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Lord Hylton: My Lords, as I listened to this debate it occurred to me that these regulations have a close connection with the situation of asylum seekers in this country and their need for legal advice and legal aid. As the Government's dispersal policy develops, will the Minister consult with his colleagues in the Home Office to try to ensure that there are qualified and recognised firms capable of giving legal advice in the specialised area of asylum and immigration law so that people who need such assistance can have access to it?
Lord Kingsland: My Lords, as the noble Lord the Minister knows, the Opposition supported the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, throughout the various stages in your Lordships' House of the Access to Justice Bill. Sadly, I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, when he says that that is a battle valiantly fought but now lost. We have to accept the fact that the principles advanced by the Government during the course of the proceedings on that Bill now prevail.
However, it is perfectly legitimate for the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart--and, indeed, the Opposition-- to ask the Government to verify every stage of the implementation of the new legislation against these principles. What were those principles in relation to advice, as opposed to litigation? As I understand it, the Government set out to establish a system of advice that would prevent litigation being necessary. If you like, it was the legal equivalent of preventive medicine. How successful will these arrangements be when measured against that principle?
Can the Minister say what steps the Lord Chancellor's Department is taking to ensure that the arrangements, as they develop, meet the objectives set out by the Government? Both the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, have distinguished the two critical stages in this process. The first one concerns the relationship between the Legal Aid Board and the solicitors; and the second one concerns the relationship between the solicitors and the general public, or those members of the general public who need advice.
Is the Minister satisfied that the system of monitoring by the Lord Chancellor's Department is making sure that the Legal Aid Board is going to meet its targets in time for 1st April 2000? What procedures has the Lord Chancellor's Department put in place to ensure that those targets are met? Further, is the Minister confident that, from 1st April 2000, the range of expertise among solicitors who are franchised and their geographical spread will meet all the likely advice targets that the Government will have identified?
It is only if the Lord Chancellor's Department can be confident that those targets are met that it can reasonably say good-bye to the green form system. Although we accept that the principles have changed, we are now entitled to ask the Government to measure their performance against their own principles. It is concern about the likelihood that there may be a shortfall that lies behind not only the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, but also those expressed by the Opposition.
As has already been admitted, much of what has been said was said earlier this year, night after night, and has been repeated today in very much the same terms. I shall say, as briefly as I can, roughly what was said during the good debates on the Access to Justice Bill, as it then was.
The criticism appears to be that somehow or other the Government, through the steps that we are taking, will reduce meaningful access to this provision to those who most need it. The Government refute that proposition completely. It is suggested that it will not be possible for those living in urban areas or sparsely populated rural areas to consult a solicitor who provides legal aid. We dispute that. We do not think that that will happen under the new system.
I put into context some of the concerns that have been expressed about access to legal services. As has been said, the number of firms receiving contracts for January is about half of those which have been doing legal aid work up to now. About 5,000 solicitors' offices currently account for 90 per cent of legal aid expenditure. The other 5,000 offices account for the remaining 10 per cent, and typically undertake few such cases per year. Therefore the reduction in numbers as regards those firms that will undertake publicly funded work in this field is not nearly so
The Government argue that the weakness in the case that has been put forward in the amendment is that no mention is made of quality. We argue that a number of firms that have not so far obtained contracts and have not passed the franchise test frankly do not have the necessary quality to give proper advice and assistance to those in need. Some firms have not applied; others have and have so far been unsuccessful. But the door is still very much open. It is important to remember the importance of quality in terms of the advice that is given.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, mentioned asylum seekers. It has been accepted on all sides that in the field of immigration a substantial number of legal advisers, solicitors and non-solicitors, have been quite unscrupulous in raising people's hopes through giving them false advice. We have had to take notice of that. That is why a large number of solicitors and legal advisers will not appear on our prescribed list of those carrying out immigration work.
Lord Bach: My Lords, of course I undertake to do that. The matter I am discussing is not a bad example of why the Government felt that it was necessary to do something with regard to the limited resources available for legal aid. We were concerned about quality, and about legal aid going through the roof.
It is unfair for noble Lords to criticise a scheme that is only just being set up. If the scheme does not work, I have no doubt that within a short period of time noble Lords who have spoken tonight, and, I dare say, others, will criticise it in this House.
I gently chide the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for referring to a case that I am advised is sub judice. The case was heard today and I understand that the court deferred any decision. I do not think that it is proper that a case that is before the courts should be mentioned in this House at all, and certainly not in detail, when we are discussing these regulations.
We are accused of setting up a system that is incredibly bureaucratic. I am told that the new contract issued by the Legal Aid Board replaces and updates a wide range of existing guidance and is no longer than the provision which it replaces; indeed it is probably shorter. It is convenient for solicitors to have all this guidance in one place.
The Government suggest that these regulations have been used as a peg upon which to hang an old argument as regards change taking place in the nature of public funding for civil actions in this country. We have had this debate before and no doubt we shall have it again. However, I commend these regulations on the basis that change had to occur. It was necessary as quality was sometimes too low and too much public money was being spent unwisely. These regulations go some way towards putting into effect what Parliament decided was the proper way to proceed. They should be passed tonight. Therefore I ask the House not to accept the amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, if it is taken to a Division.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for his reply. I regret that it was, not unexpectedly, not particularly helpful. Of course I accept that the arguments which have been raised in this debate were raised on more than one occasion during the passage of what was then the Access to Justice Bill.
However, I thought that it was not appropriate that this particular set of regulations should be allowed to pass through your Lordships' House on the nod as this is an important set of regulations. Although it is not made under the Access to Justice Act, it is the first of what will no doubt be a lengthy series of regulations that will come before your Lordships' House in the next few months in order to give effect to the principles of the Access to Justice Act. That being so, I thought that it was appropriate to raise this matter for debate by way of an amendment in order to emphasise the depth of the commitment of those on our Benches to a publicly funded system of advice and assistance and the depth of our concern over the damage which we believe that the Access to Justice Act may well do to the future of publicly funded civil legal aid in this country. I accept, of course, that it is not the intention of the Government to cause damage to the provision of publicly-funded legal aid, but I believe that that may well be the result.
Having said that, this is not an occasion upon which it would be appropriate to divide the House. We shall watch with great care what happens under the Access to Justice Act over the course of the coming months and years. No doubt there will be further debates in the future. But, on this occasion, I would ask the leave of the House to withdraw my amendment.