HC Deb 23 March 2004 vol 419 cc185-211WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Derek Twigg.]

9.30 am
Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab)

Good morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to take part once again in a debate under your most able and courteous chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Minister, as well as the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who shadows the Department for Constitutional Affairs as the Conservative spokesman on legal issues, and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is the Liberal Democrat spokesman. Other hon. Members are also present.

I hope that the debate will focus on topical and important issues. Although I declare an interest at the outset as a member of the Bar, the debate is not about the need for lawyers to have their own trade union. Of course, they are not always the most popular section of the community, and there has been a fair amount of propaganda against them—not least, I am afraid to say, from Government Front Benchers. Some of that criticism is justified, but the issue of access to justice and legal aid is not about lawyers—it is about real, vulnerable people who are in difficulties. Regardless of whether those people have divorce, employment, or mental health problems, or are involved in civil or debt disputes, they are vulnerable and need help, and lawyers are still the main suppliers of legal help and representation.

I welcome the Government's reform of legal aid, which they introduced through the Access to Justice Act 1999; I sat on the Standing Committee that debated the Bill. However, we need to review the impact of those changes, including the introduction of the contract culture, particularly in more peripheral areas, such as my rural and semi-rural constituency in north Wales.

The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs is currently conducting an inquiry into the issue, and various relevant parties have provided substantial evidence. Furthermore, in February, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux published an important and rather critical report called "Geography of Advice", of which I am sure that the Minister is aware. It revealed that 40 per cent. of citizens advice bureaux thought that they were operating in an "advice desert", and my contribution will focus on that issue. In some parts of the country it is very difficult, if not impossible, to get a legal aid solicitor. That is causing hardship, and I want the Department to consider how its policies are being implemented.

There was a need to reform the old system, under which civil legal aid was demand led. There was also a need to control the budget and to ensure a more strategic approach to the provision of legal services so that need matched what suppliers could offer. Furthermore, there was a need to reconsider the issue of who provided those legal services. I entirely agree with the Government that we need a mixed economy of providers, to use the jargon. In other words, it is not just lawyers who should be able to give advice. In some cases, those involved in giving benefits advice should provide it. There is scope for giving advice over the telephone. There are different ways to go about it.

Expenditure had to be controlled. A bureaucracy was needed—after all, bureaucracy is essentially just a method of ensuring that public money is spent correctly, in accordance with a set of rules. However, I question whether it is proportionate. There has been much criticism of the dead hand of bureaucracy; many solicitors are said to find the auditing and reporting requirements a huge burden.

I welcome the philosophy behind the Access to Justice Act 1999. That is my starting point, and the debate is, from my point of view, primarily about civil legal aid, although there has been concern—and I know that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) will refer to this—about magistrates court closures. I suppose that the title of the debate is wide enough to encompass them. They have caused difficulties in north Wales, although I accept the Government's case for some element of rationalisation. However, it needs to be done more flexibly and sensitively.

There has been a significant decline in the number of solicitors doing legal aid work. For example, 8,900 such solicitors practised family law—the backbone of civil legal aid—just before the implementation of the Access to Justice Act 1999, and the figure has now dropped to 3,800. That in itself is not alarming. It was to be expected. In so far as I accept that there has been an improvement in the quality of service offered by solicitors' firms, what has happened is none the less a warning signal. Perhaps the number of people leaving legal aid work has reached the stage at which it is becoming a bit of a crisis. The Government need to take notice.

I have already mentioned the NACAB "Geography of Advice" report, which refers to the figure that I have mentioned and states: In the economic context of cost cutting and contracting, solicitors have found cities the easiest and most profitable areas to serve because the greatest numbers of potential clients are concentrated within the smallest travelling distance. The consequence has been that the number of access points into the legal aid system has reduced. I want the Minister to deal with that issue. Does he acknowledge that there is a problem, and that there are advice deserts?

The report goes on to say that the new contract regime appears to be ineffective at filling what are described as advice gaps, where there are shortages of competent advisers in specialist areas of law such as immigration and asylum. Therefore, over and above replying to my general point about the lack of practitioners providing civil legal aid, will the Minister tell me whether he has any worries about specialist areas of work?

The report also states that the trend towards clustering of services in urban centres combined with trends towards the increasing specialisation and economies of scale in legal business, has been accompanied by a decline in the number of legal practitioners bidding for CLS contract work. Within this broad analysis there are significant regional variations. However, the trend is clear—significant parts of the country are inadequately serviced by legal aid lawyers or other appropriate services, and this is likely to intensify. I ask the Minister again to respond to those points. I share the concerns of the report's authors.

I conclude my references to the report by quoting from paragraph 2.39: There are critical problems in gaining access to legal services in rural areas with dispersed and small populations, which means that pockets of poverty are difficult to identify when planning services and poor and expensive public transport provides a significant barrier.

Rurality is difficult to assess. There are some sparsely populated areas in north Wales and other parts of the country: the west country, mid-Wales and north Yorkshire in particular. However, there are also reasonably sizeable market towns with a population of anything between 4,000 and 15,000, which are certainly not conurbations. The way in which the system operates tends to take work away not only from purely rural areas but from those market towns. A reasonably sized solicitors' practice for such a community might be anything between eight or 10 partners. That is small in the context of the bigger picture, and very small in comparison with larger practices.

The fact that such practices are small and generalist in nature, doing both legal aid and private work—indeed the legal aid work has traditionally been subsidised by the private work—means that the generalist high street practitioners in reasonably sized market towns such as Colwyn Bay and Abergele in my constituency, and I am sure that hon. Members could mention others, are being squeezed out. I would like the Minister to accept that that is an issue. I am asking for greater flexibility in the way in which the Legal Services Commission lets contracts and controls the budgets. I accept the need to control the budget.

