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Further LASPO defeats over phone gateway and Jackson

Peers want industrial disease cases to be exempted from recoverability ban

19 March 2012

The House of Lords has made three further changes to the legal aid bill, preventing civil legal aid clients being forced to access advice through a telephone gateway and excluding industrial disease cases from the Jackson reforms.

However, an attempt to get qualified one-way costs shifting (QOCS) and the ten per cent uplift in personal injury damages written into the bill failed.

Deborah Evans, chief executive of APIL, said the amendments enabling claimants who win their cases to recover success fees and insurance premiums in respiratory disease cases, including mesothelioma, and employers’ liability cases relating to industrial diseases, were “obviously good news for victims”.

She said it was “imperative” that the government did not overturn the amendments when the LASPO bill returned to the Commons.

“It is still, however, a devastating blow for justice that the same degree of consideration was not given to the proposals for other

innocent victims of injury, whose lives may also have been shattered through no fault of their own.

“Not only will many genuine claimants face being denied access to justice altogether, but those people who are still able to claim will face having their damages cut.”

Steve Hynes, director of LAG, welcomed the amendment on the telephone gateway, which would ensure that civil legal aid clients could still directly access face-to-face advice.

“All the campaign groups are opposed to the telephone gateway because it would choke off access to justice,” he said.

“We have carried out two opinion polls which have made it clear that the groups most likely to qualify for legal aid are the ones least likely to use the phone or the internet.

“There should be various ways of channelling advice, and the telephone should not be the only way.”

Baroness Grey-Thompson, who tabled the amendment, said vulnerable clients “may struggle to explain complex problems over the phone”.

She went on: “Accessing a telephone gateway via a mobile could be expensive. Due to waiting times, credit may even run out before a conclusion has been reached. Also, fewer public phones are available, and they are perhaps not the best way to try to resolve issues.

“I am also concerned that people with language or speech difficulties may be deterred from seeking advice. Without early intervention, it is likely that their problems will become more complex and costly to resolve at a later date, and they will be pushed to another area.”

Baroness Grey-Thompson said it was her understanding that the operators staffing the telephone gateway would receive some training, but not a formal legal training. “As a result, operators may not be able effectively to interpret the nuances of complex cases put to them, let alone cases put to them by clients who may be confused or have some difficulty in communicating.”

The amendment was supported by Lib Dem peer and solicitor Lord Phillips of Sudbury.

“We are all wholly aware of the government’s need and wish to save expenditure on legal aid, but I put it to my noble friend that this is the falsest of false economies,” he said.

Lord Phillips said that the cost in the adviser’s time was reduced when the client was in front of them and “when they can help the client, who is often confused or emotional, to give them the precious information without which they cannot hope to do a satisfactory job.

He added: “On cost grounds, the savings assumed for the telephone helpline as an exclusive channel of advice are misconceived.”

The amendment on the telephone gateway was passed by 234 votes to 206.

The debate then shifted to the Jackson reforms. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Alton’s amendment preserving the status quo on recoverability of success fees and ATE insurance premiums for respiratory diseases, in particular mesothelioma, was carried by 189 votes to 158.

A further amendment, proposed by Lord Bach, to ensure that the Jackson reforms were not applied to employers’ liability cases relating to industrial diseases, was carried by the smaller margin of 168 votes to 163.

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