Government overturns Lords justice reforms changes


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The Government has made a U-turn on its justice reforms by making it easier for the victims of domestic violence to claim legal aid.

But it has set itself up for a showdown in the House of Lords after over-turning a number of amendments from peers angry at its controversial justice reforms.

Ministers refused to bow to pressure from the Lords, who have demanded a series of concessions, including face-to-face interviews for all legal aid applicants and an assurance the victims of mesothelioma will not have to pay their fees from any compensation awarded.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has made a number of changes to help victims of violence to claim financial support in family cases.

Under the Government's original plans, only women who had pursued their domestic violence cases through the courts could rely on legal aid in the family courts.

Campaigners argued many would go without the help they were entitled to because they were too scared to seek an injunction or press charges.

Mr Clarke told the Commons women who had a note from their GP supporting their claim or were seeking help from a refuge or social services could claim legal aid as a result of being a domestic violence victims.

And Mr Clarke bowed to pressure from the Liberal Democrats by allowing claimants to receive legal aid in welfare cases where the law is disputed.

Certain criminal negligence cases will also be protected from the cuts to legal aid, including children who have suffered lifelong injuries as a result of clinical negligence.

Mr Clarke described the Government's U-turn for domestic violence as "fairly formidable", adding ministers had been "pretty generous" to victims.

The Government would be adopting the Association of Chief Police Officers definition of domestic violence, which not only includes physical abuse, but emotional and psychological harm as well.

He said that despite the U-turn, the Government still wanted to cut the number of family cases disputed in the courts as it sought to cut £350 million a year from the legal aid bill.

Mr Clarke added: "We do want more of these cases not to be conducted by lawyers financed by the taxpayer engaging in adversarial litigation about where children are going to live, what maintenance should be paid by one party or the other, or what share of the matrimonial home is going to be owned by one party or the other."

But he warned further concessions were out of the question.

Despite his climbdown, this did not stop his own MPs venting their anger at the decision not to protect mesothelioma victims from having to pay their fees out of any compensation awarded.

Thousands of ship workers, who came in to contact with asbestos, as well as teachers and plumbers who have also contracted the disease later in life, have made claims against their former employers and many more are expected.

But under reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders' Bill, new claimants could have to pay their legal fees from their eventual award.

Tory MP Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) said she was considering rebelling against the Government.

"Too much time has passed on consultation and it is time for action," she said.

"I want mesothelioma victims to receive a fair package of compensation and I am concerned that the Bill, as it is currently drafted, will see a significant sum of their compensation package lost in success fees paid to lawyers."

Labour's Ian Lucas (Wrexham) said the Government's proposals were "wrong in principle".

"I did not go into the law as a solicitor myself to take damages away from a dying person, pending the outcome of a claim," he added.

But despite the opposition, the amendment was over-turned by the Government by 292 votes to 256, majority 36.