While I am on the question of the budget, I would like the Minister to comment on the bigger picture. There are serious question marks over the extent to which the great idea of a community legal service is financially sustainable. The Minister will know that the service has operated under what is euphemistically called a standstill budget for the past three years. There has been a freeze on payment rates to legal aid solicitors. I am not weeping crocodile tears for solicitors; I am concerned about the economic effect. The freeze means that fewer solicitors are confident that they can make a sustainable business out of legal aid and they are getting out of it. We then have a social problem, as people cannot get legal aid easily.

Bearing in mind that the budget has been frozen for the past three years, can the Minister tell us whether it is likely to increase? The Minister has been on the record on the issue. If problems of a legal nature—domestic violence is a classic example, or problems with housing—are dealt with expeditiously by a competent solicitor and a remedy is sought. all sorts of difficulties can be avoided later on. That can have a benign effect on other budgets, not least that of the Department for Work and Pensions.

Lembit Öpik () Montgomeryshire (LD)

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about saving money. A magistrate in my area by the name of Lynette Kretchner, who is the chair of the youth courts, is concerned that children from special schools constantly keep turning up in the youth courts. It seems that the special schools are referring those children to the youth courts for quite inappropriate matters. That is damaging to children in the long term. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if access to justice in rural areas was effectively resourced and properly planned, we could perhaps do something about that? At the moment, we are investing in a long-term problem—irreparable damage to those young people.

Gareth Thomas

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I am sure that the Minister will respond to that.

To re-emphasise the point, the community legal service is a vital part of the Government's agenda to combat social exclusion. There is a good case for the Minister to go to the Treasury and ask for quite a lot more money. That would be prudence. Surely it is part of the Government's cross-cutting approach? While we are on the subject of cross-cutting approaches and joined-up government, does the Minister accept that there is a need for greater co-operation between his Department and other Departments, not least the Department for Work and Pensions, in providing legal advice and advice on benefits, particularly in this context? Does it not follow that the DWP and other Departments should be prepared to provide subventions to his Department? I make that point because several people involved in this matter believe that the Government should take note of it, particularly if they are committed to an holistic approach—if I may use that jargon—to the provision of legal advice and representation.

The other major question to ask the Minister is whether the Government acknowledge that there is a need to cut bureaucracy. I am sure that other hon. Members are also concerned about the disproportionate amount of bureaucracy. The Minister will be aware that the legal aid civil contract has no fewer than 250 pages, and that the guidance to it has 1,000 pages. Dealing with that and the auditing requirements is eating into solicitors' time—time that could be spent more effectively dealing with the vulnerable people who come to solicitors' offices, sometimes in despair, for immediate legal advice and representation.

Is the Minister satisfied that the community legal services partnerships are working effectively? I doubt that they are in north Wales. I want the local authorities to be more supportive. The community legal service needs to provide more financial assistance to the committees. The CLS partnerships, the profession and other providers do not communicate well enough with each other. Should local authorities have a duty to cooperate with a CLS partnership, which are, after all, critical to the objective of matching need and demand to the supplier base?

I am concerned about the lack of transparency of CLS decision-making. I recently met several legal aid solicitors who practise family law in my constituency and who received a terse letter from the Legal Services Commission dated 25 November 2003. I will quote from the letter sent to Mr. Dylan Rhys Jones of J. R. Williams, which is based in Abergele. It says: Thank you for your application to be included on the bid panel. The Legal Services Committee for Wales identified your zone as having a higher number of case starts than average in Wales and therefore as a zone where we could consider a reduction in the number of case starts authorised in order to free up some funding towards areas of higher priority. You will therefore have to be assessed against specified criteria so that we can give priority to certain areas of work and to the best suppliers. That letter offended the solicitors who received it. They deal with a large number of family cases, only to be told that the LSC is prepared to pull the plug on them because they are busy doing their job as effectively as possible. That is unacceptable. I met Linda Summers, the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission in Wales, who told me that the decision had been reversed. I will, however, quote from a letter that I recently sent her following my meeting with the solicitors in my constituency, who said that there was a pressing need for stability of funding from the LSC to enable them to provide an effective service to the community. Will the Minister comment on the need for stability of funding? In my letter, I asked the LSC in Wales: In relation to the L.S.C.'s strategy, how are the 'priorities' established? Are you satisfied that the local partnerships are working effectively? You will recall that the solicitors present were very sceptical and I share that scepticism. Other points were made, but the general feeling among solicitors in the part of Wales that I represent is that there is a problem with the provision of legal aid services in rural, semi-rural and peripheral areas outside the main conurbations.

I should like the Minister to acknowledge that that is a problem and to say that the Government will deal with it and will be flexible and imaginative in their approach. We will never achieve completely unrestricted access to justice in the real world, but the Government are striving to provide that and are on the right track, although they must consider specifically what is happening in rural areas.

9.51 am
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this debate on a very important subject. I also convey to him congratulations from my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). Unfortunately, he has been detained in Committee elsewhere this morning, but he would have liked to be here to discuss this extremely important subject on a normal rainy Tuesday. If I were the hon. Member for Clwyd, West, I would be pleased to have secured the debate, but I think that its importance will demand a more prominent slot if we return to the subject in future.

There has been a major programme of closures of magistrates courts in rural north Wales during the past 10 years; for example, I think that seven courts have closed in the past 10 years in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. His constituency is approximately 100 miles north to south and 100 miles north-east to south-west. In the late 1970s, there were seven magistrates courts in the area, at Penrhyndeudraeth, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Barmouth, Bala, Llanrwst, Tywyn and Dolgellau. Those are small communities, but they are significant to that large rural area, and all the courts closed. Currently, there is only one court—at Dolgellau—and local people and legal professionals believe that it has been retained only because it is occasionally used as a Crown court. Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is the third-largest constituency in terms of geography, but it has only one magistrates court. Clearly, people are not well served by that situation.

