Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Liberal Democrat 'disquiet' over legal aid cuts

Justice for All (JfA), the campaign against legal aid and other cuts in legal advice services, held a fringe meeting this morning at the Liberal Democrat party conference.

In a strong speech, James Sandbach, from JfA, told the meeting that the areas of law the government is preparing to take out of the scope of the legal aid system affected the 'most vulnerable in society' and that the proposals amounted to a '66 per cent cut to civil legal aid'. Sandbach said, 'It is disappointing that the government has targeted social welfare law cases as this is the gritty law that affects ordinary people’s lives'.

The government intends to cut all help with benefits, employment and debt cases, as well as severely limiting advice on housing and other civil law cases. On Saturday morning the conference approved a resolution critical of the government’s plans for the reform of welfare benefits. The resolution, which was drafted by Sandbach, argued that claimants going to appeal should be 'given access to adequate support and legal representation'. At the fringe meeting this morning the justice minister Lord McNally dismissed this saying it was a 'Saturday morning resolution, which cannot mean that parliamentarians have to follow it', although he conceded he had to take account of his party’s views on the issue.

Lord McNally, speaking about the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is due to receive its first reading in the House of Lords in October or November, said that while it was 'worth campaigning on the bill' he could not promise any major concessions, as he 'did not want to offer false hope'. However, he conceded that he is open to 'advice and informed briefings' and would take concerns back to his boss Kenneth Clarke, the Secretary of State for Justice.

Alan Beith, a Liberal Democrat MP and the chairperson of the justice select committee, spoke more freely, reiterating the committee’s criticisms of the government’s plans, particularly around the cuts to social welfare law. He said he believed that the £20m Cabinet Office fund announced earlier in the year for the not for profit sector could only be a temporary measure.

The fringe meeting was hosted jointly by JfA and the Law Society. Nick Fluck, deputy vice-president of the Law Society, was critical of the government for talking about 'legal spend, rather than ensuring justice'. He spoke of the need for the government to improve the efficiency of the courts, to introduce 'polluter pays policies' to recover the cost of legal aid and the need for better decision making in government departments to offset the demand for legal aid. Referring to the proposals to reform the funding of damages cases included in the Legal Aid Bill, he said that 'insurers were very pleased about the proposals'. He argued that while they will reduce risk for insurance companies he was doubtful whether any savings will be passed on to the public.

'Despite the minister’s comments it is clear that there is much disquiet among many Liberal Democrats about the impact of the proposed legal aid cuts. Justice for All will hope to build on this to gather support for the bill to be amended once it reaches the Lords,' said James Sandbach speaking to LAG immediately after the fringe meeting.

Legal Action Group sits on the JfA campaign steering group.

Pic: Justice for All

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