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First legal aid concession on means testing at police stations

25 January 2012

The government has made what appears to be its first substantial concession on the legal aid bill by abandoning a plan to means test police station advice.

Lord Macdonald, the Lib Dem peer and former DPP, got up in the House of Lords last night, to table an amendment to clause 12 of the bill, which he said “raises the spectre that some time in the future legal aid in police stations could be subject to some form of means testing.

“In other words, what is now an unfettered right, applied with ease, efficiency and, above all, speed, would no longer be routinely available, and where it was it might be subject to some as yet undersigned bureaucratic process.”

The peer, no doubt prepared for a heated debate on the issue, got no further with his speech when he was interrupted by justice minister Lord McNally, who said the government would table its own amendment to clause 12 of the bill when it reaches its report stage in March.

He said the amendment would “remove the power to introduce means testing for initial advice and assistance at the police station”.

Lord Macdonald said he had “never achieved such remarkable success with so few words” and withdrew the amendment. Lord McNally reassured him that his eloquence had produced the result.

Until now, the government has refused to make any substantial concessions on the bill, leading to a growing sense of frustration among peers.

The first hints of a softer line came last week when Lord McNally suggested the government would look again on the Lord Chancellor’s powers to remove categories from the scope of legal aid, but not to restore them (see, 19 January).

Ministers have also agreed to make a technical amendment making it clear that all special educational needs matters will remain in scope.

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Legal Aid Police & Prisons