Ministers defeated on legal aid reforms


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Indy Politics

The Government's legal aid reforms continued to take a battering in the House of Lords as peers inflicted three defeats on ministers.

The triple-blow to the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill takes the total number of Lords defeats on the legislation to six in less than two days of report-stage debate.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's cuts to legal aid are expected to save £350 million from the Ministry of Justice budget by 2015 but they have proved deeply unpopular with many peers on all sides of the Lords.

Peers last night backed two amendments to protect free legal support for people challenging cuts to their benefits and an amendment to protect legal aid funding for expert reports in clinical negligence cases.

The two amendments on benefits were put forward by Liberal Democrat Baroness Doocey and Labour shadow justice minister Lord Bach.

Lady Doocey demanded welfare recipients be given legal aid to help them appeal against judgments which would strip them of benefits or cut the amount they receive.

She said: "For large numbers of people, the very thought of attending a tribunal can be very intimidating.

"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 of Work and Pensions?

"These people are going to have major problems mounting an appeal because they are going to have no idea what to appeal against."

Lord Bach said the country was rightly proud of its legal system, but added: "What underpins and guarantees our system is access to justice for everyone.

"The law is there to help everyone, including the poor, the disabled and marginalised. We have a system of helping the poor that is both practical and principled. It's not perfect, but it works."

He echoed fears the revamp would increase costs, telling peers that legal assistance "helps people keep away from the courts and tribunals" and dismissed claims legal advice encouraged more cases as a "myth".

Lord Bach added: "The Government are claiming that doing away with legal aid for social welfare is going to reduce the number of cases going to the courts - it's the exact opposite.

"It's the availability of early advice that keeps the numbers down."

But Justice Minister Lord McNally said the amendment, taken alongside a range of other ones debated with it, would "dismantle the central architecture of the Bill" and the Government's reforms.

He warned peers: "This isn't a debate about who cares most, it's about whether this House is willing to take tough decisions about our economic situation or whether it is simply going to push the problem down the corridor to the Commons, because the Commons will have to take those decisions whether we make them or not."

In angry exchanges at the end of his speech, Lord McNally told crossbenchers, whose votes are often crucial, that it was their "responsibility" to consider the tough decisions the Government faced.

He eventually gave way to Lord Laming, the convener of crossbencher peers, who called on him to "withdraw any suggestion" that any independent peers who supported Lady Doocey's amendment were "behaving irresponsibly".

Three Lib Dems rebelled on both of the benefit amendments: Lord Avebury, Lord Carlile of Berriew and Lady Doocey.

Tory former Cabinet minister Lord Newton of Braintree also rebelled on both votes and fellow Conservative Lord Stewartby on one of them.