The Government suffered several defeats over amendments to its Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill during its Report stage in the House of Lords. Amongst these amendments was one put forward by Lady Scotland, the former Attorney General, who won her amendment to broaden the “evidential gateway” towards help with domestic violence and remove “arbitrary” time limits. Without this, she said, more than half of victims would not be able to secure legal aid, as evidence such as a GP’s letter, acknowledgment by the perpetrator or admission to a women’s refuge would not have been enough to prove a risk of domestic violence.
Other amendments passed create a duty on the part of the Lord Chancellor to ensure individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs, and guarantee that the director of legal aid casework, a post created by the Bill to oversee funding, is independent from the Government. Earlier this month, the Bar Council published a detailed ‘case against’ the Bill, “Access Denied”. It explains the savings that the public purse can make through legal aid expenditure on areas such as housing, employment and debt. An estimated £7.12 is saved for every £1 spent on legal aid, for example.
It highlights access to justice concerns arising from Part Two of the Bill, which covers Lord Justice Jackson’s civil litigation reforms. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has also agreed to amend the Bill’s definition of domestic violence to include psychological and financial abuse, and to retain legal aid availability for brain damage to babies or in pregnancy as these are the most costly in terms of expert evidence and compensation.
An MoJ spokesperson said: “A safety net will continue to exist for other more serious and complex clinical negligence cases where there is a human rights issue.” Bar Council chairman, Michael Todd QC said: “On issues of constitutional importance, on domestic violence, on welfare benefits advice and on the funding of expert reports for clinical negligence, Peers have stood firm and, in many cases, abandoned party allegiances to stand up for the vulnerable individuals that will be hit hardest by these reforms. The Government has also avoided inevitable defeat by conceding on other issues, such as maintaining legal aid for domestic child abduction.
“While there is more work to be done in maintaining these amendments in the Commons, the Bar can claim some credit for these vital changes to the Bill. We have lobbied hard on all of them, and have led the way on several successful amendments.
“We will continue to speak up, in the public interest, for access to justice to be protected through further amendments to this damaging piece of legislation.” The Bill will return to the Commons for further debate once the Report stage is completed.
Chairman of the Bar, Michael Todd, QC