Monday, 16 April 2012

Clarke plays hardball with Lords

Despite huge opposition to parts of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (known as the Legal Aid Bill) from crossbench and opposition peers, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has decided to reject most of the 11 amendments made in the Lords stages of the bill.* Two partial concessions have been made by the government on independence in decision-making on entitlement to legal aid in individual cases and the availability of legal aid in appeals on welfare benefits to the Upper Tribunal and other courts.

It is believed that peers are likely to oppose the government strongly over its rejection of moves to set out the evidential criteria required for victims of domestic violence to qualify to claim legal aid. This includes a proposal by the government to time-limit admissible evidence of domestic violence to 12 months. In the debate in the House of Lords, Baroness Scotland argued that evidence such as disclosure of domestic abuse by a victim to a doctor or statutory agency should be sufficient to claim legal aid.

In the LAG-commissioned report from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on legal aid and domestic violence, a woman who took part in the research said:

'I’ve never reported any incidence of violence with my ex-partner, the only time that I started reporting it is when I got pregnant. And social services were involved so I reported it to them. I never saw the police as an option because I didn’t think they could help abused women.'**

According to research from the campaign group Rights of Women, at least 46 per cent of domestic violence victims who currently qualify for legal aid will be ineligible under the government’s proposed evidence gateways.***

LAG welcomes the government’s decision to allow legal aid in welfare benefits cases before the Upper Tribunal and other higher courts. We believe the government was forced to make this concession due to pressure from Liberal Democrat backbench MPs concerned about the impact of the Welfare Reform Act (WRA). However, we do not believe it is enough, as there are only a few hundred such cases each year but there are likely to be thousands of appeals to the First-tier Tribunal, particularly with the introduction of changes under the WRA. An already creaking tribunal system is likely to be swamped under a deluge of claims with benefit claimants unable to get initial advice on their cases.

The issue of independence in decision-making is something LAG has pursued from the outset of the government's planned reforms of the legal aid system. We believe the amendment proposed by the Justice Secretary, guaranteeing the independence of the Director of Legal Aid Casework, is the very minimum required to prevent political interference in decisions on entitlement to legal aid. We would have preferred an independent tribunal system and believe this may still happen if ministers do not resist the temptation to meddle in individual cases.

The Legal Aid Bill goes into the ping-pong stage between the Lords and the Commons tomorrow. Kenneth Clarke may find that peers have taken umbrage at his high-handed rejection of much of their revised bill.

*See: Consideration of Lords amendments.

** Legal aid is a lifeline: women speak out on the legal aid reforms, October 2011, available on: LAG's website.

*** Rights of Women and Welsh Women’s Aid, Evidencing domestic violence: the facts, January 2012, available on: the Rights of Women website

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