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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 57 which stands in my name. I submit that it is an amendment that satisfies the criteria which my noble and learned friend has submitted, particularly in terms of quality control. It is also important in relation to accessibility and giving a wide choice to clients which, after all, is, I think, a rather critical element of the solicitor-client relationship.

The Law Society itself has established a management standards scheme, Lexcel, which is intended to provide that measure of quality control to a particular area of legal services. I submit that the legal services commission should be prepared to enter into contracts with firms that are achieving those standards. I refer to the specialist panels of the Law Society which at present exist for family personal injuries, medical negligence, children cases, Mental Health Review Tribunal and family cases. A similar standard will apply, as I understand it, to housing, immigration and criminal law. These are people who have demonstrated clearly, if they are going into those areas of practice, that they will be well equipped to do so. Therefore, one has to ask why is there the risk that they may be excluded?

The Law Society has taken the view, having, of course, been in close contact with its members--of which I am one--that quality assurance, the ability on the part of the Lord Chancellor to introduce cash limiting, and his ability to contain the costs of individual cases, would not be prejudiced by reason of what is being proposed here. I am suggesting that only those who meet prescribed quality criteria should be entitled to a contract. I am not saying all those who are presently involved in the provision of legal aid are automatically qualified for that purpose. Not at all.

My noble and learned friend's argument that this might be inconsistent with cash limiting, with respect, is also not the case. If more firms than expected were to enter into contracts the commission would simply need to scale down the size of contract available to each firm. Subsection (2)(c) of the new clause specifically recognises the ability of the commission to make proportionate reductions, where necessary, in the number of cases funded. That is a point made a few moments ago by the noble Lord opposite.

I know that my noble and learned friend is concerned about controlling individual case costs. We are not proposing that firms entering into contracts would be able to charge whatever they wanted in each and every case. They will have to be willing to work for the rates laid down by the Lord Chancellor or the commission. The proposed new clause would make it difficult for the Lord Chancellor to exclude firms from providing legal services through competitive price tendering. It is important not to introduce price competition at the expense of quality of service--a point previously made

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by my noble and learned friend. Where there are no reliable and generally accepted means of measuring the quality of work in a particular case, would it not be unwise to introduce price competition of that kind?

The new provision would not prevent the Lord Chancellor from introducing an element of price competition if he so wished. It would be possible for the Lord Chancellor to ask the commission to introduce price competition when asking firms whether they wanted to apply to take on additional cases beyond the level funded in the previous year--although the Law Society does not believe that it would be wise to introduce any such provision at the present time.

The root issue is giving clients a choice of firms which are able to provide the quality standards that my noble and learned friend so rightly insists upon. That would overcome the problems of geographical access, to which reference was made in previous debates. There is absolutely no reason why a lower level of choice and access should be provided in order to attain this criteria of quality.

I hope that my noble and learned friend will feel that this approach is not an unreasonable one. Any restrictions on choice which go beyond what is necessary to secure quality seem designed to meet the interests of the administrators of legal aid, who might well find it convenient to deal with a smaller number of suppliers rather than to serve the interests of the public for whom the scheme is intended. I hope that my noble and learned friend will look upon this as a constructive contribution to his considerations.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, quality must lie at the very heart of the services provided by the community legal service. I believe that there we are as one with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, highlighted an important area in saying that quality must be accompanied by choice. This is the Access to Justice Bill so I find myself very much in agreement with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when he demonstrated again that right at the heart of his reforms lie the principles of improving access to, and the quality of, justice.

I find the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, to be persuasive when he reminds us that there are a number of issues that we have to bear in mind. The Law Society has, I think rather persuasively, set out four principles which should underlie the approach to the provision of legal services in the future: first, to ensure high quality; secondly, to provide the widest possible choice for clients and potential clients; thirdly, to ensure ready geographical access to services; and, fourthly, to provide proper funding for the service. If one applies those four principles to the debate, one sees that to try to limit the number of firms which have achieved the requisite quality standard starts to get right in the path and presents a huge obstacle to the very purpose of the reforms that we are debating. If we are to improve access, it must surely be right for clients to be able to go to firms that have met the necessary quality standards.

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I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that the new management standards scheme, Lexcel, is an excellent move in the right direction. I commend the Law Society on applying the well-established principles of quality management to the particular area of legal services. The two combined standards of Investors in People, an initiative in which I was proud to play a part, and Lexcel will give law firms an opportunity to provide that quality service which must lie at the very heart of these reforms.

It may well be that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will set all our minds at rest by giving an assurance in response to his noble friend that all firms meeting the quality requirements will be entitled to a contract. If that is the case, we will all go away very happy. But I have a horrible feeling that he may not yet be disposed to giving us that assurance. That is why we must continue pressing.

I say that because I have heard the noble and learned Lord argue that such an assurance would undermine efforts to provide quality assurance, would undermine the noble and learned Lord's ability to introduce cash limiting--he will know our views on that--and would also undermine his ability to contain the costs of individual cases. I would ask him to reflect again, because I do not believe that any of those arguments bear close scrutiny. The new clause proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, specifically says that only those who would meet prescribed quality criteria should be entitled to a contract. It is not suggested that all those currently providing legal aid should be entitled to a contract. Surely the proposed amendment fully meets the need to provide quality assurance.

It is necessary further to reflect on the argument about this proposal being inconsistent with cash limiting. If more firms than expected seek contracts, the commission would need to scale down the size of the contract available to each firm. Subsection (2)(c) of the proposed new clause specifically recognises the commission's ability, where necessary, to make proportionate reductions in the number of cases funded. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will reflect for a moment on the fact that we are not seeking to stand in the way of his declared intention to limit the amount of cash. Concern about controlling the cost of individual cases is also unjustified. The new clause does not propose that firms entering into contracts would be able to charge whatever rate they wished for each case. The firms of solicitors would have to be willing to work for the rates laid down by the Lord Chancellor or by the commission.

However, I admit that the proposed new clause would make it difficult for the noble and learned Lord to exclude firms from the provision of legal services through competitive price tendering, but then he himself has recognised that it is important not to introduce price competition at the expense of quality of service.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord will reflect on the intention behind the proposed new clause. No doubt there will be problems with the implementation of some of the words and the drafting but I think that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, would be happy to accept

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further amendments to it. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will accept the principle behind the new clause, which is to go back very persuasively, I think, to those four principles relating to the provision of legal services in the future: high quality, the widest possible choice, geographical access and proper funding.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, this will be a very brief intervention at this hour, but I share the deep concern of the three noble Lords who have already spoken that the number of solicitors' firms who have contracts in certain fields of expertise shall not be whittled down to the point where choice disappears. We all understand that contracts should be confined to those who can be shown to offer the expertise in question and the other requisite standards. No one wants to see inefficient and incompetent solicitors let loose on the public, except possibly the inefficient and incompetent solicitors.

However, there are small firms which can offer a very good, competent and caring service. Often they can offer it in geographical locations where large firms or specialist firms are not to be found. In my former constituency there are some very good firms of solicitors. If they are forced out of the picture it will be poor comfort to tell the people of Cradley Heath or of Oldbury that they can go to Birmingham for advice. In many cases we are talking about disadvantaged people. Sometimes the fare to Birmingham would be sufficient to discourage people from pursuing redress. I hope that my noble and learned friend will enforce the quality criteria but I also hope that when those are met he will not exclude small firms simply on the ground that "only big is beautiful".


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