Lords have inflicted defeats on the government during the report stage of its legal aid bill on the first three amendments they considered last night.
Peers voted by 235 to 190 to back the first amendment, by Lord Pannick, inserting a statement making it clear that “within the resources made available” that the purpose of the bill was to ensure that “individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”.
Lord Pannick said the amendment “did not require any further expenditure by the government” and the only question was what whether it was appropriate to include a “statement of legislative purpose at the outset”.
He said the wording was based on existing section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999.
During the debate Michael Langrish, the bishop of Exeter, said access to social justice ran “like lettering through a rock” through the whole of the Old Testament.
“I suggest that it is also at the heart of any civilised society. I would not expect the government in general or the minister to dissent from that principle, but without this amendment or something like it that principle is in danger of being fundamentally undermined and flawed.”
Lord Newton, the veteran Conservative peer, said he had changed his mind and decided to support the amendment.
“I do not doubt that the coalition government, whom I strongly support in general terms, including the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, are committed to freedom, openness, transparency, justice and fairness.
“The coalition agreement is littered with the rhetoric of all those things and I think they meant it and still mean it, although I find it difficult to see the connection between some of the proposals in the bill and those declarations, particularly about freedom and justice.”
Baroness Scotland, the former Attorney General, successfully secured her three amendments, giving greater protection to victims of domestic violence, by 238 votes to 201.
The changes to the bill would put the Lord Chancellor under a positive duty to ensure legal aid was available for domestic violence cases, widen the definition beyond the government’s revised version and remove “arbitrary” time limits.
Baroness Scotland said the current provisions in the bill would cause “great damage”.
She went on: “We know from a recent survey by Rights of Women that 54.4 per cent of victims today would not get through the evidential gateway being created by the bill, and a great injustice may thereby be allowed to enter into our system.”
Justice minister Lord McNally said in response that the government considered it had “got the balance on evidence requirements about right”.
However, he said it was prepared to go further and accept undertakings as evidence. Nevertheless, Baroness Scotland’s amendment 2 was carried and Lord McNally agreed that there was no need for a division on the other two.
Amendment 3, tabled by Lord Hart, related to the abolition of the Legal Services Commission under the bill and its absorption into the Ministry of Justice.
The amendment would put the Lord Chancellor under a duty to ensure the independence of the new director of casework, who would make decisions on which cases should be publicly funded. The amendment was carried by 212 votes to 195.
As the first day’s debate on the report stage of the legal aid ended, Lord McNally announced that the government would bring forward an amendment enabling the Lord Chancellor to expand the legal aid scheme should the economy improve, by putting new categories of work into scope.