I remember well the case that was made when the last magistrates court was closed, at Blaenau Ffestiniog. My hon. Friend made representations to the Lord Chancellor's Department, although he told me at the time that he believed that that was a waste of time. Many sensible arguments were proposed by members of various benches in Meirionnydd, but the then Under-Secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department seemed to pay no heed whatever to those arguments.

The case for closing the magistrates court at Blaenau Ffestiniog was as thin as it could be. Two years before the closure, £20,000 had been spent to upgrade the facilities. Then came the debate about closure. The best case for closure proposed by the clerk was that £12,000 would be saved directly. However, that case did not take into consideration the cost of transport and of solicitors, defendants, who were perhaps on legal aid, and magistrates having to travel many miles. In north-west Wales, we are in the unfortunate position whereby justices sometimes have to travel to my constituency and the town of Pwllheli from south Meirionnydd. That is a round trip of between 150 and 160 miles, which is a long way for justices to travel, as they are not always the youngest of people, nor in the best of health for that matter.

Lembit Öpik

Is not the irony of closing magistrates courts for accessibility reasons that those enormously long return journeys make justice far less accessible? Perhaps the Government should think about investing some of the £350 million of unpaid parking tickets and court costs in reopening some of those courts, which would at least show that they are serious about access to justice.

Hywel Williams

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We must ask ourselves what is economic in the delivery of justice to people in those dispersed and rural communities. I suspect that large pots of money are secreted in various parts of the system that could be more usefully deployed.

There is a serious point to be made about the delivery of justice. The justice of the peace system was devised to deliver justice locally through people who know the community well, but that is largely going by the board due to the closure programme. The hon. Gentleman will know that a similar process has being going on for several years in other parts of Powys and in rural Dyfed.

I propose the concept of justice miles. If it is unjustified—on both economic and environmental grounds—to transport green beans from Zimbabwe to a supermarket in Caernarfon, surely it is equally unjustified to transport defendants, witnesses and justices from the furthest reaches of Cwm Croesor to Dolgellau, or Caernarfon. That would take a day by bus, which is impractical. While we are on the subject of green beans, what about the baby sweetcorn that is transported from Colombia? I could go on, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I think that might try your patience.

Suffice it to say, it is difficult for people taking part in cases to arrive at the courts by 10 am, or even by 2 pm. My party is not against change for change's sake, but in this case the economic argument has been deployed insensitively and indiscriminately in rural areas of north Wales and elsewhere in the UK, as I am sure that other hon. Members will attest. Were we to accept that argument, it could then be applied elsewhere: there is a nice piece of real estate at the end of the Strand—I believe that it is called the royal courts of justice—that could easily be fashioned into a nice hotel. What if the royal courts of justice were to be relocated to north Wembley? I do not say that there is anything wrong with north Wembley, but I had the unfortunate experience of travelling there recently on the Bakerloo line—albeit with only a few changes.

We do not want members of the judiciary to trek to north Wembley, however easy that is. No one is seriously suggesting that, yet it seems just as reasonable as expecting defendants, lawyers and members of the bench to travel huge distances in rural areas. That is not access to justice, but the dismantling of a perfectly good system to cut costs, and it is detrimental to everyone involved.

9.59 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) on initiating this debate. I will try to bring a little Yorkshire influence to the debate, to balance the Welsh influence. There have always been good relations between Yorkshire and Wales, and I am sure that that will be true this morning.

First, I want to address a point that my hon. Friend mentioned: he said that he is a little shy about promoting the cause of solicitors and their importance in rural areas. However, in many market towns such as Selby—one of the market towns that I represent—solicitors are an important part of the local economy. People take great pride in the fact that local legal advice is available.

I, too, intend to concentrate on magistrates courts. Often in Westminster Hall, I have to bring bad news from Selby, whether it be about floods or the closure of mines, but today I want to tell hon. Members about a successful campaign to save a magistrates court. I also want to draw out one or two general lessons and to ask my hon. Friend the Minister some questions.

The steady national decline of magistrates courts to which other hon. Members have referred has been reflected locally in North Yorkshire. The list of court closures during the past decade under successive Governments reads like an ode to the train stations closed by Beeching—Market Rasen, Newmarket, Christchurch, Windsor, Thirsk, Dover, Blyth and Loughborough. They are all small, market towns that took great pride in their courts. The court closure programme has gone on for 10 years, and it has had a massive impact on the delivery of local justice. The question of closing Selby magistrates court was first mooted in 2001—the year in which the Auld report into our criminal justice system was published. One reference to North Yorkshire was buried deep in the report. Auld referred to the notion of local justice being unreal in many rural counties, quoting North Yorkshire as an example: Similarly, in North Yorkshire, nine magistrates' courts serve a population of 742,000 spread over 3,000 square miles. There have been three court closures in North Yorkshire since then, so we are now below the rump that in 2001 Auld said already made unreal any notion of local justice.

There was a massive campaign in Selby to try to save the courthouse. Most of the good citizens of Selby need never go near the court, yet local justice has an amazing resonance, and not just among solicitors. Local reporters and newspapers want justice delivered locally so that they can report it, which is sometimes a neglected aspect of the importance of local justice, and I received hundreds of letters from people to say that they could not possibly attend court in York, which would have been the alternative.

