Government Defeated In Lords On Legal Aid And Domestic Violence
The government has been defeated three times in the House of Lords on Ken Clarke's legal aid changes, amid concerns that the reforms would deny people access to proper advice and representation.
Peers thwarted the government on the very first amendment they considered, which came from the cross-bench peer Lord Pannick. His amendment creates a duty for the Lord Chancellor to ensure that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meets their needs.
Peers accepted the amendment by 235 votes to 190. Their decision comes after a Lords Constitutional Committee earlier raised serious concerns about the impact Ken Clarke's changes would have on access to justice for those without the means to pay for solicitors.
The government says the Bill is designed to end the "compensation culture" which has grown up in the profession, with people being able to pursue spurious claims in court at the expense of the taxpayer. Many Lords believe the reforms go too far in blocking access to legal aid.
Tory peer Lord Newton of Braintree spoke ahead of the vote in the Lords, telling Peers:
"I don’t doubt the PM and DPM are committed to the freedom, transparency, openness rhetoric which the coalition agreement is littered with. I think they mean it"
"I find it very difficult to see the connection between some of the proposals in this Bill and those declarations – particularly about freedom and justice."
The second defeat for the government came just before 6:00pm on Monday night, and was on a Labour amendment. It requires the Lord Chancellor to ensure that victims of domestic violence are able to access civil legal services in accordance with financial eligibility.
Labour believes that Ken Clarke's definition of domestic violence differs from that used by other deparments - including the UK Border Agency.
The government also wants to introduce a 12-month time limit for victims of domestic violence to claim legal aid after the alleged attack. Labour's amendment passed on Monday night overturns this.
The third defeat was on a more minor point, and surrounds the government's plan to create Director of Legal Aid Case Work. This replaces the Legal Services Board, but peers - led once again by the crossbencher Lord Pannick - believed the new body will not be independent enough from government.
Peers are continuing to scrutinise the Bill at report stage, a process which will take around five days. Further defeats for the government are considered highly likely.