Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Justice for All meeting in the House of Lords

Members of the House of Lords attended a meeting yesterday organised by Justice for All on the future of civil legal aid. The meeting was hosted by Baroness D’Souza, Lord Newton, Lord Bach and Lord Phillips.

Welcoming members of the House of Lords and Justice for All to the meeting, Lord Bach, the former legal aid minister, stressed that the event was not a party political one. He said, 'I fear if the government’s proposals on legal aid become a reality it will be the very poor who will lose out most.' Lord Newton, the former Secretary of State for Social Security under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, spoke of his 'anxiety' about the proposed reforms and stressed the need for Lords to be 'kept very well informed about them'. Lord Phillips, a Liberal Democrat peer said, 'With 10-1,300 new statute laws a year, it is organised hypocrisy if the government does not give people the means to access these laws.' Baroness D’Souza, a crossbench peer, stressed that it is 'important to organise' the effort to influence the legislation when it reaches the Lords.

After the initial speeches from the hosts, the meeting heard contributions from practitioners, organisations and clients concerned about the government’s proposals for civil legal aid. Laura Janes from Young Legal Aid Lawyers spoke about her work at the Howard League for Penal Reform, 'The children in prison I see usually have a history of years and years of unmet legal needs, which if they had been met would have most likely meant they would not have ended up in prison.' Many speakers stressed the importance of initial advice on problems to prevent them escalating. James Sandbach from Citizens Advice emphasised that it was through legal aid that Citizens Advice Bureaux provide specialist advice as 'sometimes those services provided by volunteers can only go so far'.

A speaker from the Women’s Institute, which is a member of Justice for All, talked about how the legal aid system helped her to escape a violent husband. She said that without legal aid she would have most likely remained in the abusive relationship afraid to bring divorce proceedings because her husband was 'a wealthy man'. A former client from the housing charity Shelter spoke of the need to be able to talk to someone face to face as many people facing multiple problems like her 'often do not have the confidence to simply pick up the phone for advice'.

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff from the Law Society said, 'We have come up with a package of cuts, including cutting fees, but not cutting scope, as we do have an alternative to the government’s proposals.' Steve Hynes from LAG said that he believed the bill to include provisions on legal aid is likely to receive its first reading in the House of Commons next month and that LAG would hope that, unless the bill was amended in the Commons, the Lords would take the opportunity to support amendments which provided 'alternatives to cuts in scope as these would hit the poorest and most vulnerable hardest'.

Gail Emerson from Citizens Advice closed the formal part of the meeting by outlining Justice for All's plans for the day of action on 3 June. She said that the day had been planned for the parliamentary Whitsun recess 'so that Justice for All members can see their MPs locally' and to 'highlight the impact of the proposed cuts at a local level'.

Image: Lord Phillips, a founder member and patron of LAG

No comments: