19/09/2011 10:51 BST | Updated 18/11/2011 10:12 GMT

Legal Aid Cuts Will Hit Fight Against Phone Hacking, Dowler Lawyer Tells Lib Dems

Coalition cuts to legal aid will leave people without recourse against phone hacking and other abuses by the media, Mark Lewis, lawyer for the family of Milly Dowler, has said.

Speaking as a non-party member in an emergency debate on phone hacking at the Liberal Democrat conference, Lewis said that planned cuts to legal aid and the effective abolition of no-win, no-fee agreements would leave ordinary people without access to the courts.

"Human rights have no value if they can't be enforced," Lewis said.

"The effective abolition of no-win, no-fee agreements mean that ordinary people can no longer afford to assert their rights."

Lewis, who represents the family of the murdered schoolgirl whose phone was hacked by reporters, won applause from LibDem delegates when he said that News International had been "the party of government for the last 30 years".

However he also told the party that their policy decisions in coalition with the Conservatives could "destroy" individual rights.

"Your party is a coalition partner to a policy that aims to destroy the rights of individuals to stand up to all-powerful corporations," he said. "That's not liberal and that's not democratic."

Also speaking at the debate, at which a motion urging the government to overhaul the Press Complaints Commission, strengthen media ownership rules and support "legitimate investigative journalism" was carried unanimously, Don Foster MP said that the LibDems had led the debate on phone hacking.

"Politicians who are now meeting hasty retreats after years of cosying up to the media elite," Foster, who is the co-chair of the LibDem parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport committee, said. "Only the Liberal Democrats stood apart, pointed out the failures and stood up to the Murdoch empire."

Foster said that the party should support "a free, independent and unfettered fourth estate", but warned that illegal or intrusive behaviour by journalists should be investigated and protections put in place for the public.

"Freedom and accountability are not incompatible," Foster said. “We have heard enough empty condemnations from politicians who used to be in bed with press barons. Now is the time for reform. Media power must become more transparent, scrutinised, and dispersed.

“Liberal Democrats have made clear that the scandal won’t truly be over until there is fundamental change in how the media is run.”

Simon Hughes MP, who is also an alleged victim of phone hacking, said that the scandal was not restricted to one newspaper, and hinted that he had seen evidence proving editors at News International knew that reporters were engaging in illegal activity.

"We must absolutely always stand up for a free press and good investigative. journalism but the other side of the coin is that we need a responsible press and an end to widespread criminal activity," he said.

"This is not a debate about footballers, film stars or politicians, this should be a debate about the people we represent… who also were liable to have their privacy invaded."

Also speaking at the debate, Alistair Webster, who is the chair of the Liberal Democrat lawyers, said that the PCC should not just be overhauled but "abolished and replaced".

Dr Evan Harris, a former MP and the vice-chair of the LibDem Federal Policy Committee, said: "We must keep the pressure up for there to be real, radical reform".

The debate came a day after the actor Hugh Grant, also speaking at the party conference, called for the pressure to be kept up on politicians.

"They really had no choice back in July, the revelations were so shocking that they had to talk a good game," Grant said. "Whether or not they will play a good game remains to be seen."