Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Legal Aid Bill amendments

Legal aid for housing cases threatened

The committee scrutinising the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill resumes its work today (Tuesday 6 September). A number of amendments have been put forward for consideration by members of the committee which includes the justice minister Jonathan Djanogly MP and his Labour opposition counterpart, Andrew Slaughter MP.

Amendments from the government, proposed by Jonathan Djanogly, include a number which alter the current provisions in Schedule 1 of the bill regarding housing law. The grounds on which a tenant can counterclaim in a housing repossession case are widened, but it is unclear if the common counterclaim of disrepair has been brought back into scope. LAG believes this is a glaring anomaly which needs to be addressed as without it irresponsible landlords in both the public and private sectors will have no incentive to keep properties in a good state of repair.

It is also not clear if the government’s proposed amendments reinstate the right of tenants to claim damages if they are illegally evicted by a landlord. Many tenants do not wish to return to the property which they have been illegally evicted from, due to the distress this has caused. As the proposals in the Legal Aid Bill now stand, tenants in this position would not be able to obtain legal aid to assist them in fighting their cases. LAG believes legal aid should be reinstated in illegal eviction cases as the right to claim damages discourages landlords from trying to force tenants out illegally.

Labour members of the bill committee are moving a number of amendments which reinstate cuts the government has proposed to the scope of the legal aid scheme. For example, Andrew Slaughter is moving an amendment which would reinstate legal aid in medical negligence cases. Kate Green MP, another Labour member of the committee, is proposing an amendment which would widen the definition of domestic violence. This is a move widely supported by women’s rights groups including Rights of Women and the Women’s Institute.

LAG argues that the definition adopted by the Association of Chief Police Officers should be included in the bill. This includes psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse which takes place 'between adults ... who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender and sexuality'. LAG understands that the government is resisting adopting this wider definition, but is likely to face sustained pressure to do so in the coming weeks.

Plaid Cymru's member of the committee, Elfyn Llwyd MP, has also given notice of a number of amendments. It is believed that he might play a pivotal role in persuading government members of the committee, which include the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, to back amendments which are against the government’s line.

The bill committee will also meet on Thursday this week and next week, before breaking for three weeks for the party conferences. The government wants to move the Legal Aid Bill to its next stage in the House of Lords on 13 October, but will be hard pressed to do so, due to the number of amendments which organisations concerned with the provisions in the bill want to be considered.

Image: LAG

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