Friday, 2 March 2012

Legal Aid Bill concessions

On Wednesday, the government announced two further concessions on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill. The bill reaches the crucial report stage in the House of Lords on Monday (5 March) and LAG believes the government’s move is calculated to try and quell opposition.

Legal aid will now be granted in cases of babies damaged at birth, but LAG points out that this will still leave thousands of other victims of medical accidents without access to justice. The government’s concession is unlikely to head off peers voting for amendments which will widen the number of people qualifying to claim legal aid in medical negligence cases. Former Conservative cabinet minister, Lord Newton, for example, is supporting an amendment which would mean that all children are eligible for legal aid in medical negligence cases (amendment 31).

The government has also signalled that it will adopt the Association of Chief Police Officer’s definition of domestic violence, which LAG has been pressing for (see Legal Aid Bill domestic violence concession?). In October last year a report from the Women’s Institute, which had been commissioned by LAG, argued for this amendment. Reacting to the news, the chairperson of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes told LAG,

'Whilst this amendment is welcomed, the government is still refusing to see sense over the real needs of domestic violence victims. The fact that the government has finally decided to adhere to its own already-widely accepted definition that domestic violence encompasses physical, psychological, emotional and financial abuse is a relief, but continuing to ask victims of domestic abuse to jump through varying hoops in an attempt to secure desperately needed legal aid is hugely disappointing.'

LAG and other campaign organisations, including the Women’s Institute, are pressing the government to widen the criteria to qualify for legal aid in domestic violence cases. We are urging peers to support an amendment to the bill (amendment 43) which has been proposed by Baroness Scotland, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord Blair and the Lord Bishop of Leicester. This is likely to be debated on Monday in the Lords.

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