You are here

Peers reject legal aid telephone gateway

15 March 2012

Peers passed an amendment to the legal aid bill last night which would prevent civil legal aid clients being forced to access advice through a telephone gateway.

This was followed by two further defeats for the government (bringing the total to nine during the report stage debate) ensuring that claimants who win their cases would be able to recover both success fees and insurance premiums in respiratory disease cases and employers’ liability cases relating to industrial diseases.

Baroness Grey-Thompson, who tabled the amendment on the telephone gateway, said: “A telephone-only service may work for a large number of people. However, it may adversely impact the most vulnerable clients, who 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 their problems will be pushed to another area.

“We must also think carefully about training operators. It is my understanding that they will receive some training, but there will be no 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.

“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.

“Anyone who has given such advice will readily say that the cost in the adviser’s time is released when the client is in front of them, 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.

“On cost grounds, the savings assumed for the telephone helpline as an exclusive channel of advice are misconceived. More importantly, I think we all agree, so it does not need emphasising any further, that justice cannot be done if there is no alternative to deliver advice by face-to-face means.”

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.

Lord Alton said the amendment was not about public money or compensation culture.

“It is about an exceptional group of people, but it is also more than that,” he said. “The noble and learned lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said that it is about justice.

“I simply ask your lordships how it can ever be just to raid the compensation that someone has been awarded because they have proven their case in court, to take up to 25 per cent of what they have been awarded to help them through the last days of their life. How can it ever be a matter of justice to do that?”

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.

Categorised in:

Legal Aid