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Lords seal fate of legal aid for medical negligence

8 March 2012

The House of Lords has effectively sealed the fate of legal aid for all medical negligence cases by narrowly rejecting an amendment tabled during last night’s debate on the legal aid bill.

The government conceded last month that legal aid should be available for brain-damaged babies aged eight weeks or less (see solicitorsjournal.com, 6 March 2012).

Former paralympic athlete Baroness Grey-Thompson, who tabled the report stage amendment, said a report by King’s College had made clear that the cost of taking medical negligence out of scope would be almost three times the projected savings.

She said exceptional funding would be “no more of a safety net” for other highly complex and deserving cases than it would be for obstetric cases, which the government had decided to retain in scope.

“Just about every clinical negligence case is complex, which is why, over time, successive governments have agreed that clinical negligence needs to be kept in scope for legal aid,” Baroness Grey-Thompson said.

“Not only would taking most clinical negligence cases out of scope result in higher costs to the taxpayer overall, but those costs will still be there but pushed somewhere else. Even more worrying, many people will be denied access to justice.”

Baroness Grey-Thompson’s amendment was rejected by 175 votes to 168. However, an earlier amendment, tabled by Lord Lloyd, which would preserve legal aid for expert reports in medical negligence cases, was narrowly passed, by 178 votes to 172.

Earlier in the debate, the government was defeated on the issue of funding for welfare benefit appeals.

Lib Dem peer Baroness Doocey, who proposed the amendment, said it would retain legal aid only for people with complex welfare benefit issues, to help them challenge decisions by appeal to the First-tier Tribunal.

“Nearly six out of every ten cases which currently receive legal aid for welfare benefit issues involve either disabled people or families with seriously ill or disabled children,” she said.

“The government considers that these cases have a low priority when compared to safety, liberty and homelessness, but some disability benefits provide or protect liberty, particularly in relation to mobility and maintaining independence, which are so important.”

Baroness Doocey said legal aid for welfare benefits cost about £25m a year, and limiting advice to reviews and appeals, as proposed in the amendment, would save £8.5m and help 100,000 people.

“If claimants are denied legal aid to appeal against wrong decisions, their situation will get worse, intervention at a later stage will cost much more and there will be a knock-on cost for other public services.”

Lord Newton, the Tory peer and former secretary of state for social security, spoke strongly in favour of the amendment.

“We need to bear in mind that this proposed change to legal aid does not take place in a vacuum,” he said.

“It takes place at a time of great actual or potential turbulence – or at least change –in the benefits system, arising to some small extent in respect of housing from the Localism Act, and to a much greater extent from the Welfare Reform Bill.”

The amendment was carried by 237 votes to 198. A further amendment, which would cover representation in welfare benefits appeals at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, was also passed by 222 votes to 194.

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Legal Aid Clinical negligence Vulnerable Clients