Ministers backed down on controversial plans to make it harder for victims of domestic violence to claim legal aid; but otherwise refused to bow to all but three of the 11 of the amendments.
On Tuesday night MPs debated the amendments made to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill during its passage through the House of Lords. The justice secretary Ken Clarke, made several concessions but rejected the majority of the Lords’ amendments:
The concessions concerned:
- Independence of the ‘Director of Legal Aid Casework’: Ministers accepted that there was a risk of political interference in the director’s work determining exceptional funding provision and provided their own amendment to clarify the situation.
- Domestic violence: The definition of domestic violence has been amended to accurately reflect that used by ACPO. See HERE. In relation to the evidence criteria Clarke went further than before stating that a broader range of evidence would be accepted (including notes from a GP or social worker and entrance to a refuge) but that the proper place to expand on these was in regulations. The time limit during which these would be accepted was extended from 12 to 24 months.
- Welfare benefits: Ministers conceded that legal aid was necessary for appeals to the Upper Tribunal and Senior Courts and provided their own amendment. Clarke rejected amendments to provide legal aid for reviews and appeals to the lower tribunal, but did suggest that he was investigating – with the DWP – a system of providing legal aid in the lower tribunal where a point of law was at stake.
Ken Clarke described the domestic violence concession ‘fairly formidable’, see HERE.
There was anger at the government plans not to protect mesothelioma victims from reforms to ‘no win, no fee’ which will mean that lawyers’ fees will come out of any compensation. Every year about 2,000 people die of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung that arises from exposure to asbestos, which is nearly always terminal. .
‘Under the new system, for the first time since the opposition’s reforms which did so much to create a compensation culture in our country, the client will have an interest in what their lawyer is being paid,’ said legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly explaining why mesothelioma sufferers would not be exempt from the cuts. ‘Until we get back to that situation, there will be an ongoing ratcheting of costs, which is not in the interests of such claims.’ The Opposition amendments ‘rate one sort of claim above another’. ‘Somehow, a mesothelioma claim is automatically more worthy than a personal injury claim. The Government simply do not accept that,’ he added.
John Woodcock, the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness which has one highest number of mesothelioma suffers in the country, said: ‘Does he not understand how insulting and potentially distressing it is to those sufferers to be branded as part of a compensation culture?’
The Tory MP Tracey Crouch urged her government to think again. ‘With meso, people die quickly and painfully, and often with good cause for compensation, but without any early settlement in sight,’ said the MP. She called her Medway constituency ‘a hot spot for mesothelioma’ as of its shipbuilding past. ‘I pray that I never contract a disease as nasty as mesothelioma, but I also pray that the Government do all that they can to support those who do, including by providing easy access to justice and ensuring that full and fair compensation is paid to the victims as quickly as possible,’ she said.
The legal aid bill also plans a ‘single gateway’ to what will remain of a post-cuts legal aid scheme – this will be a ‘simple, straightforward’ telephone service. Djanogoly argued that the aim of the telephone gateway was ‘to route access to legal aid, in the first instance, by the phone’. ‘That is not only much more efficient, enabling calls to be properly triaged, but simpler to access and generally of higher quality.’
‘What about those with mental illness, special educational needs, learning difficulties or no English?’ asked the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes. ‘What will happen to ensure they get legal advice and do not give up before they can get anywhere?’
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award