Author Topic: [Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair] - Legal aid | Westminster Hall debates  (Read 2478 times)

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[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair] - Legal aid | Westminster Hall debates
14 December 2010, 11:14 am

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for truncating his remarks. I shall follow his example and be as brief as I can. I should declare an interest: I was a criminal legal aid barrister for nearly 20 years, and am still in receipt of some payments for work done before the election. However, my remarks today are centred on what other hon. Members have discussed in the context of the reduction of the ambit of civil legal aid: community legal service funding for work by a number of providers, including law centres. In Swindon, the Wiltshire law centre does excellent work and provides advice for people with debt, housing and welfare benefit problems. I shall not repeat the points that other hon. Members have made. They are right about the important saving that can be made by giving early advice and help to people on welfare benefits. My remarks are focused on the detail of the helpful table towards the back of the Green Paper.

I want to preface my remarks about the Green Paper by saying that I hope it will be the last such consultation for a considerable time. The Lord Chancellor was right to note with some despair that there have been more than 30 consultations about legal aid since 2006. It led to practitioners, including me, getting our heads in a spin, when it seemed that almost month by month the previous Government-or the Legal Services Commission, to be more precise, because that was of course an arm's length body, though it is now to come back into the Ministry of Justice-issued consultations on legal aid. We do not want permanent revolution. That has caused providers a lot of problems, and has led to some of the uncertainty about sources of work that the hon. Member for Islington North raised. The table at the back of the Green Paper is helpful, but in some cases it is unclear. I hope that the Government will take on board what is said today, and the written evidence that will be submitted by 14 February.

I want first to discuss family legal aid and what is called the domestic violence test. There is no unified definition of what is meant by "domestic violence". Some might say that they know it when they see it, but questions arise about what the term means. Does it just mean physical violence where there is injury? I submit that that would be far too narrow a test. Does it just involve violence between spouses or partners, or does it include violence against children of the family, or in their presence? All those questions need to be answered. I have dealt with domestic violence cases for many years, and they take many forms. It is not just a question of physical violence. Often there is a course of conduct involving a mental process and psychological damage to a partner. I should like clarity about the meaning of the term "domestic violence" by the time the White Paper is issued.

To deal briefly with education, I noted with concern the suggestion that all education cases would be taken out of scope. We must not ignore the fact that soon the Department for Education will produce its own Green Paper on special educational needs. I know that Ministers intend to look carefully at reform of the current system of tribunals, and the adversarial system that is so often a barrier to parents and children with special educational needs. That is welcome news, and I hope that the Green Paper will contain a commitment to radical reform of the system, so that parents do not feel they must always fight for their children's rights with respect to special educational needs. However, if that is not what happens, and the Government do not intend to reform the system for SEN provision, legal representation should not be taken out of scope-particularly at the upper tier tribunal level, where there is a lot of law and there are a lot of lawyers; that is a daunting prospect for any parent of a child with SEN.

The matter of clinical negligence in this context is often overlooked. There will be some cases of great complexity, such as where several different causes have led to the condition of the litigant-who will often be very vulnerable and ill, even at the time of litigation. That requires a large amount of work and costly medical expert evidence. It would be a brave set of solicitors that took on cases of such complexity on a no win, no fee basis. I ask that at the margins that aspect of the Green Paper be looked at carefully.

I end on this note: a lot has been said about legal help and representation for debt matters where someone's home is at immediate risk. I simply ask, what does that mean? Does it mean immediate risk when possession proceedings have been commenced? Does it mean immediate risk at an earlier stage, when perhaps the householder has had a set of letters relating to unpaid debt and is, therefore, greatly concerned? There are a lot of words used, but frankly not carefully enough. I accept that this is Green Paper stage, but I ask for much more clarity when it comes to assessing the precise ambit of scope. As a former member of a funding review committee for the Legal Services Commission, I can say that these criteria are applied very carefully indeed. They have to be right.

Often for a practitioner, such as those who work in the Wiltshire law centre, a case will present itself, which at first blush will appear to be one type of problem, but will transmogrify into another, or a whole different range of problems. Therefore, questions of scope are not just academic; they are very important for solicitors and practitioners when assessing whether cases will come within or without the scope of legal aid. I urge the Minister to take on board hon. Members' comments today, and to ask his colleagues to look carefully at the ambit of these proposals and to refine them in a way that helps not only litigators and solicitors, but, most important, those in greatest need.

Source: Robert Buckland's recent appearances (TheyWorkForYou)