For example, I received a letter from someone in the village of Kirk Smeaton, who had recently been a witness in a case heard in Selby. They had been asked to arrive at the court in Selby at 10 o'clock. To get from Kirk Smeaton to York for that time, they would have had to take the 6.40 am bus to Pontefract, which arrives at 7.23. They would then have had to change to get to Selby at 8.10, before getting a bus to York at about half past 8, arriving at almost 10 o'clock. That person would have had to take three buses to get to York, and the proposed new courthouse would not even be in the city centre. Those practical reasons made people campaign strongly to keep the courthouse in Selby.

On 9 March, the North Yorkshire magistrates courts service issued a press release; it sounds a bit prosaic, but in Selby history it will be regarded like the Gettysburg address. It will resonate down the decades and centuries. The justices' chief executive, Paul Bradley, said that the magistrates courts committee's preferred option was to have two courthouses to serve the York/Selby area—a new courthouse in York and a separate courthouse in Selby. He also said: In the coming months, I intend to hold discussions with officials in the Department for Constitutional Affairs to see how this can be achieved—either by the provision of a new courthouse in Selby or, probably more likely, by adapting and refurbishing the present courthouse.

I realise that we have been fortunate locally in many ways, but I want to end by making some points to my hon. Friend the Minister. Will he take a personal interest in the discussions that will be initiated by North Yorkshire to ensure that the story will have a happy ending for Selby? He is a high-flying Minister with a reputation for rethinking policy, and I detect that Ministers are starting to pause for thought and consider whether the process of efficiency and closing magistrates courts in rural areas has gone too far. On the one hand, Departments send me a leaflet a week on rural proofing and how we must consider services in terms of rural delivery, yet on the other hand, there has for years been a policy of magistrates court closures in rural areas. I get the impression that Ministers are allowing one or two more appeals and that there are signs of a rethink. This is an excellent opportunity for the Minister to nuance the policy and to state that it is worth making appeals because the Government recognise the importance of local magistrates courts in delivering local justice in rural areas in England and Wales.

10.5 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

I apologise for being slightly late. I did not realise the severity of the affliction that had overcome my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), but I assure hon. Members that it is not stage fright—he has never been known to suffer from that.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) for securing the debate. The issue of access to justice in rural areas has affected my constituency and much of rural Wales over the past year or so, and I was privileged to secure a short debate in Westminster Hall, which was answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), in which I raised court closures in my constituency. I may refer to that debate later.

We all welcome the Government's commitment to making justice accessible to everyone. That lies at the heart of people's rights and of civil justice, but I fear that it is under threat in rural areas. There is no better deterrent to criminals than the certainty of detection and conviction, but many cases in rural areas are not pursued because of the difficulty of getting witnesses, and sometimes even victims—despite the assistance that they receive from Victim Support, to which I pay tribute—to attend court. Notwithstanding that support, it is often difficult for victims to attend court to see that justice is done and give evidence, because it is a stressful occasion and because of the difficulty of making the journey on public transport, if they do not have private transport.

As well as those problems, it has come to my attention lately that a number of rural solicitors firms have stopped accepting legal aid work. I spoke this week to a solicitor in my county town whose firm—the oldest established in the area—has regrettably decided against taking legal aid work despite realising the need for it. Therefore, people have less choice and less access to such support.

Yesterday morning, I was detained in my constituency by a lady who rang up and travelled 45 miles to my office because she could not get legal aid. She is the respondent in a divorce case and wanted advice on how to fill out forms. I did not feel able to give such advice, but I did what I could. She is on a low income, but has been refused legal aid because of the value of her house. Some people in rural areas who are on a low income live in relatively expensive residences.

My constituent was more concerned about the care of and contact with her children because she wants them educated at home, but her husband wants them to be educated in school. That is obviously not a run-of-the-mill situation and she desperately needed legal advice, but she was, as far as she could see, unable to get any. She asked me whether there is some system of pro bono work to help people facing such issues. I have great sympathy with the hon. Member for Clwyd, West on this: people in rural areas cannot get the specialised legal support that they need.

I am involved in an ongoing consultation with the Minister, and we are still fighting the closure of Ystradgynlais and Llandrindod magistrates courts. Things have become quite interesting. It was put to the local authority that unless it opposed the closure of Ystradgynlais and Llandrindod magistrates courts we could end up with no magistrates courts at all in Powys. That is recorded in the county council minutes. When the magistrates court committee presented its proposals that phrase was used. This is intolerable and the more I see of it, the more I am appalled.

Just across the border in Ceredigion, the council opposed the closure of Aberystwyth magistrates court. The Department, to its credit, overturned the decision and a new magistrates court will be built in Aberystwyth. The necessary funding has already been found. I congratulate the Department. I am fighting a rearguard action for the magistrates court system in my constituency and in Powys. I am pleased that the magistrates court in Newtown will go ahead shortly, subject to some planning problems being resolved and funding being found. Powys is the most sparsely populated local government area of England and Wales. People talk about Cumbria being sparsely populated, but Powys is three times more sparsely populated than that county, and people in Powys have to travel a huge distance to court and there is little public transport.

The debate is a wonderful opportunity to raise issues with the Minister. We all look forward to watching his career progress. Perhaps something he can do today will drive it forward.

Hywel Williams

A milestone.

Mr. Roger Williams

Yes, a milestone. We have raised two issues: legal aid, particularly in rural areas, and how we can strengthen the system while ensuring that it is readily available, and magistrates courts. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) was able to report on how a decision was overturned in his constituency. We look forward to the Government responding to our concerns about access to justice in rural areas and making similar decisions in future.

10.13 am
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) on securing the debate. It is an extraordinarily important debate. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) said, it is a matter to which we hope to be able to return on a larger stage. The principle of local justice is fundamental to our legal system. It goes back to the great charter and the idea that people are tried by their peers and that justice is administered locally by the people and the community affected by the crime.

