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Legal aid bill heads for Royal Assent

'Hundreds of thousands' will lose out

30 April 2012

The legal aiD BILL could get Royal Assent as early as this week, after the two final attempts to amend it failed in the House of Lords.

The final vote last week 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.

Baroness Scotland’s amendent would, among other things, have extended 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 which would have inserted 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 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.

He added that the bill would “rip apart” access to civil 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.”

Earlier last week, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said that the government was prepared to spare mesothelioma cases from the Jackson report’s ban on recoverability of success fees and insurance premiums.

In an unexpected concession, he said the ban, due to be introduced with the other Jackson reforms in April 2013, would not apply to the “special position of mesothelioma sufferers”.

He said clauses 43 and 45 of the legal aid bill would be implemented “at a later date, once we are satisfied on the way forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer”.

The justice minister went on: “The amendment commits the Lord Chancellor to carrying out a review of the likely effect of the clauses in relation to mesothelioma proceedings and to publish a report before those clauses are implemented.”

Karl Tonks, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, said that while the concession was welcome, it was critical that the review was genuine and not simply a delay in implementing the government’s original proposals.

Tonks said policy makers could start by recognising that it would be impossible to conduct an accurate review of the impact of the proposals without a clear picture of what the government intended to do about qualified one-way cost shifting.

“Until the government is clear about that and other issues, such as how the after-the-event insurance market will actually work, and until proper research into the potential impact is undertaken, policy makers will just be stumbling around in the dark.”

Lord Alton’s amendment on mesothelioma, Baroness Scotland’s on domestic violence and Lord Pannick’s on access to justice were reinserted by the Lords during an earlier round of ‘ping pong’ between the Lords and Commons.

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Legal Aid