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Lord Addington: My Lords, I support the general direction of the amendments. If the criminal justice service is not included in the Bill, as provided for in the first amendment, it really should be. As mentioned by both speakers, that is one of the basic rights of our society. The amendment tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is important, but I am afraid that legal services might just take priority as regards being an essential requirement for living in our society.

Midnight

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the aim of Amendment No. 59, moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, is to extend the list of illustrative examples in Clause 13 to include legal services and the services of any court or tribunal, as well as the agencies of the criminal justice system.

Once again, I should like to clarify that Part III of the Bill is about the elimination of discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services to members of the public. That statutory right is intended to be drawn widely in order to embrace all services which are provided to members of the public.

The list of examples included in Clause 13(3) is intended as an illustration of how widely the right of access is drawn and is not intended to be exhaustive. There have been a number of attempts in earlier debates

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to have the list of examples extended—and, indeed, to have other such lists extended—to a degree which, I might add, would have increased the size of the Bill even more than it has already grown.

As in the other debates, for two reasons I cannot agree to extend the list to include the amendment. First, the greater the number of examples in the list, the greater the likelihood is that it will be seen as being an exhaustive one, with the consequent risk that certain services will be thought to have been excluded. By adopting a more general approach, we are able to avoid the pitfall of important areas being overlooked.

Secondly, the right of access already applies widely to all services provided to members of the public, including those services provided by government departments and, in this instance, to courts, solicitors and the Legal Aid Board. It therefore follows that the services which the courts, tribunals and agencies of the justice system provide directly to the public are already covered by the Bill. My noble and learned fellow clansman the Lord Chancellor, who is responsible for the provision of court services and for some tribunals, is already taking steps to ensure that those services are accessible to disabled people.

I can assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, on his question about buildings. My noble and learned friend has a continuing refurbishment programme in which buildings are upgraded as resources and physical constraints allow. This programme includes the provision of improved facilities for disabled people such as ramps, better court layouts and infra-red hearing enhancement systems. For example, the Royal Courts of Justice have recently been upgraded and now include stairlifts which were not previously available.

It is worth mentioning that the majority of courts and tribunals already provide facilities to enable disabled people to participate in hearings. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, drew our attention to the checklist which is available to encourage tribunals to ensure that they keep the needs of disabled people in mind. The position will continue to improve as a result of good practice and as a direct result of this legislation once it is enacted.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, referred to regulations. I concur with him in the view that the issuing of regulations is not covered by the Bill, but it is not Ministers who approve regulations; Parliament does so and I do not believe that Parliament's right to approve or reject legislation should be fettered in any way. I believe that I am right in saying that no legislation could bind Parliament in that way.

I have been asked about legal aid, the accessibility of the legal aid system and the green form scheme. Solicitors' firms which are part of the Legal Aid Board's franchising scheme have the authority to accept applications for green form by post or by telephone, and to give advice and assistance by post and by telephone in any category of work in which they hold a franchise. The special authority which has been delegated to franchisees is in recognition of the fact that they have met quality standards and have therefore built up trust with the Legal Aid Board. At a time when the green form scheme is known to be vulnerable to abuse by

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some solicitors, it would not be in clients' interests to extend these authorities to firms which have not demonstrated compliance with the board's standards. Over 1,050 solicitors' offices have been granted a franchise and that figure is expected to double over the next 12 months. The number of franchises granted so far represents approximately 27 per cent. of legal aid fund expenditure and that figure is expected to rise to nearer 70 per cent. in the next 12 months. Firms can already be franchised in many categories such as matrimonial, crime, welfare benefits and personal injury. It is planned that firms will be able to obtain franchises in the categories of mental health and education in the near future. I should add that, for those people who are unable to travel, any person with a good reason can authorise someone to go to a solicitor (whether franchised or not) to apply for green form assistance on his or her behalf. This may be useful if a disabled person wishes to seek advice in a category of work in which solicitors cannot yet obtain a franchise.

With regard to financial eligibility for legal aid, I should point out that neither the receipt of sickness benefit nor invalidity benefit allowed for automatic qualification of free legal aid prior to the introduction of incapacity benefit. However, I understand that the Lord Chancellor's Department has undertaken to look at the situation where the requirement to make a contribution towards legal aid by applicants who are in receipt of the higher rate of incapacity benefit would put them at a financial disadvantage compared to those applicants in receipt of income support. I should perhaps add that we are not convinced that significant numbers of people would in fact be affected in this way.

I shall deal now with the question of mentally vulnerable witnesses and the difficulties faced by them. We are very much aware of the problems faced by such witnesses, in particular those with learning difficulties. We are concerned to ensure that they can give evidence in courts with the minimum of trauma. The Home Office has also commissioned research into how the criminal justice system treats people with learning disabilities and the results are expected later this year.

The question of deaf jurors was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley. I should, first, clarify the position. Service as a juror is not covered by Part III of the Bill since that cannot be construed as a service being provided to members of the public. However, I can assure the noble Lord that the improvements the courts are already making and those they will require to make to comply with the Bill will clearly have a knock-on effect for all court users, including jury members. Moreover, Section 41 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act l994, which came into force in February 1995, makes it clear that a disabled person is eligible for jury service, and that the judge should affirm the summons unless, in his opinion, the person is not capable of acting effectively as a juror on account of his disability, in which case the judge should discharge the summons.

I appreciate that the noble Lord's concern relates to profoundly deaf people being able to perform jury service. I am aware that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has been considering whether it might

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be possible to amend legislation to enable a profoundly deaf juror to take an interpreter into the jury retiring room. However, there are a number of difficulties associated with that, not least the concern that there should be no suggestion of any outside party being able to exert any undue influence over the jury's consideration. Because of those difficulties, and the principle that a defendant's needs must be paramount and given paramount consideration, the Lord Chancellor has decided that it would not be practical to pursue such a change to the legislation at the present time.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, asked me whether witnesses would be classed as receiving a service. The fact that witnesses are classed as users of the court services does not mean that they are receiving a service within the meaning of the Bill. However, as I said with regard to jurors, the measures to provide access to defendants and other people using the courts as a service should also have a knock-on beneficial effect for witnesses.

I shall turn to some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, about his Amendment No. 60. If I followed him aright, we were talking about MPs, how they are covered by the Bill, and whether they provide a service which would be consistent with the Bill. The Bill's provisions cover all those providing services to the public. I can confirm that MPs provide services to the public.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thought that might bring forward some reaction from your Lordships. That means that MPs must take reasonable steps to make themselves accessible to disabled constituents. However, an MP who visits a constituent in his own home would probably be providing a reasonable alternative to making his surgery accessible. I suspect that most MPs visit people in their own homes if they are unable to go to the surgery for any reason. I believe that answers that point.

As regards the interesting question of whether there is provision on the statute book which prevents deaf and dumb people standing for Parliament, I have to be careful because I do not know of any such statute. If the noble Lord does, I should be more than interested to see it. We do not know whether such a statute exists and I should prefer to have it drawn to my attention before giving any judgments, so to speak, on such a weighty matter.

I hope that I have not spoken for too long. Clearly, both noble Lords who introduced the amendments asked a considerable number of questions. I hope that I have answered most of them. I have also written to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and I hope that between the letter and my remarks I have responded to his points sufficiently for him to withdraw his amendment and for the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, to refrain from moving his.


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