There is a danger that that principle will be lost for the best possible reasons, reasons of efficiency, effectiveness and so-called rationalisation, while completely ignoring the impact on local, and especially rural, communities. Rural areas often seem to be forgotten in the formation of policy, but the real effect of court closures is on communities in rural areas, who feel that the criminal justice system is retreating from them and that the police services do not recognise their needs because for good, operational reasons they concentrate their activities on the higher empirical levels of crime in the big cities. Court closures make people in the rural communities feel abandoned by the criminal justice system, which is a dangerous position for them to be in.

Gareth Thomas

The hon. Gentleman may want to make a stab at defining a rural area. Does he agree that lots of people live in rural communities of one sort or another? Does he accept that the issue of access to justice embraces many different types of communities in rural areas, not necessarily those in the back of beyond?

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will not attempt a definition because I do not think that there is a satisfactory one; it will vary in different parts of the country. I entirely embrace his position, that the key to the issue is the market town, which is the hub of rural areas. Of course, people do not expect every village to have its own court, but they expect every community, in the wider sense, to have one, and that is what is being lost.

There are two principal strands to this well-informed and passionate debate: first, the provision of legal services, the main bone of contention in the speech of the hon. Member for Clwyd, West, which I commend; and secondly, the closure of magistrates courts, to which the hon. Members for Caernarfon and for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) drew attention.

I am not a lawyer, but I agree with the hon. Member for Clwyd, West on the provision of legal services. I am sick and tired of the easy and rather lazy caricature of all lawyers as fat-cat, city types who make a packet from legal aid. I see lawyers working at the other end of the system—not fat cats, but general practitioners of the legal service working in family practices in rural areas, and trying to provide a service to their community. They are unfortunately being caught in the backwash of an attitude that is increasingly shown by Ministers, who should know better, and peddled in the press, that the entire legal profession is simply trying to maximise its profits at the expense of others. I put it on the record that I do not believe that that is the case. It worries me that there is a contraction of those practices.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, West mentioned family law, which needs to be bound up with, and close to, rural communities if it is to be effective. It is no good if those who provide advice on family law and other specialist matters are remote from those communities, as that simply does not work. He also talked about advice deserts, which, perversely, are common in rural areas and in some of the most affluent parts of the country. The worst news is for people who do not have much money but live in an area that is considered affluent, because they will be cut off from every sort of support. They will not have the advantages that people who live in urban areas receive.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) may be able to expand on the fact that some parts of Surrey, which are thought of as desirable, affluent areas, are precisely those where the provision of advice support is at its lowest, because no one imagines that people living there may be in trouble and unable to afford legal advice.

What worries me—I do not think it has been mentioned yet—is the contraction of criminal defence work. The availability of criminal defence lawyers is a problem in large parts of the country; in an area such as mine, very few are willing to undertake criminal defence work. In Frome, a single practitioner—a partner in a local firm—does 99 per cent. of the criminal defence work in the local courts. He freely admits that he is cross-subsidised by his partners' work, because they are prepared to humour him by allowing him to continue what he thinks—as do I—is important work in providing defence services for the local community. However, any monopoly provider in any area poses problems. He often has prospective conflicts of interest, because if one young thug beats up another, he can bet his life that he has represented them both in the same courts. It is difficult—I am not sure that he accepts this—to make the same speeches before the same magistrates in support of the same individuals time after time. That is not good for the interests of justice either. He has said, worryingly, that if the local court closes, it will no longer be sustainable for him to make a 30 or 40-mile trip to a court to represent his clients, and he will not do it. That means that nobody will be providing criminal defence work in my area.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point about travel. He will know that under legal aid rates, the money paid to lawyers for travelling time is so poor that it utterly discourages them from travelling for more than, say, 20 minutes to anywhere.

Mr. Heath

The hon. Gentleman is right. Other professionals are not put in that position. There is a direct analogy between the provision of general legal and general medical services. Every town with a medical practice should have a legal practice providing a range of services to local people, but that is not currently the case. Sadly, it is increasingly not the case because there has been an unfortunate continuation, and in some cases acceleration, of court closure programmes across the country.

Since the Government came to power, 115 courts have been closed. That is not unique to this Government—it happened under the previous one, too—but it is a continuation of a trend that has not abated until a recent policy change. It would be welcome if the Minister could confirm that there has been a change of policy. The hon. Member for Caernarfon and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire talked about Wales, which, with 10 court closures since 1997, has been worst hit of all.

With the closure of a court, not only do the services go, but the physical entity is closed. That has huge symbolic importance: the court in a market town is often a prominent building, and is the community's guarantee that crimes committed locally are dealt with locally. Sometimes, the buildings themselves are equally important, and some closures have left fine buildings empty. The court in Keswick comes to mind: it is a listed building and has stood empty for four years. Presteigne, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, has another fine building that now has no effective use. I do not think that sufficient attention has been paid to how those courts are made usable. I accept the argument that courts should have easy access and be safe for the users, as nobody should be forced to use buildings that are entirely unsuitable, but we should make them appropriate for use, rather than making the easy and lazy assumption that the best solution is to close a court and replace it with a concrete monstrosity on the edge of the nearest big city.

There are also practical reasons why courts need to be kept open—transport, for instance, has already been mentioned. Convenience for court users is a key factor. It is not acceptable to have to travel long distances to act as a witness, solicitor, social worker or defendant.

Mr. Roger Williams

The magistrates court committee in Powys tried to use the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to close Llandrindod court. However, it was told firmly that the purpose of the Act was to make facilities accessible, not to close them when it is difficult to do so.

