lawyer himself is incentivised to take cases without merit because he will suffer no pain as a consequence of doing so.
While there have been cases that should have gone to judicial reviewand it would be foolish of us not to recognise thatthere have been very many cases without merit taken to judicial review, with considerable cost to the taxpayer and delay to the system. That has created the impression known to traffickers and others that when they get here the legal system in Britainwhich is so goodmeans that they can string out their process and not be removed from the country. Therefore we are facing the question how we as a society, a Government and a House, can balance those two issues.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, considering the mechanisms that have been discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and particularly the fact that the LSC will now have the responsibility of determining whether a case has sufficient merit, the kinds of abuse that have occurred in the past will still continue if legal aid is provided?
Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, may have thought that I was concluding; I was not concluding but only beginning my response. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to address that point.
What we have done is to introduce an enabling power in new Section 103D to make regulations for a new legal aid scheme for the High Court review process and reconsideration by the tribunal. This will ensure that we focus legal aid on the most meritorious cases. Instead of the Legal Services Commission taking the funding decision, the power will be given to the judiciary to decide if legal aid should be paid in these proceedings. We are effectively asking lawyers to share the risk with the taxpayer when deciding whether an appellant should proceed with a review application. We believe that that will lead to lawyers giving a more rigorous examination to the prospects of a case succeeding. We recognise that good lawyers do that already, but that has not been universally the situation in our experience of asylum matters over recent years. This is not an attempt to remove those cases from the scope of legal aid, but a genuine drive to ensure that the focus of public funding is on deserving cases.
Amendments Nos. 47, 48, 48A, 49 and 50 would reverse that aim, and would mean that it would be easier to get legal aid for reconsideration proceedings than the original appeal, where the appellant would at least have to satisfy the merits test for legal aid applied by the Legal Services Commission.
As the Lord Chancellor said in Committee, the regulations constructed under the power will set out the detail of the scheme. Broadly speaking, we envisage that the tribunal will order legal aid to be paid in the following cases: in a case which has been successful and the original appeal decision has been reversed, or in a case which the judge has decided was
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a near miss, which was meritorious and could have succeeded but did not. In such a case it can decide that it is right that there is a payment.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for acknowledging that unmeritorious cases should not be publicly funded. A number of noble Lords who have spoken have been concerned about whether the provision might lead to lawyers ceasing to be prepared to take cases to the High Court in these circumstances. That is a perfectly proper and right question. The thrust is that if lawyers get paid only when they succeedand it is not perfectly possible to predict when they will succeed, for obvious reasonsthey will be under a strong disincentive to take cases.
For those reasonsand with no hint of feeling that that is anything other than properwe believe that a success fee should be paid and that it should be substantial. I shall not go into the exact arithmetic, because we have not come to a conclusion on that. What we want is a situation in which good immigration and asylum lawyers would know, in taking cases over a period of time, that if they exercise proper professional judgment in the interest of justice and their client
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I cannot see why the Legal Services Commission should not apply the usual standards which are applied in considering particular circumstances. After all, at the present time the Legal Services Commission determines whether the applicant, plaintiff or defendant has a good legal case, and it can refuse or acknowledge that the matter ought to proceed. What is the essential difference between that situation and the one that applies in cases at the present time?
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