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LORD CHANCELLOR'S DEPARTMENT

Legal Aid

27. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what representations he has received about the categories of recipients of legal aid; and if he will make a statement.[28787]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. Jonathan Evans): I have received many representations recently at local level.

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Mr. Greenway: Is my hon. Friend aware of the case of a young Old Etonian who obtained legal aid to challenge the terms of his great uncle's £50 million will, only to lose the action? Is he aware also of other cases where poor people cannot obtain legal aid? Sometimes, people obtain legal aid to bring actions against those who cannot afford to proceed as a result of the other side having unlimited legal aid. Does not the system require examination? What are the Government doing to achieve that?

Mr. Evans: I cannot comment on individual decisions, but I can comment on general policy. A means test operates in the grant of legal aid, and that should apply in each case. Cases are drawn to the attention of the Government from time to time of people who are apparently wealthy being granted legal aid. Against that background, I replied some months ago to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall). I stated that the Government had decided to bring forward specific measures to deal with the difficulties to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) referred. Regulations will come into force on 1 June.

Mr. Skinner: How can the Government justify handing out large sums to seemingly wealthy people such as the Maxwells and various others who have been involved in fraud on a massive scale, whereas a young lad in my constituency, Neil Edwards, who went to work for a fellow who had a sawmill at Clumber park near Worksop--the employer was not insured and young Neil lost a number of fingers and tried to claim benefit as a result of disablement--was refused legal aid on the basis that his employer had not been properly insured for himself or those who worked for him? Those who represented the legal aid scheme said that there was no guarantee that they could get any money out of the employer, even though he had been a small business man for several years. It is a scandal that a young lad can lose fingers yet receive no legal aid while big nobs can get as much as they like.

Mr. Evans: It is essential that individual decisions on the granting of legal aid are seen to be free of both Government and political interference. There is, therefore, a set means test, which applies to all cases, that it is administered by the Legal Aid Board. The hon. Gentleman is referring to two other tests administered by the board--the test of the legal merits of individual cases and the reasonableness test. Those tests also must be seen to be free of Government and political interference.

Census Returns

28. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what plans he has to make the census returns available to searchers at a central London location following the closure of the Chancery lane public record office.[28788]

Mr. Jonathan Evans: The Public Record Office is negotiating an alternative central London location at which it will make the census returns available to searchers, following the closure of its Chancery lane building.

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Mr. Lidington: Despite the welcome investment by the Government in new buildings and information technology at the PRO at Kew, which I had the privilege of visiting this morning, may I impress on my hon. Friend the fact that many thousands of people use the census return search rooms at Chancery lane each year and that it is of great importance to them that the Government treat the need for an alternative search centre with urgency and provide it as soon as the Chancery lane office closes?

Mr. Evans: I am pleased that my hon. Friend was impressed by the facilities that he saw at Kew. Most of the people who have had the opportunity to view the facilities share his enthusiasm for them. He is right that the census returns from 1841 to 1891 attract much public interest and, in 1994-95, some 80,000 individual reader visits were paid to the central London location of the Public Record Office. The Government are determined to ensure that an alternative central London location is made available to enable people to continue to have access to records.

Legal Aid

29. Mr. Steen: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department what is his policy in providing legal aid in matrimonial cases when one party is domiciled outside the EC.[28789]

Mr. Jonathan Evans: The same statutory tests of means and merits apply to all legal aid applicants, regardless of domicile. Provided that an applicant meets those tests, legal aid is available for most matrimonial proceedings, other than most undefended divorce petitions conducted before the courts of England and Wales.

Mr. Steen: What can be the justification for offering legal aid to fathers who abandon their wives and children and go abroad, having never given their children or wives a penny piece in maintenance? Those fathers not only demand legal aid, but receive it wherever they live in the world. Our taxpayers are paying for fathers who have abandoned, and refuse to look after, their wives and children. Does my hon. Friend support that?

Mr. Evans: The general view that has been taken is that, if tests of means, legal merits and reasonableness are satisfied, legal aid should be available for proceedings before our courts. As part of the review of legal aid for the apparently wealthy, the Lord Chancellor considered issues such as the nationality of applicants. On that occasion, the majority of responses received by the Lord Chancellor asked for the system to remain as it is, which is why he announced last year that the structure would remain unchanged.

Mr. Olner: The Lord Chancellor must know that, in cases such as that which the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has just raised, legal aid is available for anyone who comes here and invokes The Hague convention, especially in cases of child abduction. Legal aid is not available for our citizens when they go abroad for the same purpose. It is time that the Government looked into that important area of equality.