Mr. Heath

That is a clear illustration of what I have in mind. The fact that the police must travel long distances to get to courts has operational significance. There are already far too few police officers in many rural areas, because of operational reasons to which I have alluded. If the magistrates court is 30 miles away, the police are also 30 miles away attending court cases, which takes them out of area. That is not acceptable, and the same goes for the other professionals involved.

The hon. Member for Selby made an important point about reporting. If justice is to be seen to be done, reports of proceedings in the magistrates court need to be in the local newspaper. We need to be able to see that X has received a fine, a community sentence or a spell in prison for the crimes that he has committed in that community. That will not happen if the magistrates court is in a nearby big city that the local newspaper does not cover.

I want to refer to some parochial matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire talked about Ystradgynlais court and the hon. Member for Selby talked about Selby. I want to talk, briefly, about Frome. My constituency covers about 900 square miles but has only one magistrates court, which is under threat of closure, as is the court in the city of Wells, which is not in my constituency. The magistrates court committee firmly believes that the new unified courts system will result in the loss of both courts. The committee argues that it would therefore be better to pre-empt that by closing two courts and opening another court, which would not be convenient for the people of Frome, Wells or Shepton Mallet, as an alternative.

I cannot speak for Wells, but Frome court serves a town of about 20,000 or 22,000 and a large rural hinterland. It is the only court remaining in my constituency, which is large by English standards, if not by Welsh or Scottish standards. It is not in the interests of justice for that court to close. I hope that, with the new unified courts system, we shall take a new look not only at magistrates courts but, where appropriate, at the Crown court, and most importantly, family courts and the youth court system. We should start from a different basis and ask how such communities can best be served. How do we ensure that there is a network of courts in the unified court system that will help access in rural areas, maintain the presence of the criminal justice system and employ rural-proofing? We hear so much about that, but it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Often we do not see the effect of rural-proofing on the Government's policies.

I hope that I am not being unkind to either civil servants or the Minister here, but at times I think that some civil servants and Ministers simply do not understand what it is like to live in a village in the middle of Somerset and have huge difficulties in moving about, because there is no public transport system. They do not appear to understand the problems in relating to a criminal justice system that even now seems remote, even before the further depredations that we expect. I hope that he will say explicitly that the Government's policy will be to maintain a courts presence in rural areas, and that they will support those courts. I hope that we will not see further closures without replacement, and that the courts will continue to serve the communities that need to be served by our criminal justice system.

10.30 am
Mr. Humfrey Matins (Woking) (Con)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) on securing the debate and on the thoughtful way in which he introduced the subject. I also thank the hon. Members for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), for Selby (Mr. Grogan), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for their contributions to this excellent debate.

I declare an interest. My background is as a solicitor, a recorder of the Crown court, and a district judge operating in magistrates courts—formerly a stipendiary magistrate. The topic is therefore close to my heart. I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and with other hon. Members who have said that justice is better justice when it is local. The less local it is, the worse it becomes in many respects.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, through a series of questions, has elicited the fact that since 1997, 115 magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed, a fact that I regret greatly. However, it is right not to make too much of a party political point of the matter, because it is a world trend, even though it has accelerated somewhat since 1997.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire referred to his Adjournment debate in February 2004, during which the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) made a statement with which we would all agree, saying we expect magistrates to have a strong local connection and to live or work in the area in which they serve."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 3 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 235WH.] I say hear, hear to that. However, I am not sure that it fits the current trend.

I am very disappointed that so many magistrates courts are closing. I am not remotely persuaded by the argument that some of the buildings are slightly old- fashioned and that a more modern building 30 miles away would bring better justice. I preferred the days when the court was local, even if the interview arrangements were not ideal, and there were local magistrates. Moreover, in those days, there was a fair chance that the clerk to the justice would be legally qualified, whereas currently few of them are. Such clerks to the justices often did a splendid job in representing the interests of the unrepresented defendant in the courts—one does not see that so often now.

If we close courts, we lose a great deal. We lose magistrates who know their own area like the back of their hand. Magistrates who know an area well are a real plus. We lose magistrates who know the prevalent crimes in their area, which is important when it comes to sentencing. Currently, when I sit as a judge, I look at local guidelines on prevalent crime, because there may be a sentencing proposal that is slightly off the norm to deal with the prevalence of a crime in a particular area. We would lose that expertise.

If we close courts, we also lose magistrates who know, for example, their pubs and licensed premises well, which is often important in relation to licensing matters and crime. We also lose magistrates who know the local police force and local advocates well, and know which advocates they can trust and rely on.

Gareth Thomas

It is interesting that the subject of the debate has moved from access to justice to access to courts, which is a different concept. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned that he is a district judge—what used to be called a stipendiary magistrate. What is his view on the trend towards the greater use of stipendiaries rather than lay magistrates? What effect is that having on the delivery of local justice by lay people?

Mr. Malins

I was going to make that point, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. Having declared an interest, I should say that magistrates and justices of the peace play a vital role, and I would be unhappy if the long-term trend were towards placing district judges in remote centres to deal with crime. The role of the magistracy is very important, especially in rural areas.

To return to an earlier point, if one closes local courts, one loses the vital connection between the crime and the local newspaper. Currently, when someone commits a crime on Monday, they are in court on Wednesday, the story is in the local newspaper by Thursday, and everyone knows about it. That is an important aspect of community life.

What problems confront judges and magistrates when local courts close, and defendants and witnesses have to travel vast distances? I can tell hon. Members that the problems are immense. In truth, many defendants simply will not travel a long way to court, and, indeed, many cannot afford to do so. The same applies to witnesses, who are critical to trials, because many are reluctant or unable to travel great distances.

