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Legal aid bill battered by 'very impressive' lords

Six amendments passed as peers refuse to be 'bought off' by concessions

12 March 2012

The coalition’s legal aid bill received a battering in the House of Lords last week, with six amendments passed despite further government concessions.

Two of the amendments, on domestic violence and welfare benefits appeals, may prove difficult for the government to reverse in the Commons.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said the government was looking “really shaky” on domestic violence.

“They are coming under a lot of pressure on women’s issues and can see from opinion polls that women are turning against them,” he said.

On welfare benefit appeals, Hynes said ten Liberal Democrat MPs had already supported a Labour amendment to the legal aid bill in the Commons.

“There’s a lot of disquiet on the Liberal backbenches about the withdrawal of welfare advice, especially in complex cases,” Hynes said.

He said peers were not surprised by Lord McNally’s concession that the Lord Chancellor would be given the power to restore areas of work to the scope of the scheme in the future, should the economy improve.

“They won’t be bought off by the promise of jam tomorrow. The debate has moved on.”

Carol Storer, director of the LAPG, said the government had come up against stronger opposition than it expected from a “very impressive” House of Lords.

“A lot of peers really know what they’re talking about,” she said. “Their expertise has been crucial and they can see the government’s proposals will lead to mounting injustice.

“The government gave away so little at the beginning it made people think deeply about the issues. It’s an interesting question whether the concessions were so minimal that they really irritated people.”

Storer said some the issues raised by the legal aid bill were “patently clear” and people thought concessions would be made earlier.

She added that it was disappointing that more Lib Dem lords did not vote for the amendments given the “heroic” lobbying effort mounted by the advice agencies.

On domestic violence, Lord McNally attempted to win over peers by conceding that undertakings should be accepted as evidence, but an amendment tabled by Baroness Scotland, the former Attorney General, was passed by 238 votes to 201.

The amendment, and two others that were not the subject of a vote, would put the Lord Chancellor under a positive duty to ensure legal aid was available, widen the definition beyond the government’s revised version and remove “arbitrary” time limits.

On welfare benefits, Lib Dem peer Baroness Doocey secured an amendment to enable those with complex issues to challenge decisions by appeal to the First-tier Tribunal.

The amendment was carried by 237 votes to 198. A further amendment, which would cover representation in welfare benefits appeals at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, was also passed by 222 votes to 194.

On medical negligence, former paralympic athlete Baroness Grey-Thompson failed to get enough backing to preserve legal aid for all cases, narrowly losing a vote on her amendment by 175 votes to 168.

However, an earlier amendment tabled by Lord Lloyd, which would retain legal aid for expert reports in medical negligence cases, was narrowly passed by 178 votes to 172.

The Lords debate could not have got off to a worse start for the government when amendment 1, tabled by Lord Pannick, was carried. This would insert a statement making it clear that “within the resources made available”, the purpose of the bill was to ensure that “individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”.

Lord Pannick said the amendment “did not require any further expenditure by the government” and the only question was what whether it was appropriate to include a “statement of legislative purpose at the outset”.

Later in the debate, an amendment was passed putting the Lord Chancellor under a duty to ensure the independence of the new director of casework, once the Legal Services Commission is abolished and the Ministry of Justice takes over, who will make decisions on which cases should be publicly funded.

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