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Mr. Evans: I have said that the issue of nationality has been examined, but the question that the hon. Gentleman raises turns on the availability of legal aid in other jurisdictions. Some legal aid is available through some countries, but I share his concern about the specific cases that he has raised with me in meetings recently. If we are able to assist, the hon. Gentleman knows that my door is open and that I shall endeavour to be of assistance.

Mr. John Marshall: My hon. Friend will be aware that, in the recent Sony case, legal aid of £500,000 was given to a German who had paid no taxes in this country. Is not it scandalous that individuals who live abroad, pay no United Kingdom taxes and never intend to pay any United Kingdom taxes should be eligible for legal aid in this country?

Mr. Evans: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns but, as I have said, the matter was the subject of a review by the Lord Chancellor last year, and the vast majority of respondents felt that legal aid should continue to be available. However, as my hon. Friend well knows, I share his concern about the wider issue--the availability of legal aid to people who appear to be wealthy, and appear to be beyond the means test. The changes that will begin to operate on 1 June will, I think, prove helpful in the effort to deal with some of the cases that have come to public attention.

Trials

30. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department if he will review (a) the wearing of wigs and (b) the use of the dock in trials.[28791]

Mr. Jonathan Evans: The wearing of wigs in trials was considered through consultation papers in 1992 and 1994. The use of the dock in trials was considered by the royal commission on criminal justice in 1993. I have no plans to order a further review of either issue.

Mr. Mackinlay: Is the Minister aware that the wearing of wigs in court, particularly by judges, not only makes judges look ridiculous but intimidates the accused? Is it not time that we ceased to take the advice of the judiciary in this regard? Should not common sense prevail? Should we not at least give people the option of not wearing absurd Jacobean garb?

As for the use of the dock, the person in the dock feels intimidated and that the case is prejudicial. In a modern society and judicial system, an accused person who has not been found guilty should not feel intimidated and isolated. Is that not prejudicial to good justice?

Mr. Evans: I note the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the wearing of wigs in court, but--

Mr. Mackinlay: Madam Speaker does not wear a wig.

Mr. Evans: Indeed, but I shall not be drawn into that line of argument.

In August 1992, the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice issued a joint consultation paper on the issue. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's view is

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shared by a limited number of people: the vast majority of respondents felt that court dress should remain the same.

As for the wider issue of the use of the dock, the royal commission on criminal justice considered it in 1993--

Mr. Mackinlay: All lawyers.

Mr. Evans: With respect, the commission considered the issue in the context of the security of the courtroom. Its decision not to do away with the dock was based on concerns about security--not only keeping the prisoner in secure conditions, but in terms of the prisoner's protection in the court.

Mr. Ashby: Is my hon. Friend aware that, during the consultation by the Bar Council that he mentioned, defendants were consulted, and said almost to a man that they wanted their briefs to be properly tarted up for their day in court?

Mr. Evans: I bow to my hon. Friend's greater knowledge of these matters.

Mr. Alex Carlile: Is this follicularly challenged Minister aware that many of us, who have worn wigs in court for many years and seen our fine shocks of hair diminished by their wearing properties, would gladly get rid of them? Will he bear it in mind, however, that, as has just been said, convicted prisoners--those who have been found guilty despite being defended by the bewigged--still feel that they are represented better by someone in a wig than by a bald man without a wig?

Mr. Evans: During my time in practice in the magistrates courts of south Wales, no such observation was made to me.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my hon. Friend use the time that he is wisely not going to waste on this issue to pursue the earlier issue of legal aid? We are not at all satisfied with the answers that we have received this afternoon.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend may be aware that the Lord Chancellor has been engaged in wide-ranging consultations about the future structure of legal aid. I reassure my hon. Friend that the Lord Chancellor intends shortly to announce in the Green Paper "Targeting Need" his proposals for taking forward the arrangements that were the subject of consultation.

Mr. Boateng: If barristers are to continue to be allowed to wear wigs in court, does the Minister think it fair that solicitor advocates should enjoy the same, perhaps rather dubious, privilege?

Mr. Evans: I do not know whether that question is asked on the basis of the hon. Gentleman's personal experience--he has chosen to leave the solicitors' profession and to join the Bar. The use of wigs by solicitor advocates was considered in 1994, and the general judgment was that there should be no compulsion on solicitors to wear them.

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EUROPEAN COMMUNITY DOCUMENTS

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees),


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