More often than not, I grant bail. When I grant it to defendants who live 30 miles from the court, it is my practice to tell them that I will bail them not until 10 am the following day but until 12 noon or even 2 pm. That is the only way in which I can give them a real chance of making it back to court. My mind boggles at the prospect of a defendant being bailed for 10 am, when the magistrates court is in a remote area 30 miles from where he or she lives. There will be no rural transport, so, for many people, the chance of getting there for 10 am is almost zero. That would not be the case for you or me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because, to be blunt, we could afford a taxi and ensure that we got there. However, many disadvantaged people—whether defendants or witnesses—cannot do that, and a defendant would commit an offence under the Bail Act 1976 if they did not appear in court. Trials are cracked or collapse because people do not turn up, and thousands of pounds are wasted when they could have been better used elsewhere.

What does the community lose if there is no local court? It loses a lot. It probably will not have in its midst quite as many trainee solicitors as it used to. Does that matter? Well, many of those young men and women contribute to their communities in different ways. They take an active role in church life, local government and sporting clubs. They take an interest in and are committed to local matters. Between them, they would probably do more pro bono work if they were present in numbers. If courts are closed, however, there will be fewer such people in the community.

There will also be fewer local probation staff and fewer people interested in joining Victim Support. In addition, people will be much discouraged from joining the magistracy, particularly if they are told that they will have to travel 20 or 30 miles for their sittings. As the hon. Member for Clwyd, West said, the long-term trend is potentially damaging not only to local communities and those affected by the administration of justice but to the lay bench. Finally, as I mentioned in passing, another result of such changes is that fewer people will be interested in joining the clerks profession, and the role of the qualified justice's clerk is a vital aspect of our society.

So, local courts are good news for reasons of expense, justice and sheer efficiency and high standards. Courts a long way from where defendants and witnesses live are bad news.

Legal aid rates and money are an aspect of local justice, and access to justice, that has been mentioned in several speeches. I think that it was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome who drew an analogy between health provision and legal provision in a town, and it was a good one. Every town should have lawyers who are capable of giving advice to the underprivileged. It is all very well for me to get in my motor car and travel 40 miles to London. I can do that.

However, the people who need the system are, more often than not, those who cannot jump into a smart motor car to travel 40 miles for advice. Those are the sort of people we should look after. They need advice on housing and benefits; and what about matrimonial matters, including the urgent injunctions that are quite often needed? Thirty years ago, when I was in practice, when someone under the threat of attack—usually a woman—came to the office, she could see a partner in the legal firm under the green form legal aid scheme. How good it was then, to be able to be at court in 10 minutes, to get her some form of relief. However, all that disappears in areas where people cannot find access to justice. Much of the change boils down to money. Legal aid rates have been held and cut in successive years. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has referred to legal aid as a postcode lottery. One in four bureaux apparently now operates in an "advice desert" and the availability of competent legal advice around the country is extraordinarily patchy. That is not a surprise—for the principal reason that legal aid rates have been cut dramatically, in real terms, in the past few years.

My father, who is 86, sent for a plumber a month ago. The plumber who turned up had travelled for an hour and was at my father's house for an hour before travelling home for another hour. My father paid £180 for that. Now, one might have thought that a solicitor's rate would be as good as a plumber's£far from it. My understanding is that a solicitor receives £12 an hour for travel and approximately £60 for the time spent with the client. In truth, there is heavier and heavier discouragement to lawyers to undertake legal aid work, and few are doing it. If fewer do it, who suffers? The poor, not the rich, suffer more than anyone else.

I have lost count of the number of times I have talked to solicitor friends who have said that one of their other major problems is the bureaucracy and form-filling that they must deal with all the time. Compliance audits and form-filling make for such a depressing life, they say, because they cannot spend enough of their time doing what they should be doing at a proper rate.

My advice to the Government is please ease up on solicitors' bureaucracy; please ensure that towns have properly paid local firms to give local advice; please make sure that everyone in the country has reasonably easy access to the courts; and please get across to the Home Secretary and other Ministers the fact that not all lawyers are bad, and that lawyer-bashing is not the answer to everything. Much of the answer is to respect the legal profession and try to send a message that it is appreciated, and, more importantly, needed in today's society.

10.44 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs () Mr. David Lammy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) for securing this morning's excellent debate. We have had good contributions on access to justice and to courts.

I have a little time in which to deal with all the points that have been raised, but the issue is vital throughout the country, including rural areas. I am glad that it is the subject of this morning's debate and it is also important in urban and suburban areas. I represent an urban area, but I went to school in East Anglia and I remember small towns and villages such as Wisbech, Stamford, Eastry and Peakirk. Access to justice is vital in such areas, and I am glad that we have the opportunity to discuss it.

In legal terms, access to justice is not an abstract idea. We discuss it every month or so in this place in debates on health services, education, rural bus services and transport, but it is also important in the legal context. It can mean the difference between having a roof over one's head or being evicted, and between being properly defended in court or being wrongly sent to prison. It means receiving quality advice in the local citizens advice bureau. Access to justice is very important to many people living on the periphery, as my hon. Friend suggested, but it is also important to people who live in rural communities.

Only three or four years ago, access to justice was a hit-and-miss affair. It was unplanned and there was no real concept of the fair allocation of scarce resources. Since the introduction of the community legal service in 2000, however, we have begun to see the change that people need in their areas. The Legal Services Commission, which replaced the old Legal Aid Board, operates throughout England and Wales, and plans carefully to ensure that the most pressing needs for legal services are met first and that local voices are heard when assessing legal problems and issues.

It is important to state for the record that this debate relates to what the public think of as legal aid. Legal aid was a fantastic invention of the Attlee Government and an important contribution to the life of this country. It stands alongside universal education and universal health provision as a cornerstone of a civilised democracy.

