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Ministers make 'minimal' concessions on legal aid

1 March 2012

The government has made two minor, widely-trailed, concessions on the legal aid bill, which is to return to the House of Lords next week for its report stage.

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

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said yesterday that the government had laid an amendment to the legal aid bill which would “put it beyond doubt that those who have suffered physical, psychological or financial domestic abuse will continue to receive legal aid to help them to resolve any separation disputes over property or child contact”.

On medical negligence, where the government has been under strong pressure to protect child victims from veteran Conservatives such as Lord Tebbit, among others, ministers have decided that legal aid should be retained in the narrow category of “obstetrics cases which result in severe disability”.

The spokesman added that a “safety net will continue to exist for other more serious and complex clinical negligence cases where there is a human rights issue”.

This, however, is a restatement of Ken Clarke’s previous admission that public money would have to be found to ensure the legal aid cuts did not breach European law.

Other government amendments tabled in advance of next week’s debate have 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.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, described the latest concessions as “minimal”.

On domestic violence, he said it was “very sensible” that the government was adopting a definition already used across government; however, he said the regulations brought forward to implement the change would be crucial.

“Lots of women could still be excluded from legal aid when they’re suffered domestic violence,” he said.

“Domestic violence will be the gateway for legal aid. The criteria needed to get through that gateway are pivotal.”

On medical negligence, Hynes said campaigners were pushing for a concession wider than cases involving brain-damaged babies.

“It’s a very emotive issue and I can understand the political imperatives here, but lots of people who are victims of medical accidents just won’t be able to get legal aid.”

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Legal Aid Divorce