The Government acted ‘like a playground bully’ over the implementation of its LASPO cuts, Lord Willy Bach told peers yesterday, writes Jon Robins. The former justice minister said that ministers had shown a ‘meanness of spirit’ for going back on its concession allowing legal aid for first tier tribunals in ‘points of law’ appeals.
Peers voted 163 to 148 in favour of a regret motion tabled by the former Paralympic athlete Baroness Grey-Thompson that disabled and other vulnerable people would not be exempt from the mandatory telephone gateway coming in April. ‘We could be in danger of not providing people with the help they need … some of the most vulnerable people in society, who won’t even get to the first phone call,’ the peer said.
It was one of three motions tabled in the Lords expressing concern about the impact of LASPO. The other two motions dealt with Lord Bach’s ‘point of law’ cases and changes to the evidence of domestic violence required backed by the former attorney general Baroness Scotland of Asthal.
Lord Bach’s regret motion was passed by 166 votes to 161. ‘For Government, which could have of course have brought back this minor concession if it wanted to, to then refuse to bring back anything else is, and I choose my words with some care, treating parliament I believe with contempt. It’s saying to parliament: ‘We’re the masters, not you. We do not care what you say, we will do what we want to.’
‘I liken it to the behaviour of a small child who can’t get its way. Its conduct is more that of a playground bully than a mature, grown-up, democratic government, and in my view what has happened here is dishonourable.’
Liberal Democrat Lord Phillips of Sudbury rebelled to support the motion. The justice minister Lord McNally said peers had been warned about the effect of their actions when they passed the fatal motion in December. He promised to ‘keep a very close eye on how these things develop and the impact that they make’’. But he said: ‘[We] do live in hard times… I believe we have done the best we can in difficult circumstances.’
‘Women and children will be at risk of further violence and, indeed, death, if they are not able to access family law remedies,’ said Labour former attorney general Baroness Scotland of Asthal about the treatment of domestic violence cases. ‘Women are at a higher risk of violence and of being killed after leaving violent partners, it’s the most dangerous moment.’
Lord McNally said claims that domestic violence victims would be at greater risk of injury or death had been made before in the passage of the Bill and were ‘entirely untrue’. Lady Scotland’s motion was passed by 156 votes to 140.
Lord McNally also said ‘reasonable adjustments’ would be made to support people who use the telephone-based gateway service. ‘The Government’s view is that the best way to test suitability for telephone or online advice is through an assessment of each individual’s needs and abilities, not through a blanket exemption for the extremely broad group defined as vulnerable people,’ Lord McNally said.
‘This is the strongest possible message from the House of Lords that some disabled and other vulnerable people will be denied justice and legal advice because of the Government’s plans to reform legal aid,’ said Nicola Mackintosh, co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. ‘Using the phone and internet may be convenient ways of communicating for some, but not all people.’ The House of Lords was ‘asking the Government to think again and to exempt vulnerable people from having to use the telephone to access legal advice’. ‘We hope that the plan will be reconsidered urgently by the Ministry of Justice in the light of the serious concerns so that it can be adapted to take account of the difficulties these clients face and exempt them from having to use the gateway,’ Mackintosh said. ‘We urge the Government to think again.’
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