I will talk about modern legal aid and the community legal service, but before I do so, it is right that I should spend a little time talking about court closures, which hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have mentioned. Hon. Members will know that magistrates courts are managed locally by magistrates courts committees, which throughout the country comprise local people, as set out in the Justices of the Peace Act 1997. Each committee is solely responsible for the efficient and effective administration of magistrates courts in its area. Hon. Members will also know that local authorities sometimes dispute those decisions, which must be taken locally. If decisions are disputed, they may end up on the Minister's desk. Only then may a decision be taken to stop a court closure.

On 3 February, we had a very good debate, which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) secured, on court closures in mid-Wales.Hansard recorded the debate, and I will not discuss it today. However, I want to put it on record that the Government strongly support the notion of local justice. The essential feature of local justice is that magistrates live or work in the locality, but it cannot follow that each community across the country will have its own courthouse. The Government can consider those matters if a local authority refers them to us.

Hywel Williams

Will the Minister give the Government's definition of locality?

Mr. Lammy

The hon. Gentleman knows that those issues depend on local circumstances. A unified courts service, towards which he knows we are progressing, will not only enable magistrates courts committees to deal with magistrates courts and the Court Service to deal with county courts, but allow local people to look locally to courts that are fit for purpose, can accommodate modern technology and ensure access for disabled people.

I want to clarify what the Government have done, although I do not want to be partisan. I am grateful that hon. Members have outlined the context, as 21 magistrates courts were closed in 1996 under the previous Administration, although that number diminished considerably in the last few years. In the last few months, Ministers have allowed appeals against court closures in London—Kingston, Sutton, Harrow, Barking and Dagenham—as well as in Grays, Aberystwyth, Caernarfon and Sutton Coldfield. We look at the circumstances and we are prepared to keep our courts open.

Mr. Heath

The difficulty for many of us is that a lot of magistrates courts committees formed the view that they were required, if not because of resource limitations then for some other reason, to "rationalise" their courts. Will the Minister give a clear undertaking that under the unified courts procedures, a key element underlying policy will be maintaining that service for and in the local community? If that element is present, we will start with the right basis for policy making at local level.

Mr. Lammy

Local justice must involve flexibility, which is key. Flexibility cannot mean that the Minister in Whitehall starts to tie people's hands over what happens locally. Decisions must be made locally, but if a local authority is unhappy with a decision it may come to a Minister's desk. The recent past demonstrates that we are able to stand up for local issues.

Let me move on, importantly due to the time available, to focus most of my remaining comments on legal aid. I have made two trips to Wales recently. I visited the Riverside advice centre and the headquarters of Shelter Cymru to see for myself the excellent ongoing work to address problems in Wales. I put on record the Government's thanks to the many legal aid practitioners across the country who do publicly-funded work on behalf of the taxpayer for poor people who really need that service. I know that there is a lot of debate about legal aid lawyers and I am afraid that there are areas of practice—I will not go into them today—in which we have not seen the quality that we have come to associate with legal aid lawyers. However, by and large, they do a tremendous service across the country.

The CLS budget has come a long way in a short time. Spending on legal help in Wales has increased from £9.3 million in 2001–02 to £11.4 million in 2002–03. Over the same period, CLS partnerships have spread rapidly across England and Wales, with more than 99 per cent. of the population now covered by a partnership. CLS partnerships bring together local funders and providers of legal services to help in the planning and development of local services. They do that by producing strategic plans that consider all aspects of need and provision in the area. Those plans are fully taken into account when the LSC makes its decisions on where the funding goes.

Let us be clear about what that means. We previously had advice services and legal aid lawyers throughout the country, but the service was patchy and unco- ordinated—people did not know where to access it—until we introduced the CLS, which has set the standard with the quality mark provision and organised strategic plans for local areas. Of course, the needs in Wales will be different from those in my inner-London constituency. Until we introduced the CLS, uncoordinated legal services were provided ad hoc by lawyers, pro bono law students and advisers, but in 2000 this Government provided that co-ordination through the CLS. In Wales in particular, the Legal Services Commission is engaged in the CLS partnerships in all 22 local authority areas.

All that is encouraging, but, better still, it is good news for those who need good quality legal services. Quality is another major advance that the Government have brought to legal services. With the introduction of the CLS came the quality mark, in which I have believed strongly since I saw it taking shape in my constituency when I was a Back Bencher. The mark has meant that the poor and socially excluded people who need legal services can bank on their quality. Just because someone was sat behind a desk in a suit, it did not mean that they knew what they were saying, so I am glad that the Government have brought the quality mark to bear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West spoke about gaps in provision in our local areas. The Legal Services Research Centre, which is the research arm of the LSC, recently published a report called "Causes of Action", which provides a lot of assistance in strengthening the CLS. It gives us the clearest picture yet of the legal problems that people face and of unmet need. The Government acknowledge that unmet need exists in our communities, and that we must ensure that people are getting advice at the right stage and from those who are appropriately trained.

We are running a family advice and information networks—FAINs—project with family law practitioners. It encourages lawyers to consider other local services such as social welfare, as well as the legal advice that they provide, to ensure that the vulnerable women who turn up at their practices are not directed solely down the legal path. I saw a FAINs project in Swansea, and those are the type of project that the Government want to continue with. That is why we commenced an independent review of the CLS, which is due to report in April.

The report will give us the opportunity to develop the CLS, building on its success and ensuring that we are dealing with any gaps. Comments were made on contracts, and we have also undertaken research on the development of the supply and purchasing of legal aid arrangements. We have done that because it is important for us to understand what is going on in our law firms and centres.

I have not been able to deal with all my hon. Friend's points, but I will write to him to cover them. I say to him also that where there is bureaucracy, I will seek to deal with it. I know that the LSC is ensuring that its next round of contracts is shorter, and I hope that he is pleased about that.

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