Access to Justice (Northern Ireland)

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The Chairman: Before I call the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), I advise hon. Members of two things. First, there is no injury time, so we shall still finish at 4.30 pm. Secondly, there must be nine members of the Committee before me, not including the Minister or the Whip. We are extremely close to the quorum at the moment.

3.26 pm

Mr. John Taylor: I am grateful to you, Mr. McWilliam, and welcome you to the Chair. You have occupied that Chair on many occasions with your usual authority and pleasant good order. I believe that the Minister is a debutant before this Committee, and I therefore welcome her, too.

I am aware of your advice about time, Mr. McWilliam. As I look at the Clock, it occurs to me that there is scarcely more than an hour to go. I do not want to trespass on eternity; my views and those of my party are, in my estimation, of less value to the Committee and the Minister than those of the people who live in the Province or represent it—or do both, as is the case for four hon. Members present. In some senses, I defer to those hon. Members' views. They, their constituents and the professionals in their community have to operate the systems that we are discussing, so we should pay good attention to what such hon. Members say.

As I said earlier, I do not speak for the Law Society of Northern Ireland. I could not presume to do so; I am not a member of it. However, the members of that professional body practise the system day in, day out, in offices, law courts and—from time to time—penal establishments. I trust, in the name of fair play, that the views of the Law Society of Northern Ireland, for which I carry no brief, will be weighed and given the value that is their due. Its members are daily practitioners of the regime that the Lord Chancellor's Department is extending to Northern Ireland.

I should perhaps declare what may be an interest. It probably is not, but it is better said than left unsaid. I was a practising solicitor. I am now non-practising; I went straight about 14 years ago, and have not touched the law since. There is quite a good chance

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of my making a total recovery. That brings to mind an early experience of mine as a solicitor.

It may surprise the Committee to know that at the age of 26 I was selected to play golf for the English solicitors against the Northern Ireland solicitors' golf team. That match was an away fixture, so we flew over and met our charming hosts. During a meet-and-greet and get-to-know-you session, with a little something in our hand at the time, I was asked by one of our hosts what my golf club was at home. I said that I was a member of the North Warwickshire golf club, whereupon my host said to me, ''And is that a Protestant or a Catholic club?'' In my mid-twenties I gained an insight into the sort of question that would never have occurred to me. In fact, I was temporarily overwhelmed by that question, because I was, somewhat precociously, a member of the committee of my golf club and had to confess that I did not know the faith, or the non-faith, of any other member. That matter would not have occurred to me—it did not seem to be relevant.

David Burnside: In the same sense of politeness, I am not a golfer, but I live very close to Royal Portrush golf club, which is one of the great golf links in the world—no offence to Royal County Down golf club. Members of golf clubs in Northern Ireland do not ask people their religion. Frankly, I find the hon. Gentleman's remarks offensive.

Mr. Taylor: I am very sorry. I did not mean to cause offence. I was relating a true occurrence that happened to me to explain how, as a much younger man, about 35 years ago, I gained an insight into a community, which I had not understood previously. I had not considered that such a question mattered. No offence was intended. That was a true case that I have remembered across the years, which made me realise that that community was different, although it was part of my own country.

Perhaps I should acknowledge to the hon. Gentleman, since he raised the point, that I have played at Royal Portrush twice: the first time on the occasion that I mentioned and the other time last year. He may take the intelligence back to the Province that Royal Portrush was far too tough for me. It is one of the most majestic golf courses that I have ever seen. I really ought to play the course off the ladies' tees to have any chance at all.

I think that you would like me to get back to the subject, Mr. McWilliam. I shall not detain the Committee, because I am conscious of the fact that time is passing. The Opposition welcome the establishment of the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission, which is an independent, non-departmental public body. The intention behind such a body is to encourage both transparency and flexibility.

Rather disturbingly, it has been reported in the Daily Mail that one of the suspects of the Omagh bombing, Michael McKevitt, has been granted legal aid to fight the landmark legal case that has been brought by families of the victims. Michael McKevitt's bill for contesting the families' bid to sue the suspects could, eventually, be as high as £500,000, while the

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families have sought legal aid unsuccessfully. The Lord Chancellor has decreed that the order will not result in any new, additional burden on existing levels of public funding. In light of recent events, however, we must ensure that legal funding is distributed fairly and justly.

Additionally, the trial of the three alleged IRA men who have been charged with training guerrillas in the use of explosives in Colombia is imminent, although it has been postponed because they are refusing to leave their cells. Can the Minister provide clarification on the agreements that have been reached between the Governments of the United Kingdom and Colombia on the costs of bringing them to trial?

I will detain the Committee no longer, but I wish to say again to the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) that I did not mean to cause any offence; I was merely recounting what was a salutary experience for me when I was a younger man.

I know that you, Mr. McWilliam, are in a little difficulty with regard to the quorum. Indeed, that is a problem for all of us. I was going to say that no discourtesy would be intended to you or the Minister if I were to leave the Committee before 4.30 pm, but I am resolved not to be the hon. Member who collapses the quorum. However, if we should become more plentiful, I may not stay until that time.

3.35 pm

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair once again, Mr. McWilliam, but I am sure that you will not mind if I say that the Minister's presence is an even more attractive sight for all of us: she is very welcome to this Committee.

The Chairman: Order. There is no contest.

Mr. Beggs: I assure the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) that the strength and success of our golf clubs and other sporting institutions in Northern Ireland derives very much from the fact that they are non-discriminatory, and I am pleased that his most recent visit was much more satisfactory than his initial one.

