Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree. The House will know, of course, that he has held high ministerial office, having been a Cabinet Minister and a Secretary of State, but also as a former Leader of the House of Commons he brings distinguished experience to your Lordships’ House. The Minister should reflect on the wisdom of what the noble Lord has just said.
While we all accept that legislation is not like semaphore—it is not just about sending signals—there is grave public anxiety about many of the provisions in this Bill and support for this amendment can show that we have read the signals and responded. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter expressed the concern of groups such as Citizens Advice about the load that will be placed on their shoulders. The noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, expressed the concerns of groups such as claimants. He and I were privileged at the very outset of the proceedings of the Bill to meet a lady who is bringing up a brain-damaged child and who told us in no uncertain terms about the problems that would have beset her if she had not had access to justice via legal aid.
It is for that reason that I support my noble friend’s amendment today. As he has rightly said, it will not cost the Exchequer money but it sends a signal and lays down an important principle. It invites us to consider again the purpose of legal aid, which, when Hartley Shawcross introduced it in 1948, was one of the principles of the founding of the welfare state. It also invites us, especially those of us who are not lawyers, to consider the importance of access to justice for many people throughout this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Hart of Chilton, said, it is moderate and realistic. Access to justice is not a service or a product but an intrinsic right for every citizen. Dr E.J. Cohn made the case best when he said:
“Just as the modern State tries to protect the poorer classes against the common dangers of life … so it should protect them when legal difficulties arise. Indeed, the case for … protection is stronger than the case for any other form of protection. The State is not responsible for … old age or economic crises. But the State is responsible for the law”.
This is not simply a moral duty but a legal one. As the European Court of Human Rights has held, an overly restrictive legal aid system can be a violation of Article 6 if it means that there is a significant inequality of arms and the individual is unable to mount an effective defective defence or claim. It is in this light that the first line of the Bill should be construed—namely, in the light of the important moral and legal duty under which the Lord Chancellor would be placed.
The beginning of any piece of legislation will often articulate the principles driving it. This Bill is no different. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, was right to remind us of that. It is the overriding duty of the Lord Chancellor to provide effective legal assistance to those in need, which should be the backdrop against which all other clauses of the Bill are construed. It is therefore crucial that the first clause should provide clarity as to what that duty is, as well as on its more general nature. As presently construed, Clause 1 lacks any clarity of principle. It does not focus on the needs of the citizen or on the fact that such assistance must be effective. Instead, it presents the Lord Chancellor’s duty as being extremely narrow, focusing simply on enacting the Bill, rather than on ensuring any greater principles.
In contrast, my noble friend’s amendment seeks to remedy that fault by focusing the nature of the Lord Chancellor’s duty on being, first, effective and, secondly, according to one’s needs. The principles of effectiveness and provision according to need go to the heart of what is meant by providing proper legal assistance. It is critical that all assistance provided must be effective—what is the point otherwise? For it to be otherwise would be likely to hinder an individual’s access to the courts as well as likely resulting in a waste of money. As to need, it is important that legal aid goes to those who need it and those people only. Indeed, that is the whole point of the scheme. It is therefore important to state that unequivocally and clearly at the beginning of the Bill. Should the Lord Chancellor wish to demonstrate that he is effecting his duty properly, that duty is then stated in the Bill.
However, it is also important to note that the amendment does not place an undue burden on the Lord Chancellor. Nor does it curtail much of what the Bill strives to achieve. The Minister might be right to worry that the Lord Chancellor would be placed under too heavy a burden—a herculean task that would need a huge amount of both time and resources. However, he need not harbour such concerns unduly. My noble friend’s amendment clearly states that such a duty would be restricted to the provisions in the Bill. The amendment would simply recognise that the duty of a Lord Chancellor is to provide legal assistance, as provided in the later clauses of the Bill, but that he must do so in a manner that is both effective and according to need. This is entirely reasonable. If the Government resist the amendment, alarm bells should ring about their apparent covert intentions, and many suspicions will be confirmed about the potential ramifications of the Bill for access to justice. The amendment might go some way to assuage those misgivings. For those reasons, I am very happy to support my noble friend’s amendment.
The amendment was carried———————————————————————————————————
An amendment to continue access to legal aid by disabled people seeking representation at tribunals to determine the support which they receive:7 Mar 2012 : Column 1789
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am a signatory to Amendment 12. I am very happy to support the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and I support what the amendment says about extending this to the Second-tier Tribunals as well as the First-tier Tribunals, which are mentioned in the amendment by the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey. The noble Baroness and I have known each other longer than either of us would care to recall. I know that this is not some passing fancy on her part. She has had a lifelong devotion to the cause of disabled people. She spoke with great eloquence and conviction in Committee and she has been courageously persistent in our proceedings to raise this matter today. In the long and distant past, I worked for five years with children with special needs. Many of us in the House-the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is one-have had personal experience of people with disability and know, as one noble Lord said earlier, some of the most vulnerable people in society. Surely how we protect and treat them is a test of how civilised we are as people.
Four out of five cases heard in the First-tier Tribunals relate to people who are disabled. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, said, and he is right to say that disabled people are as capable as anyone else in dealing with their own affairs, but 78 per cent of those receiving advice before going to a tribunal were more likely to win their appeal than those who did not. Clearly, having professional, legal advice pays off. Who would we take that advice away from; who would we take this professional care and help away from? Disabled people will be left to their own devices. Inevitably, that will lead to more social exclusion and innumerable negative results.
Secondly, we have been told again and again that we have to do these things for economic reasons, but I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, about the so-called economic savings that might be brought about by these measures. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has told us in his remarks, it is highly questionable. There is empirical research-an academic study-by King’s College. In its report, United Consequences, it flatly repudiates and rejects the idea that savings will be made. Citizens Advice says that every pound spent on welfare benefits potentially saves the state £8.80. I certainly would want to hear from the Minister that he repudiates those findings before the House reaches a conclusion on these questions; what analysis he has made of those reports; and how, therefore, we can justify doing this on purely economic, austerity measure-based arguments of the kind that we have heard so much about during our proceedings.
The third point, which was touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and to which others have referred, is about who will pick up the pieces subsequently. Many of us have received a copy of the Citizens Advice report, Out of Scope, Out of Mind-Who Really Loses from Legal Aid Reform. That states:
7 Mar 2012 : Column 1790
“When Government consulted on the proposed changes to the scope of civil legal aid, 95 per cent of respondents did not agree with the proposals”.
It goes on to say:
“Official data shows that 80 per cent of social welfare cases achieve positive outcomes for clients, which can involve savings for other services”.
That backs up the point I made a moment ago. The report concludes:
“However, it is also clear that they would not have achieved these positive outcomes on their own. If they could be empowered to help themselves without specialist advice, casework and support from legal aid, then every CAB would rejoice, but that is not the reality. It will be a massive failure in the justice system if they are abandoned”.
It will be a massive failure in the justice system if they are abandoned. That is what we are being asked to vote on today and I hope that the House will support the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, when we decide on these matters.
The amendment was carried
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