Draft Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission and the Draft Legal Aid and Assistance

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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): What would be the total cost to public funds?

Mr. Lock: It is likely to be minimal as few applications are anticipated. The amendment is the result of the codification of the Terrorism Act 2000, which has been on the statute book for a considerable time. Any cost will depend partly on whether external circumstances change to increase the terrorism threat. Hon. Members may be guided by the fact that there were three applications in 1999 to Home Office Ministers for an extension to detention in England and Wales. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, those applications were made not to a judge, but to a Home Office Minister.

The effect of the Terrorism Act is to re-assign jurisdiction from the Executive to the judiciary since maintaining a person in detention is a judicial act. In the nearest equivalent example, therefore, the measure was used three times—in effect, for three bail applications.

5.03 pm

Mr. Hawkins: Once again, Mr. Welsh, I welcome you to your continued chairmanship of our proceedings.

I was going to raise the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) just raised. It was interesting to hear the Minister's answer, but I have a further question for him. Although applications of a similar nature were previously made under the earlier prevention of terrorism legislation, at a time when the terrorist threat was higher, was it the case that the number of applications was rather larger? Under former legal aid legislation, was legal aid extended prior to a person being charged, or is the order creating a further burden on the public purse that arises from incorporation of the Human Rights Act 1998?

The Minister is wise to say that although few applications are expected and the costs to public funds would be minimal if the terrorist threat remained low, he cannot know whether that will be so. Sadly, the terrorist threat was much greater not so many years ago, and that could happen again. We must therefore be careful about the potential cost. Once again, the law-abiding public may feel that too much effort is being expended on ensuring that the rights of terrorists—in this case, alleged terrorists—are looked after. The terrorists, themselves, are not remotely worried about the legal rights of the victims of terrorist outrages. Whenever legislation such as this comes before the House, it is important to remember that many of those who view our proceedings are surprised that so much attention is lavished on the human rights of terrorists or alleged terrorist and so little attention paid to victims.

I shall always express that concern when debating terrorism and legal aid matters, but the House has a duty, too, to ensure that everyone's human rights are protected. We must remember that not every alleged terrorist is convicted. A proper system must include safeguards to avoid miscarriages of justice. That is why the Opposition have raised those concerns. None the less, I do not intend to oppose the changes, although I hope that they will not be used often. However, concern will remain about the threat of vast increases in the cost to public funds.

5.6 pm

Mr. Burnett: I am glad to see that you are still with us, Mr. Welsh.

I agree with the Minister and with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. The system must include safeguards because of the miscarriages of justice that we have seen. The Minister was right to say that individuals should have the right to legal representation at hearings involving the possibility of detention. He spoke about two possibilities for legal representation—first by a quality assured solicitor of the accused's choice or, secondly, by a quality assured duty solicitor. I am not too hot on the jargon, but I presume that ``quality assured'' means franchised and contracted. The solicitor will presumably invariably be an independent solicitor and will not be likely to be a member of the putative Criminal Defence Service.

I would appreciate answers to those points. In all other respects, we support the statutory instrument.

5.7 pm

Mr. Campbell-Savours: I do not know much about the law and I do not want to speak for long. However, I shall use the instrument as a peg to raise the question of legal aid arrangements, and who pays the bill. The other night over dinner, I was discussing with a friend a newspaper article, which my office has sent to the Minister. It was about a Mr. Noye, who was involved in some criminal activity in London. Although his legal services bill was paid by the state, it was subsequently discovered that he was a person of some means. I am told that departmental officials were disciplined for not making a full investigation of Mr. Noye's assets, which is my interest in the subject.

Although the new rules may not involve many cases, I wonder how effective investigations are into the assets of those who seek legal advice. We do not hear much about it. My hon. Friend the Minister, who has great knowledge of such matters, could provide us with further information today. What sums of money are involved? My hon. Friend says that they might vary, but does he mean between £1 and £20, or between £500 and £20,000? Perhaps it depends on what the lawyer has to do, or who he has to hire to enable him to carry out all his required tasks. We need a little advice and illumination from my hon. Friend on how effective those investigations are. Indeed, one may be dealing with criminals—terrorists, obviously, are criminals—who may have substantial assets. Despite the Minister's assertion that one in 10 cases may be won by the Crown and nine lost, why, if there is a successful prosecution, could a judge not decide that the person involved be required to make a contribution towards the fee that would otherwise be paid by the state and the taxpayer.

