Thursday, 12 April 2012

Legal Aid Bill back in the Commons

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the Legal Aid Bill, returns to the House of Commons next Tuesday (17 April). A total of eleven amendments were made to the bill in the Lords, nine of these to the section dealing with legal aid.

When the Legal Aid Bill was completing its passage through the Commons last year, ten Liberal Democrat MPs rebelled against the government, supporting an amendment on legal aid for complex benefits cases tabled by the Labour MP, Yvonne Fovargue. While the vote on this amendment was lost in the Commons, a similar amendment proposed by the Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Doocey, was successful in the Lords. LAG has written to government MPs to urge them to support the bill as amended by this and the other changes introduced in the Lords.

We view the following issues reflecting amendments made by peers as essential:

1) The Welfare Reform Act will have a significant impact on claimants, particularly disabled people, and LAG believes it is fair that people should be able to access specialist advice on benefits in order to challenge government decisions, particularly at a time of such far-reaching changes.
2) Cases involving children should continue to be covered by the legal aid system.
3) Plans to filter cases through a telephone gateway should be dropped, as the people who qualify for legal aid are the least likely to use such services.
4) The criteria for qualifying for legal aid should ensure the protection of victims of domestic violence.
5) Decisions on entitlement to legal aid in individual cases should be made independently from ministers.

While not going as far as outright rebellion when the bill was last in the Commons, some Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, such as Helen Grant, the Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald, were critical of the government’s proposals. Grant expressed disquiet over the availability of legal aid in domestic violence cases, arguing that the definition of domestic violence was inadequate and that the qualifying criteria to be granted legal aid were too restrictive. If the government were to ignore the Lords' amendments on issues such as this, it might risk a rebellion among previously loyal backbenchers.

Another danger for the government is a protracted ping-pong stage between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as peers might choose to dig their heels in if the government rejects their amended bill. The Legal Aid Bill is the last significant piece of legislation in this session of parliament and the government will want it to become law before the Queen's Speech, which is expected early next month.

LAG is urging campaigners to write to their MPs. Please follow this link from the Justice for All website to write to your MP.

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