Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): The effect of my noble friend's amendment would be to make public funds available to provide representation at coroners' inquests and at public and judicial inquiries. I do not think that we can accept the amendment. An inquest is an inquiry concerned with the facts surrounding a death rather than issues such as civil or criminal liability. The proceedings are intended to be inquisitorial and informal; and legal representation is generally considered unnecessary. Full civil legal aid is not therefore available to someone appearing at an inquest. For similar reasons, it is not available for making representations for public or judicial inquiry. This does not mean that someone who is required to attend an inquest will receive no assistance from the legal aid scheme. Legal advice and assistance from a solicitor is available under the green form scheme to those who are financially eligible. The proposed new scheme replicates this position.

I accept that there may be truly exceptional circumstances in which it is fair for public funds to be spent on representation at inquests and inquiries. I am thinking of circumstances similar to those concerning the inquest into the "Marchioness" disaster where a second inquiry was necessary because of failures in running the first. On that occasion, legal aid was provided in the form of a specific grant covering only that instance. As the failures of the inquest were in no way the responsibility of the families, it was only fair that they should not have to pay to be represented a second time around. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor therefore exercised his power to permit the legal aid board to pay for representation at the second inquiry, despite that being outside the normal scope of legal aid. No similar grants have been made since. I believe that the new scheme should contain a similar provision and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be considering how best this can be achieved. I hope that in the light of that somewhat encouraging speech the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Clinton-Davis: I welcome what has been said by my noble and learned friend. He has been more forthcoming than I expected and I accept with relish what he has offered. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

21 Jan 1999 : Column 726

5.30 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 106:

Page 55, line 5, at end insert (", and
( ) proceedings on a complaint under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.").

The noble and learned Lord said: This is a narrow point. The amendment seeks to add an item to the list of proceedings in a magistrates' court for which funding may be made available for representation. The proposal, for which I am indebted to the Law Centres Federation, is designed not primarily to assist people in defending proceedings but to enable someone to bring proceedings. The proceedings in question arise where a tenant is living in a house which by reason of disrepair is alleged to create a health hazard, or an unfitness for habitation, or a public nuisance. The complaint may be against a private landlord or against a local authority.

Most constituency MPs have experience written on their hearts of where a problem which despite repeated complaints is always relegated to next year and the danger to health is overlooked. Sometimes a summons is the only way to concentrate minds. I cannot believe that this would represent a serious drain on resources. However, the existence of the possibility of a sanction represented by the inclusion of these proceedings in the list may itself lead to the redress of a genuine grievance.

The provision is a useful statutory provision, but tenants may well hesitate to avail themselves of it without access in an appropriate case to representation. I hope that in such a case, where generosity is not likely to be exhaustive, my noble and learned friend will feel able to respond. I beg to move.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My noble friend's amendment to paragraph 5 of Schedule 2 would have the effect of making public funds available for representation for complaints under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. These are summary criminal proceedings which allow for any person to issue a complaint to a magistrates' court where aggrieved by the existence of a statutory nuisance, or the defacement by litter or refuse of any public land or other land within a litter-control area of a local authority, as specified in Parts III and IV of that Act.

I am afraid that we cannot accept the amendment. In the cases described, the court has to order a defendant to pay the reasonable expenses incurred by the complainant where there were reasonable grounds for bringing the complaint. In the majority of complaints, the defendant will be a public body or company and there is not the risk of costs not being paid. One of the key objectives of the reforms of the legal aid system is to ensure that publicly-funded help under a controlled budget is directed to areas where the need of people is greatest; for example, social welfare cases, public interest cases and those involving the interests of children. In the judgment of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, these proceedings do not have sufficient priority to warrant any public funding other

21 Jan 1999 : Column 727

than for the provision of basic information and advice on the law. Therefore, I invite my noble and learned friend to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My noble and learned friend and I are agreed on the premise--something has slipped--but we are not agreed on the conclusion. I agree that the purpose of the legislation should be to direct legal aid to where the need is greatest. If he had seen some of the cases with which I had to deal as a constituency MP he might have believed that there was a need. However, we live in a real world, even in this Chamber. I am disappointed but scarcely surprised by his response and not being surprised I am resigned. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 107 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Individuals for whom services may be funded]:

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 108:

Page 5, line 15, at beginning insert ("Subject to subsection (4),").

The noble and learned Lord said: It may be to the Committee's convenience if with this amendment we discuss Amendment No. 112, for which Amendment No. 108 is a paving amendment. I tabled the two amendments in the hope of allaying anxiety, including my own. If I am told that they are unnecessary I shall be delighted and happily seek leave to withdraw them.

Clause 8 is about financial limits on applicants for community legal service funding. Subsection (2) recognises that there may be situations in which justice may require funding without an investigation of financial resources, possibly because there is an emergency and no time to carry out an investigation or because for some reason the applicant is unable to provide information about his resources.

There is some anxiety because no specific mention is made of what is now called the green form scheme. I believe that a few moments ago my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer went some distance to make the point which I am now raising, but the fact that he did not go the whole distance was because it did not arise in respect of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis.

As I ventured to suggest during our debate on Tuesday, problems do not always come packaged in neat categories to facilitate administration. Someone may have a variety of problems. Some he may not recognise as legal problems at all. Some he may not appreciate as being susceptible to a remedy. Frequently he may not know what his remedy is and where to find it. A short interview with someone well informed and practised in analysis may be essential to sort out whether he can bring proceedings at all and if so for what. There can be no application for public funding and therefore no financial assessment until he is clear for what purpose he is making the application. A short interview may be not only the source of a solution to his problems, but it may represent a saving in court or tribunal time

21 Jan 1999 : Column 728

and certainly in administrative time. If my noble and learned friend can assure me that such an interview can be funded under the proposed scheme without my amendment I shall proceed no further and simply enjoy the feeling of pleasure which he has engendered. If he cannot give me that assurance, and if the amendment is necessary, I hope he will agree that it should be made. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: I rise briefly to express my complete support for what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said. The free diagnostic interview seems an absolutely essential element in any scheme if it is to work, and I too therefore hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will be able to satisfy the concerns of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and myself.

Lord Clinton-Davis: I wish to ask my noble and learned friend Lord Archer a question. I have not been involved with the green form for many years but I think it does attract a fee which is assessed by the solicitor when dealing with the green form application. He or she is required, on the basis of means as he or she feels appropriate, to insert in the form a fee--it is a very small one--from the client. I think that the wording of the amendment is therefore defective because it refers to an initial free interview. If my noble and learned friend was referring to the inclusion of the green form requirements and conditions, that is fine, but the proposal may be defective for that reason.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page