The Ulster Unionist party welcomes the principle of legal aid reform in Northern Ireland, and I was part of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that looked at legal aid reform in May 2001. However, this order is largely skeletal; it is clear that the bones of the new Legal Services Commission are without flesh. We are given very little to go on—for example, with regard to how the commission will be set up or what the running costs will be. How can we be sure that the commission will not become yet another elaborate and expensive bureaucracy? The absence of detail—and, indeed, of any time frame for implementation—must be addressed.

Throughout the order, the Lord Chancellor is empowered to give directions and guidance to the commission. I draw attention to article 47, which outlines the Lord Chancellor's role in making remuneration orders. If the order is intended to provide an independent framework for the provision and administration of legal services by setting up a new non-departmental Legal Services Commission, do

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not the extensive powers given to the Lord Chancellor undermine that independence? The Legal Services Commission will become more administrative than executive; in devolution terms, it will be more of a Welsh Assembly than a Scottish Parliament.

The Lord Chancellor has the power to appoint members to the commission. In the light of recent events at the Northern Ireland Office, eligibility of employment within the new Legal Services Commission is an issue that is worth highlighting. Therefore, I seek an assurance that stringent security checks will be put in place to ensure that undesirables do not find themselves at the heart of the commission; that point has already been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim. Public confidence in the commission must be established from the outset.

I also draw attention to the prioritisation of services. The order does not outline how cases are to be prioritised. What criteria will be in place for prioritisation? What conditions will dictate whether one case deserves greater priority than another? That is particularly relevant in civil legal services because the fund will be capped. Could needy individuals lose out because of the ever-escalating cost of other cases such as the Bloody Sunday tribunal? The cost of that, incidentally, is thought to be £100 million, and it is rising rapidly.

I welcome the replacement of the merits test with something more flexible. However, problems are related to articles 18 and 19, which deal with costs for assisted and unassisted parties. If a claimant received legal aid but a defendant did not and the unassisted defendant won the case, he or she would still have to pay his or her costs. Such costs are sometimes in excess of what it would have cost to settle the case, but the defendant clearly has the right to retain an unblemished reputation. Why should I settle a claim for £1,000 to a legally assisted claimant if I am in the right, although it costs me £1,200 to defend myself? That is a clear injustice and the opportunity to resolve it through a new order has not been taken. No doubt the Minister will also consider the example to which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South referred.

I shall consider criminal defence services. It is accepted that criminal legal aid, subject to criminal proceedings, should be available for virtually all cases, save minor traffic offences or other such cases. That is due to the serious nature and potential consequences of the proceedings. However, the problem with criminal legal aid is that profit margins are small. Solicitors aim either to do the perfect job and consequently attract high-paying clients, who are few and far between in Northern Ireland, or to process as many cases as possible with minimum administration. Does that really secure value for money from quality legal services? Does that ensure that the most appropriate and cost-effective services are available to the public?

The order provides the ability to contract specialised agencies and professional individuals to deliver legal services. That goes some way toward addressing the imbalance in providing quality legal services for all. However, in practice, it seems that

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those agencies or individuals will lose out. In England and Wales, the agents are usually very junior barristers or pupil barristers. They do all the work. They consider the papers, advise on the plea, make representations on bail and mitigate for a sentence. Sometimes all that is done for a fee from the solicitor that is as low as £40 before tax. On the other hand, the solicitor, who has done little or no work, can pocket over 50 per cent. of the fee paid by the Legal Services Commission. If those agencies and individuals are used, efforts must be made to ensure that the people who do the work get a fair proportion of the fee or that they are paid directly by the Legal Services Commission.

I have specific worries about provisions under part III of the draft order, which are known as the alternative funding options. Part III is identical to existing legislation in England and Wales. The Law Society of Northern Ireland has stated that the provisions are entirely unsuitable for the Province. Indeed, it appears that they have caused great difficulties in the English litigation service. The Law Society said that they have led to the

    ''unregulated operation of claims-management companies, such as Claims Direct; the exploitation of individual litigants; the domination of the market by the same insurers who operate the defence side of litigation; and the effective denial of choice of solicitor.''

Do we wish to bring in legislation that would cause the same things to happen in Northern Ireland?

Furthermore, the no-win, no-fee arrangements must have a capped percentage to prevent solicitors from benefiting financially by an amount in excess of what might be deemed reasonable. In any case, persons with valid but low claims will not have access to legal services. A solicitor will not touch a £1,000 claim unless he expects at least half of that in return. If legal aid is to be targeted at those in greatest need, it must be provided for low-value claims that are high enough to be significant to the claimant but not necessarily to the solicitor.

The Law Society put forward an alternative proposal: a contingency legal aid fund to be financed from the public purse but independently run on a not-for-profit basis. That is a most worthy suggestion and I would be grateful for the Minister's views on it . I am also concerned about the mention of graduated fees. Those have failed miserably in England. Family cases in particular have driven experienced practitioners out of the publicly funded market. I read in The Times this Tuesday an article headed,

    ''Legal aid lawyers abandon divorce cases as fees drop''.

A survey of more than 1,600 barristers conducted by the Family Law Bar Association found that 42 per cent. had refused to take on divorce-related financial settlements. The Times gave an example of a woman from Loughton who contacted 20 solicitors before finally finding someone to take on her case.

According to the Northern Ireland Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, in Northern Ireland—in the Province—we already have in the region of 200,000

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unmet cases. Do we wish to see that figure increase through so-called improvements to the current system?

In conclusion, I draw attention to the skeletal nature of the order, to the extensive powers it gives to the Lord Chancellor, which clearly undermine the independence of the new commission, to the issue of prioritisation and to the issues surrounding the alternative funding options. I welcome the opportunity that I have had this afternoon to raise those matters, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on those and other matters in her reply.

3.47 pm

 
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