Mr. Chope: I was intrigued by the Minister's response to my intervention, because he said that there had been an equivalent of about three bail applications in 1999, and that the total cost would be about that, implying that bail applications are inexpensive and should normally be available to most people without the benefit of legal aid. Indeed, it is my understanding that it is unusual to be able to get legal aid for any bail application, yet the Minister proposes that there should be legal aid for bail applications in those particular circumstances.

Perhaps the Minister can give us more figures on the cost of those three bail applications in 1999, because resources are being removed from other parts of the legal aid system. The Minister will know that as a result of changes that have already been introduced by the Government, a person cannot afford to start legal proceedings if he is on income support. I cite the case of a constituent of mine who owns a piece of land. His neighbour, knowing that my constituent was on income support, encroached upon his property, took down his fencing and sought redress in the courts. My constituent went to the police who confirmed that there had been prima facie criminal damage, but told him that a dispute over ownership of land was a civil dispute. My constituent sought seek legal aid, as it was quite clear from the deeds of his property that there was indeed an encroachment on his land, but cannot afford to start legal proceedings because he is on legal aid.

Someone in that situation is being deprived by the Government of the benefit of assistance from public funds for a court case, yet we have heard the Minister happily saying that in those circumstances, bail applications are to be eligible for legal aid. I hope that he can give us further indications on whether there will be a tight limit on the amount of money available for any bail application. If the matter is worth producing a draft statutory instrument, it must involve more significant sums of money than the Minister has so far declared.

5.12 pm

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): I am sorry to introduce a note of discontent into our proceedings. However, it pays to remember that people who are arrested as alleged terrorists already suffer a lack of legal and civil rights. They are only alleged to be terrorists until they are proven guilty. I certainly do not see cost or convenience should affect their treatment in any way. Several years ago, I twice had personal experience of meeting people who were treated so abysmally under the pretext of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that I determined never to vote for such an act. Since then, I never have done so.

That is not to say that I support terrorists, but let us not forget that when someone is charged with being an alleged terrorist, there is already a considerable deficit in their rights, without in any way trying to curtail their rights further.

5.14 pm

Mr. Lock: I shall deal first with the valuable point made by my hon. Friend for North Sunderland (Mr Etherington). It is a principle in this country that a person is innocent until proven guilty. It is an utter disregard of the rights of citizens to object to people, who have been arrested and not yet charged either exercising their rights or having access to the money necessary to exercise those rights on the basis that it is an inappropriate use of public resources. Yet that has been the import of a number of contributions to this brief debate. It is quite right that we should be very hard on anyone who is charged and then subsequently convicted. But we should be jealous to guard the rights of those people who not only have not even been charged—only arrested—and all that is being asked by the police is further time to question. It is important for that reason that they receive legal representation, and I take the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Regarding the points raised by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman quite understands that old system was Executive fiat. An an application on paper went to the Minister. There was no hearing, therefore, for which legal aid could be granted. The answer to his question—how much each hearing cost—is that there were no hearings. The hon. Gentleman also asked what rate would be paid, and the answer is that the lawyers will be paid at the standard legal aid rate for undertaking the work. I cannot provide precise figures but we can provide hourly rates: my recollection is that they are between £50 and £70 per hour—the standard published rates. If the hon. Member would care to refer to the ``Legal Aid Handbook'', which the excellent Library of the House of Commons can provide, he can inspect those rates for himself.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon asked two questions. First, he asked what quality assurance meant. It means that a solicitor's firms has passed the franchise and received a contract. Secondly, he asked whether that solicitor would be a member of the Criminal Defence Service, and the answer is yes because the CDS covers the 3,500 solicitors' firms that have contracts and the six pilot salary defence services. The Access to Justice Act 1999 provides that a defendant—in the cases covered by the order and in all others—with the right to choose a salary lawyer or a non-salary lawyer. It is not right to suggest that those lawyers who work on a salaried basis, like doctors who work for the state on a salaried basis, will provide any lesser quality of service to those who require their important professional services.

 
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