Judge hits back at Tory critics of law reforms

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

The head of the Government's legal advisers yesterday strongly defended divorce, domestic violence, and right-to-die reforms against criticism by Tory backbenchers.

Alerted by a virulent campaign in the Daily Mail, the MPs have criticised the independent Law Commissioners for what they see as peddling a hidden agenda of liberal values behind the backs of Parliament.

In the the latest phase of the campaign, the Mail attacked proposals from the commissioners in a 250-page report published in March which recommended patients should be able to make "living wills" that instruct doctors that they should not be kept alive if they become mentally incapable, or should be able to appoint a relative or lawyer to decide if they are unable to decide for themselves.

Mr Justice Brooke, a High Court judge coming to the end of his three- year term as chairman of the Law Commissioners, pointed out that every conceivable interested group had been involved in five years of discussions before the report was published in March.

More than 40 groups, including critics, took part in working parties, and more than 100 organisations and experts responded to consultation papers. "Nobody who conceivably might have responded is missing. The idea that it is just pressure groups is rubbish," he said.

The changes proposed were not altering the law, but clarifying it, or giving a simpler remedy where the existing one was too slow or expensive.

However, he welcomed the debate that the Mail had provoked. "These are difficult issues. As long as the public debate is well-informed, or even if it is not, this is what freedom of speech, and freedom of the press, is all about."

The Lord Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Health Secretary, the Social Security Secretary, and officials from their departments have all been involved in the discussions. There is also likely to be a period of public consultation.

Lady Olga Maitland, the Tory MP who helped force changes last week to the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill, renewed her attack yesterday on the divorce proposals.

"The Law Commission are living in another world. The more we learn about what they are proposing, the more I realise we should not allow boffins to dictate our lives. Bravo to them for putting forward ideas, but my goodness, it does not mean we are obliged to accept them. I think they are living on another planet," she said.

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