On 17th July 2013, Lord Bach moved a motion to regret on the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013.The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, expressed concern that the level at which permitted disposable capital was set would render some older people in particular less capable of securing legal aid without selling their homes. He hoped that if vulnerable people’s access to legal representation were damaged by the regulations the government would change course on humanitarian grounds and not defend the regulations on the basis of a flawed ideology.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, a key reference in this Motion of Regret is to “vulnerable people”, which is why this non-lawyer dares to stand amid such legal luminaries and feels a bit vulnerable himself.
A civilised country is one where we are all free under the law and where vulnerable people are not left defenceless against unjust treatment by another person, organisation or even an agent of government. Vulnerability is relative, of course, but the calculations that inform the regulations under discussion concern people who may be a very long way, as we have heard, from financial comfort and security, and may have multiple other needs.
The level at which permitted disposable capital is set is likely to render some older people in particular less capable of securing legal aid when faced by serious problems requiring legal redress. The levels seem to be set deliberately low. An older person with a capital value in their house of, let us say, £150,000 and an income that is modest yet sufficient to take them over the limits here might have to sell up to pay for legal services in a case, for example, involving mental capacity or criminal negligence. If they do not sell, they will have no access to the law, or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has just illustrated, they would have to represent themselves.
Do we think that such a person should move away from the support structure of family and friends just when they might need them most, when suffering from an injustice, if they are to realise any capital? Perhaps I am painting too gloomy a picture, but these seem to me to be the likely consequence of the regulations. I should be grateful if the Minister would address such dilemmas and what someone in such a dilemma is expected to do.
Last week, the Justice Secretary’s statement that he was ideologically opposed to legal aid for prisoners in almost all situations, however disabled or disadvantaged they were, caused comment. I know that this is not the focus of this Motion of Regret, but the use of the word “ideological” was worrying. Ideology has too often trumped humanity in the history of the 20th century. Of course, the term emerged from the French Revolution, so its pedigree is argued over.
Although I am sure the Minister will robustly defend the regulations, I hope he will recognise that if they damage access to legal representation for vulnerable people, the Government will have to change course on humanitarian grounds and not defend themselves on the basis of a flawed ideology.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): …I hear what was said by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. However, they do not do the cause that they espouse—desiring to help the poorest and most vulnerable in our society—any good by arguing that these changes, which will affect people with quite substantial assets behind them, are the right priority in the circumstances in which we find ourselves…