Neil Parish urges Government to reconsider proposals for Legal Aid reform in Devon and Cornwall

Neil Parish broadly supports the Government’s proposals to reduce the costs of legal aid, but urges further consultation on proposals for a single contract covering Devon and Cornwall.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate. I must declare straight away that I am not a lawyer. I hope that I can therefore approach the debate in an impartial manner. I have been listening to it, and I am concerned to hear that so many small firms of lawyers could be excluded from the large contracts. Devon and Cornwall cover 40,000 square miles, and that will be viewed as one contract. That is a huge area to cover. I am not against the principle behind the reform, but we must be careful about introducing contracts that will cover such huge areas. We must ensure that smaller companies have a chance to tender for that work.

Mr Burrowes: My hon. Friend makes a good point about small firms. I work in one such firm as a criminal defence solicitor. Does he recognise a certain irony, in that the Government want to avoid the legal aid deserts that it has been suggested could be created as a result of the equal-sized contracting model, and that the small firms, the medium-sized firms and the large firms are all saying that the proposed model is unviable?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience as a lawyer in a law firm. He has identified the problem with the reform, and I can relate to what he is saying. I suspect that all Conservative Members recognise the need to make savings, but we need to do so in a way that will still allow people to have a choice. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are keen to see small law firms get business and stay in business.It is estimated that about £20 million is being spent on the defence of criminals, many of whom are probably not declaring all their assets, and I agree with the Government that that needs to be sorted out. That is perhaps a slightly different issue, but it is none the less essential that taxpayers’ money is used to the best effect.

A cut-off point can be set on a person’s income above which they will not qualify for legal aid, but there are also cases in which someone who is eligible for it carries on a vexatious case against a person who is just above the threshold and has to fund the case themselves. That is perhaps not a matter for debate today, but it is essential, if we are to ensure that people can get access to legal aid, to ensure that those cases that are pursued are legitimate and not simply vexatious.It has been pointed out that we are seeing a great many judicial reviews. It is right that the Government should be challenged, but it not necessarily right that everyone should have access to a judicial review, as they are often unnecessary.

I broadly support the Government’s attempt to reduce the costs of legal aid, but I am concerned about certain aspects of it, as I live in and represent an area of Devon that is very rural and the proposed contract will be very large. I believe that the Secretary of State and the Minister are listening to these arguments; the Minister is nodding his head. I do not want us to be a Government who reduce choice, who drive out of business many small firms that do an excellent job and, perhaps, who do not save anywhere near as much money as we believe we will. Before we go ploughing on with this, let us sit down and have a proper consultation. I am hopeful that the Government are not just saying this and that they will have meaningful talks. I look forward to that happening.| Hansard