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Government giving 'as little as possible' on legal aid

Medical negligence and domestic violence concessions fail to satisfy critics

5 March 2012

Limited concessions made by the government as the legal aid bill enters its report stage this week in the House of Lords have failed to satisfy critics.

The definition of domestic violence in the bill, strongly criticised by the lords as being too narrow, has been changed to bring it in line with the widely-used Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) definition.

On medical negligence, it emerged that a concession allowing legal aid to be retained for people damaged as babies was restricted to brain damage and to a period of eight weeks after birth.

Paul Rumley, medical negligence partner at Withy King, lobbied MPs and peers as part of the firm’s campaign to save legal aid.

He said the medical negligence amendment was drafted in a “very, very narrow” way so it applied only to ‘neurological injuries’ or brain damage.

“What about a baby who suffers a physical injury to another part of the body?” he asked. Rumley said conditions like Erb’s Palsy, caused by damage to the nerves in the arms, could result in life-long disabilities.

“They have the same problems to face in life as those with brain damage. Why should they be left out?”

Rumley said that the concession was subject to a further condition, that the injury must happen during pregnancy, birth or in the eight weeks afterwards.

“One day beyond the eight weeks and you don’t get legal aid,” he said.

“I can see no justification for this, apart from the fact the government’s been forced into a concession, so they want to give away as little as possible.”

Stuart Henderson, managing partner for personal injury at Irwin Mitchell, said solicitors needed to know if the concession would cover claims for all severe disabilities arising from birth injury.

He said the bill contained “a number of other very worrying proposals”, which would have “unintended consequences” for the ability of other seriously ill or injured people to access justice.

Michael Todd QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said the government’s amendments would go “only a very small way” towards silencing the “countless critics” of the legal aid bill.

“Opposition has been voiced by leading members of the judiciary, experienced lawyers and many non-legal parliamentarians who understand and are well placed to assess how these reforms will impact upon the most vulnerable members of society,” he said.

“A number of expert analyses have revealed that many of these reforms will actually end up costing the government more, not less.

“These are not intelligent cuts. Early legal advice prevents large sums being spent on more complex proceedings further down the line.”

Todd added that many MPs and peers had abandoned party allegiances to propose amendments to the legislation, and if the government did not bring forward “many more major amendments”, it faced the prospect of a “serious rebellion” within its ranks.

A spokesman for the Law Society said the government had finally realised that some of its positions were “simply untenable” and the concessions “ought to be merely the first of many”.

He went on: “If cutting costs is the aim, this bill isn’t the best way of achieving that. What it does cut is the ability of ordinary people to secure justice, by making the risks too high and the costs simply unaffordable.”

Other government amendments tabled in advance of next week’s debate had already been announced.

An amendment to clause 12 of the bill would remove the requirement for the means testing of police station advice.

A further amendment, which emerged during the House of Lords committee stage debates, would retain legal aid for all SEN education cases.

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Legal Aid Divorce