The Government’s legal aid reforms Bill received another bashing at the hands of peers yesterday. The Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill – which aims to strip away £350m from the £2.2bn legal aid scheme – received a triple-blow.
Peers supported two amendments to protect free legal support for people challenging cuts to their benefits (put forward by Liberal Democrat Baroness Doocey and Labour shadow justice minister Lord Bach) and another to protect legal aid funding for expert reports in clinical negligence cases.
- Peers voted by 237 to 198 to preserve legal aid for appeals against welfare benefit decisions, see HERE.
The votes came at the end of a two-hour debate during which ‘every single speaker in the upper chamber – apart from the minister – opposed the Ministry of Justice plans’.
‘We pride ourselves that our legal system is among the best in the world. We encourage rich foreign litigants to try their legal disputes in English courts and say that our system is fair, is not corrupt and has a very high class of judges and advocates. All that is true, but what underpins and guarantees our system is that there is access to justice for everyone… .If that system is decimated, as I fear the Bill as it is presently constituted will do, then as many as 650,000 people who have access to justice now will no longer have it. That fact alone should make us pause for thought. It is as serious, stark and uncomfortable, I am afraid, as that.’
‘Legal aid for welfare benefits costs about £25m a year. Limiting advice to reviews and appeals, as proposed in the amendment, would save £8.5m, which would reduce the total cost to £16.5m on a year, which is less than 1% of the budget—but, crucially, it would help 100,000 people… How can the Government seriously expect people with no legal knowledge to be able to negotiate the complex nature of welfare benefit law and to have the expertise needed to be able to decipher more than 9,000 pages of advice from the Department for Work and Pensions? These people are going to have major problems mounting an appeal because they will have no idea what to appeal against.’
‘I believe that these amendments dismantle the central architecture of the Bill and our reform programme… . I know that we are debating issues about which noble Lords care deeply; I do not think there is any monopoly on that.’
Lord McNally, Lib Dem peer leading on the bill for the government
(This article first appeared on www.thejusticegap.com on March 8th 2011)
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