Saturday, 25 June 2011

Legal aid bill row

Last week, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was published. In LAG's view, the bill as drafted attempts to completely recast the legal aid system as a much reduced rump mainly concerned with criminal justice, child protection and the minimal provision of access to justice around human rights in order to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. To this end, the rights of ordinary citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable, have been cast aside.

Practitioners and parliamentarians got an early opportunity to see the minister responsible for legal aid, Jonathan Djanogly, defend the government's plans when he was the guest speaker at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid (APPGLA) meeting on Wednesday 22 June, the day after the bill was published. The minister was subjected to detailed questioning from the large audience of parliamentarians, practitioners and others concerned about the cuts announced in the bill.

Opening the meeting, Yvonne Fovargue MP, the chairperson of APPGLA, made the point that while provisions on sentencing reforms had made the headlines, it was the cutbacks in legal aid that would have the most significant impact on her constituents. Djanogly reiterated much of what had already been stated by his boss, Kenneth Clarke, the day before while introducing the bill in the House of Commons. He stated that while the government was making cuts, the legal aid scheme would continue to be 'one of the most generous in the world' and that it was 'retaining funding for a wide range of rights' but that 'the overall effect of the bill will be to achieve significant savings'.

Law Society president, Linda Lee, led the comments from the audience: 'I am disappointed and heartbroken; this attack on civil legal aid is an attack on the most vulnerable.' Lord Carlile, a former Liberal Democrat MP, asked the minister how he would advise someone who suspected his/her child had suffered damage during birth: 'Would they fall into the exceptional funding criteria?' Djanogly answered that it was not his role to give advice - s/he would have to go to a lawyer for that. He said that the majority of such cases would be able to use a conditional fee arrangement, but that 'litigation must be a risk and the question I have to ask is whether the taxpayer has to pay'.

To a question raised by Linda Lee about the government's failure to look at the alternative funding put forward by the Law Society, Djanogly said: 'Much of what was suggested by the Law Society was to get others to pay for legal aid. When you go to the Treasury, it is not so keen about creating new taxes.'

The minister left the meeting with an audience disgruntled about his defence of the bill and angry with the government for its complete dismissal of the 5,000 responses to the consultation. Even the widely expected concession on the definition of domestic violence amounts to a highly restrictive one, which will exclude many victims from claiming legal aid.

The parliamentarians at the meeting promised the bill a rocky passage through both Houses. In defiance of convention, the government is moving to a second reading of the bill next Wednesday, instead of leaving the customary two weekends between publication and the first debate in the House of Commons. LAG hopes that some significant concessions will be made by the government to improve access to justice before the bill becomes law.

A full report on the APPGLA meeting will appear in the July issue of Legal Action magazine.

Image: LAG

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