Friday, 13 January 2012

Lords lash out at Legal Aid Bill

Crossbench and Liberal Democrat peers seem increasingly unhappy with Justice Minister Lord McNally’s attempt to force through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill ('the Legal Aid Bill') unamended. Talking to peers after the second day of the bill's committee stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday, LAG formed the impression that they were frustrated by what they see as the glib approach adopted by Lord McNally in addressing the detail of the bill.

Labour’s Lord Bach, Shadow Justice Minister in the Lords, led the attack against the bill in the debate on the amendments, saying that the government had 'failed to get to grips with the serious consequences of their proposed legislation' and that the bill would have 'profound effects on access to justice and people’s lives'. Speaking to LAG after the debate, Lord Bach said he believed it was unlikely that any votes would be taken in the committee stage, which continues on Monday next week, but that votes on amendments would happen in the report stage, expected to take place late next month or in March.

Peers seem emboldened by their votes on Wednesday this week on amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, including their rejection of plans to means-test employment and support allowance payments to disabled people after a year. Lord Carlile QC, a Liberal Democrat peer and a greatly respected legal figure, told LAG yesterday: 'The House of Lords showed last night it is capable of forcing the government to reconsider policies.' The defeats on the Welfare Reform Bill were the result of a high number of votes against the government from the politically neutral crossbenchers and the Labour Opposition. Liberal Democrat peers mainly voted with the government, but some have hinted to LAG that unless changes are made on the Legal Aid Bill they will be forced, albeit reluctantly, to vote against the government.

A Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords willing to be upfront about what will happen is Lord Phillips. Speaking at the launch of LAG’s London Advice Watch report yesterday, he referred to 'disaffection across the House of Lords' over the Legal Aid Bill and warned: 'There is no question. If the government makes no concessions, there will be votes and the government will lose.' He added that it was 'reasonable to expect major changes at the report stage of the bill'.

Lord Phillips, who is a patron of LAG and one of its founders, stressed that it was a 'lousy time to be in government' because the economic outlook is so bad and that 'cuts across the board are necessary'. However, he believes that 'the cuts have fallen on legal aid harshly' and questions if it is 'legitimate to deny citizens the means to enforce their rights'. In an impassioned speech he said: 'Justice is fundamental to our democracy' and that legal aid spending was a small but an important part of government spending: 'five per cent of defence spending would be enough to fund what is to be cut from legal aid for least three years'.

What the Welfare Reform Bill amendments show clearly is that peers are reluctant to support measures that impact harshly on vulnerable groups such as disabled people and children. With the Legal Aid Bill there is the additional factor of the crossbench and other peers who are legal experts. They have deep concerns about the detail of the bill, which the government is failing to address, such as the criteria which victims of domestic violence have to meet to qualify for legal aid and the lack of independence in decisions on entitlement to legal aid. Their discontent is likely to grow as the shadow boxing of the committee stage continues. LAG understands that approaches from government peers to ministers to thrash out compromises over key concerns about the bill have so far been rebuffed and this has added to the disaffection felt by government supporters in the House of Lords. It seems unless Lord McNally throws some significant concessions to his backbenchers the government will be risking substantial defeats at the report stage of the bill.

A full report on the launch of the London Advice Watch report will appear in the February issue of Legal Action journal.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Massive support from Londoners for advice services

Research published today by LAG has found that 88 per cent of Londoners believe advice services should be free to everyone, or to people on or below the national average income of £25,000. The London Advice Watch (LAW) report also finds that 77,000 Londoners will lose out on help with civil legal problems and that £9.33 million will be cut from advice services, if the reductions in legal aid proposed by the government go ahead.

The LAW report used data from an opinion poll survey carried out by polling company GfK NOP for LAG, as well as interviews with providers of advice services and their representatives in London. GfK NOP interviewed 1,603 people across 32 London boroughs.

In addition to overwhelming support for the availability of free services the opinion poll found that:

• 94% of people who got advice received a free service.
• 81% of people were satisfied with the service they received.
• 65% of people said their situation improved due to the advice they had received.

London’s population of 7.6m is served by 900 legal aid suppliers including 80 charities. Many of these will be forced to close or severely curtail their services if the government goes ahead with its plans to cut back on civil legal aid. For example, Law Centres in London will lose 43 per cent of their funding and some may be forced to close. Other advice agencies will also be badly hit. Brent Citizens Advice Bureau holds legal aid contracts in housing, benefits, debt and immigration law. Under the government's plans, detailed in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently going through parliament, it will lose £275,000 a year in funding and will be forced to close its specialist casework services in these areas of law.

LAG anticipates that amendments to the Legal Aid Bill, which would put back into scope the areas of work being cut in housing, employment, benefits, debt and immigration law, will be debated next week in the House of Lords. LAG is urging peers and the government to think again, before cutting legal aid to thousands of Londoners and the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people across the country who will lose out on help with civil legal problems if the bill is not amended.

LAG is launching the LAW report this afternoon at a special meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid in the House of Commons. The meeting will be hosted by Yvonne Fovargue MP and speakers will include Tom Brake MP, the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington in south London, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile and Andy Slaughter MP, Labour MP and Shadow Justice Minister.

Read the full report on: LAG's website

Pic: LAG

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