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Legal aid bill heads for Royal Assent

26 April 2012

The legal aid bill could get Royal Assent as early as next week, after the two final attempts to amend it failed in the House of Lords last night.

The final vote was a tie, with 238 peers backing Baroness Scotland’s amendment on domestic violence and the same number opposing it. The government holds the casting vote, so the amendment was lost.

The former Attorney General had already secured an amendment widening the definition of domestic violence and increasing the kinds of evidence victims could bring forward.

Following a government concession last month, she brought a fresh amendment which would, among other things, extend the time limit on evidence from two years to six and allow any kind of evidence to be used if it was certified by the court or mentioned in the regulations.

Earlier Lord Pannick dropped his amendment to insert a statement into the front of the bill, making it clear that “within the resources available” its purpose was to ensure that “individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs”.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said the bill could get Royal Assent by the end of next week after a brief appearance in the Commons for it to be “rubber stamped”.

Hynes said the fate of the Lords amendments depended on “who was there and who the whips were”. He said that after an effective whipping operation, there were no Liberal Democrat or Tory rebels on Baroness Scotland’s amendment.

Hynes said he was “really disappointed” that throughout the debates the Liberal Democrats had overwhelmingly voted for the government.

“Lords are meant to be independently-minded,” he said. “They could have stood up for what they knew in their hearts to be right.”

Hynes added that the bill would “rip apart” access to justice for ordinary people.

“Hundreds of thousands of people will lose out. Law firms will close, merge or shut their legal aid departments.

“It will accelerate the decline of high street practice. The phone and the internet won’t replace it.”

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Legal Aid