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"The priority for family legal aid must be child protection. These are complex, demanding cases, involving the highest of stakes and requiring a high level of expertise to conduct properly. We welcome the Government's recognition of that priority and reality, together with the significant improvements to the scheme that have now been made. While we still have concerns about some elements of it, the scheme now proposed is immeasurably better, fairer and more practice-reflective than that originally devised. That shows the benefits of working within the family justice system".
There has undoubtedly been a lot of collaborative working within the family justice system since the consultation period ended and that work has borne considerable fruits. The result, although not entirely popular among some commentators and groups, is now generally accepted as being much better than the papers on which the matter was consulted. We now have the possibility of a system for family legal aid fees, starting on 1 October next year, which will be fairer-it will be fair to solicitors as well as to barristers-and takes account of the fact that some family law cases are much more complicated than others. One example of the way in which we have tried to ensure that those who do the most difficult cases get the bigger rewards is that we have agreed to an extra payment depending on the court in which the family hearing is to take place.
I understand how strongly the noble and learned Baroness feels about this issue and about the order that came into force in August. I hope she agrees that the new order, which it is hoped will come into force in due course and which sets the fees and conditions to run from 1 October 2010, is an improvement and that it is being introduced because of the considerable help and assistance that we have had from the FLBA and other groups of solicitors.
I think that everyone who has taken part in this debate has a passion for legal aid and believes that it has a vital part to play in our legal system. The Government have no less a passion for it and we hope to improve it in the years to come.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, first, I thank noble Lords for taking the trouble to attend today and for their support. It is important to have an airing of this very important subject. I should like to make certain that it is understood that I accept the need to make savings and to secure value for money. I have absolutely no objection to the harmonisation of fees for the Bar and solicitors for doing the same job, but not for doing different jobs-that is an important distinction.
I accept, as I think I said, that there were improvements in public law payments. These will not take effect until October next year, so we have to go through with the current statutory instrument until then. However, there are not going to be improvements in the private law sector, either in children cases, domestic violence or ancillary relief-that is to say, financial payments. These cases can be as complex, difficult and time consuming as public law cases and, if not well done, some private law cases can become public law cases. There is a long way to go still. I would like the Minister-and particularly those behind him-to reflect on what has been said by noble Lords during the debate.
What the Minister has said has not taken us all the way. I particularly have in mind that the warning of the president, Sir Mark Potter, applies now as much as it did before, save in so far as there are some, but not sufficient, improvements to public law. His warning and the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is that we need to keep in mind what the family Bar is saying. The Government underappreciate the value of the family Bar-particularly where its ability and experience enables it to obtain settlements which allow people to go away relatively satisfied-when compared to an inexperienced Bar which cannot understand how to settle, and where cases drag on and cost more legal aid money. The longer the case takes, the more it costs, whereas a senior man or woman can get the case over, sometimes on the first day. There is a balance between the costs of cases running on and the extra payment to the more experienced Bar.
I am glad there is to be a review; I hope it will involve all stakeholders. The philosophy of separate budgets is excellent; it will be a real step forward for criminal legal aid not to take from the rest of the budget.
The noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, who wanted to be here but is teaching today, told me in relation to BME women lawyers-barristers and solicitors-that a family lawyer is thought to be a suitable profession for Muslim women. That may be one reason why there are more of them at the family Bar than elsewhere. It is an interesting point that the noble Baroness would have made if she had been here.
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