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Legal Aid

34. Mr. Yeo: What recent representations he has received regarding the availability of legal aid. [13461]

Mr. Hoon: I regularly receive representations from right hon. and hon. Members and the public about the availability of legal aid. Since my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor's announcement on 18 October about the changes we propose to the rules on availability of legal aid for money claims, my officials have met the chairman of the Bar, the president of the Law Society, insurers and other professional and consumer interest groups.

Mr. Yeo: As the Government's proposals are likely to result in a substantial increase in business for the insurance industry, will the Minister tell the House with which insurance companies he has had discussions about those proposals and how many of them were financial contributors to the Labour party?

Mr. Hoon: A number of discussions have taken place with a variety of insurance companies. We are interested in ensuring the widest possible availability of insurance at the best possible price for the users.

Mr. Kidney: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the legal profession has made recent representations in favour

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of a conditional legal aid fund rather than the Lord Chancellor's preferred option of conditional fees arrangements? Will he confirm that the crucial difference is that a legal aid fund would pay for disbursements in a case along the way, such as court fees and expert fees, much more than the insurance premium mentioned under the conditional fees arrangement? Does my hon. Friend agree that many poor litigants would be unable to find those sums of money to fund their cases in the future?

Mr. Hoon: These are matters on which we are consulting. We are receiving representations from the Bar and the Law Society, as well as the views of insurance companies, on the affordability of the proposals. We will take all those matters into account to ensure that no one is unfairly excluded from the courts.

Mr. Burnett: When the Minister was in private practice and he first scrutinised the papers of a case and considered its merits, did he ever advise a client--other than those involved in personal injuries case--that he had a better than 75 per cent. chance of success?

Mr. Hoon: Of course, in those days I was not required to make such an assessment of a case; therefore, I never did. However, if the hon. Gentleman is referring to the proposal made by my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor that a case should attract a 75 per cent. chance of success before it should be granted legal aid, I can say only that it has been necessary to reach that test because of the failure of lawyers, over a long period, to satisfy adequately the existing test, which is essentially a 50 per cent. chance of success. We firmly believe that there is absolutely no reason why the taxpayer should have to support litigation that someone would not take forward privately.

Ms Abbott: Is my hon. Friend aware of the widespread concern about Government proposals on changes to legal aid, especially about whether poorer litigants will be able to afford the up-front costs of insurance and various medical fees for reports in medical negligence cases? Recent remarks by my hon. Friend seem to suggest that he thinks that solicitors will simply absorb those costs, but is that likely, given that many practices are not in a position to cross-subsidise legal aid or contingency work with lucrative private work?

Mr. Hoon: I have said that one of the solutions to the problem which my hon. Friend set out is that lawyers themselves could absorb those up-front costs. Most lawyers are in private practice and most businesses are required to expend a certain amount of capital--in this context, we are talking about time and some disbursements--before being able to achieve a return on their investment. I have suggested that that is one of the options, although, as I have already said, there are clearly others available.

Mr. Garnier: The Labour party policy document "Access to Justice", which was published just before the election, stated that conditional fees were not expected to make a significant improvement to access to justice and that they were little more than a gimmick designed to mask the state of the legal aid scheme. Was the Labour party wrong then, or is the Minister wrong now?

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Mr. Hoon: We have had the benefit of academic research into the use of conditional fees. That research demonstrates that, in the approximately 28,000 cases so far agreed under conditional fees, there has been a remarkable success rate. We are happy to base our policy on the results of that academic research.

Magistrates Courts

35. Mr. Barry Jones: If he will make a statement on progress in respect of the rationalisation of the magistrates courts. [13462]

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend will be aware that, on 29 October, I made a statement to the House setting out in some detail the Government's plans for the future structure of the magistrates courts service.

Mr. Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that closures can be very controversial and sometimes very injurious to local communities? Does he understand that long distances can be involved, that taxis are expensive and that bus services are sometimes hopelessly unreliable? Would he be prepared to meet a group of magistrates to discuss such matters?

Mr. Hoon: I would certainly be willing to discuss such questions with any group of magistrates whom my hon. Friend cared to bring to the Department.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I wholly endorse what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) just said. Is the Minister aware that the Gloucestershire magistrates courts committee is consulting on the closure of Stow-on-the-Wold magistrates court? That so-called consultation is not an open exercise; it consists of consultation among the staff of the various magistrates courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and other officials, but it does not involve members of the public. Will the Minister urgently investigate that situation? Surely it is the public who use the justice system of this country and who will be inconvenienced by the closure of the court who ought to be consulted first, and not afterwards.

Mr. Hoon: I should be delighted to ensure that those local questions are thoroughly investigated, but I emphasise that they are local matters for decision by local magistrates courts committees. The matter only reaches the desk of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor in the event of the local paying authority appealing against the decision made locally by the magistrates courts committee.

Mr. Ainger: Is my hon. Friend aware that that was the policy followed under the previous Administration? In my present constituency and my previous constituency, under the previous Administration more than 75 per cent. of our magistrates courts closed, but, at the same time, we saw no improvement whatsoever in the quality of those magistrates courts that remained. Will my hon. Friend give me and the House an assurance that, under his policy, while there will be rationalisation of magistrates courts, there will also be an improvement in existing magistrates courts to serve the best interests not only of the accused, but of victims and witnesses?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. I mentioned in the statement to which I recently referred

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that it was important that we streamlined and integrated the functions of the various agencies responsible for our criminal justice system. I anticipate, in the light of the statement that I made to the House, that that will be achieved.

Accommodation (Palace of Westminster)

36. Mr. Gerald Howarth: If he will report on progress in the refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor's accommodation within the Palace of Westminster, indicating the latest estimated cost. [13463]

Mr. Hoon: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his concern about the need to refurbish my 9 by 4 office in the House of Commons--hitherto, he has not been noted for his concern for the welfare of Labour Members of Parliament. I am, however, delighted to discover that he is now participating in the art of constructive, helpful opposition.

For the sake of completeness, I should mention also that it has been suggested to me that this question is the product not of kindness but of incompetence, and that the hon. Gentleman is actually referring to the official residence provided by the House authorities to the Lord Chancellor. If that is so, I can assure him that the refurbishment has commenced and is expected to be substantially completed by January next year. The estimated cost remains at £650,000.

Mr. Howarth: That is a most offensive answer. We know that old Labour still survives on the Government Benches; that cavalier attitude to £650,000 of public expenditure on the Lord Chancellor's accommodation betrays that fact.

My question on the Order Paper relates not to the Minister's accommodation but to the Lord Chancellor's--

Mr. Hoon rose--

Mr. Howarth: I have not finished yet. Given that the Minister's right hon. and noble Friend wishes to dispense with the traditional attire of his office and to hand over power to the judges, perhaps the only sense in which the Lord Chancellor remains traditional is that, like all socialists, he is anxious to spend as much of other people's money as he possibly can.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman got his question wrong the first time. He will know that the Lord Chancellor is the Speaker of the House of Lords, and the official residence is provided for his use in precisely the same way as Speaker's House is provided for the Speaker of this House. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that both Departments should be properly conserved as part of the historic building programme undertaken over a 10-year period by the House authorities. Speaker's House has been maintained to a high standard, in keeping with the conservation policy, and the Lord Chancellor's official residence should match that standard.

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