Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Legal Aid Bill in the House of Lords

Before the Christmas recess, momentum was building in the House of Lords on amendments to the Legal Aid Bill (or to give it its full title, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill). Next week, peers will recommence their detailed scrutiny of the bill in committee. LAG believes the level opposition to the bill among peers will not have dissipated over the festive season.

Former Cabinet members in Margaret Thatcher’s governments, Lord Tebbit and Lord Newton, are the most prominent Conservatives pushing for changes to the bill. They have put their names to amendments which would preserve legal aid in clinical negligence cases involving children. Crossbench non-party political peers such as Baroness Butler-Sloss, the well-respected former senior judge, are supporting a raft of amendments which would alter the bill’s provisions on legal aid in domestic violence cases, matters involving children and other issues. Prominent lawyer crossbenchers such as Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Pannick, a member of the Lords Constitution Committee, are leading the charge against provisions in the bill which, if they are not amended, would leave ministers open to the accusation of political interference in decisions on granting legal aid. They are also concerned about clauses in the bill which seek to curtail a suspect’s right to legal advice when detained in the police station.

The government is likely to argue that much of the detail of the circumstances in which someone can claim support from the legal aid scheme will be dealt with in secondary legislation. For example, in domestic violence cases it wants the specific criteria which a victim must meet to qualify for legal aid to be covered in a set of regulations which are not included in the bill. Government supporters are also likely to argue that sufficient safeguards are built into the decision-making process on granting legal aid to prevent political interference. Peers, especially those with an interest in legal matters, are not likely to accept such assurances, preoccupied as they rightly are with the detail of the law and the implications of what is proposed.

LAG believes the House of Lords as a whole will want to scrutinise and amend the detail of a bill which is mainly aimed at saving cash from the Ministry of Justice budget at the expense of civil rights and access to justice. All the indications are that peers are very exercised about the impact of the proposals contained in the bill on vulnerable groups such as children, victims of domestic violence, people with disabilities and other minority groups. It is likely that a high level of vocal support for amendments in the committee stage to protect these groups will persuade the government to bring forward concessions at the final report stage in the Lords to avoid embarrassing defeats. If it does not, it could face a tussle between the Lords and the Commons in the spring, with time running out to approve the legislation before the parliamentary session ends in the run-up to the local elections on 3 May.

Justice for All (JfA) has collated the briefings prepared by organisations for the committee stage in the House of Lords, see:
the JfA website

No comments: