Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly has said the government will make compromises on legal aid for children in medical negligence cases and the definition of domestic violence, while refusing to budge on the “main tenets” of the legal aid bill.
Ruling out any concessions on the bill’s drastic cuts in scope, Djanogly told the Wesminster Legal Policy Forum last week that there was no question of allowing recoverability of success fees in medical negligence cases.
However, the government is under pressure to protect the position of children injured in medical accidents.
During a debate on the committee stage of the bill last month, Tory peer Baroness Eaton tabled an amendment preserving legal aid for children in medical negligence cases.
The amendment was supported by veteran Tory politicians Lord Tebbitt and Lord Newton.
Lord Newton told the House of Lords that when government ministers “come across an amendment with the names Newton and Tebbit on it, they are in trouble”.
He went on: “I share the view that this is one of those areas where it is highly likely not only that the game is not worth the candle but that the costs to other departments will be greater than any savings to the Ministry of Justice.
“That simply cannot be a sensible way to approach the problem of the deficit as a whole,” Lord Newton said.
He said he hoped he had detected a move away from what Lord Carlile memorably described at an earlier stage as ‘irritated intransigence’ from the other end of the building, and that we will get a constructive approach.
Djanogly said ministers were “looking to see whether we can come to a deal” on the issue.
On the definition of domestic violence, another issue where ministers have hinted that they might be prepared to give ground, Djanogly said he had an “open mind” and did not “think there was a difference” between the definition set out in the bill and the one used by the Association of Police Officers (ACPO).
The ACPO definition is regarded as being wider and specifically includes financial and emotional abuse.
Djanogly said that “if there is a way of making people happy” with the definition in the bill, he hoped a solution could be found.
However, he told delegates: “We have defined what we believe should be in and out of scope and we’re not going to make any changes to that.”
He added that Ministry of Justice officials would be meeting Dr Graham Cookson of King’s College, London, author of a report predicting that cutting legal aid for family, social welfare and clinical negligence could cost the government £139m.
Djanogly said officials would also be meeting representatives from the Law Society, which commissioned the report, to discuss “assumptions made and conclusions reached”.
Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said the “obvious thing” for the government to do on medical negligence and children was to provide legal aid for disbursements and initial investigation.
Hynes said the ACPO definition of domestic violence was wider than the one contained in the bill and ministers would have to “cave in”.
He added: “It does not fit the Supreme Court definition and the Home Office is consulting on it at the moment.”