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Lords queue up to condemn legal aid bill

22 November 2011

The government’s legal aid bill met fierce opposition in the House of Lords last night, during a seven-hour debate in which peer after peer attacked the cuts.

At the end it appeared that justice minister Lord McNally accepted the need to reconsider some key parts of the bill, such as the definition of domestic violence and the plans for medical negligence.

However, the Lib Dem peer said he would not respond in detail until the bill reaches its committee stage, which, at the earliest, will begin in the last week before the Christmas break.

The scene was set by Lord Davidson, a Labour peer, who said the bill targeted the wrong people – vulnerable families in the case of legal aid and victims in the case of the civil litigation proposals.

He said that people who appeared before tribunals with legal advice were twice as likely to win as those who appeared without.

Lord Davidson said conditional fees had worked “remarkably well” as a means of funding litigation and ending the recoverability of success fees meant that winning claimants would lose out.

He warned that Jackson LJ’s proposals to introduce qualified one-way costs shifting (QOCS), which are not part of the bill but are being worked on separately, could lead to an “explosion of fraudulent small claims”; for example, for trips and slips.

He added that even the NHSLA had warned that severely brain-damaged children and adults would find it hard to instruct a lawyer if the bill goes through.

Lord Thomas, a Lib Dem peer, said the argument in favour of keeping medical negligence within the scope of legal aid was “overwhelming”.

He said that although he had opposed the increase in success fees under Access to Justice Act, the bill would lead to the destruction of ATE insurance provision outside personal injury.

Baroness Grey-Thompson said the legal aid cuts could end up as a “double whammy” for disabled people, facing cuts in benefits under the government’s welfare law reform bill.

Lord Bach wound up the debate for Labour by asking what the point was in legal rights if there was no possibility of accessing them and calling on peers to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves.

In a separate development, the government has found a further £20m to fund advice agencies.

The money will come from a new advice services fund set up within the Big Fund, the non-lottery arm of the Big Lottery Fund.

Nick Hurd, minister for the civil society, said: “This is a serious commitment to help free advice services carry on delivering much needed help to people struggling with debt, welfare benefits, employment and housing problems in these difficult economic times.

“The Cabinet Office will also be carrying out a review of free advice services to ensure that we do all we can to help the sector.”

The advice services fund will open for applications by the end of November. Applicants must provide advice in debt, welfare benefits, employment or housing cases and be able to show funding cuts of at least ten per cent in 2011-12.

Across the UK a total of £20m has been released for advice service funding. £16.8m will be spent in England.

Categorised in:

Legal Aid Clinical negligence