Hopes are emerging that the government will amend at least some of its legal aid reforms after peers voiced overwhelming criticism this week.
Indeed the Mirror has today reported that justice secretary Ken Clarke has ditched the proposal to remove legal aid for clinical negligence claims.
The Ministry of Justice neither confirmed nor denied the story, saying: 'That's not an announcement that we've made and so the bill as it is, stands.'
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords after an eight-hour battering on Monday. Only three of the 54 peers who spoke offered support.
Labour’s former legal aid minister Lord Bach told the Gazette that the debate was ‘a good start for those of us who want to see changes made’. There was an ‘overwhelming feeling’ that the government has got it wrong on part 1 of the bill, which introduces the legal aid reforms, he said.
Bach was ‘fairly hopeful’ of some concessions, because criticism of the bill was so widespread. ‘It wasn’t Labour versus the Conservatives, but the whole house against one government minister, and that is very powerful,’ he added.
The debate, coupled with a critical report from the Lords constitution committee, makes a compelling case for amendment, he said. ‘I hope [the government] has gone away to look at what changes can be made,’ said Bach - raising the prospect that if changes are not forthcoming the upper house could reject the entire bill.
During the debate the bill faced an onslaught from peers calling the cuts in scope ‘catastrophic’, a ‘huge assault on access to justice’, and ‘constitutionally wrong’.
They said the bill attacked the rights of the sick, vulnerable, bereaved and injured, and will ‘bring shame on our legal system’, undermine the rule of law and result in a ‘flood of litigants in person’.
Concerns were also raised about the civil costs reforms in part 2 of the bill, with the point made that Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals for reform were predicated on legal aid remaining for clinical negligence claims.
Little time was spent on the sentencing reforms in part 3.
In a forensic attack on the bill, Bach described the government’s proposals as ‘immoral’ and said they would cost ‘much, much more’ than they save.
Defending the bill, justice minister Lord McNally cited the need to cut £2bn from the Ministry of Justice’s £9bn budget. Prisons, probation, legal aid, and staff and court administration had each ‘taken a hit’, he said. ‘There are no soft options and no easy ways in this.’
However, he promised to listen to ‘strong concerns’ - particularly in relation to domestic violence, clinical negligence and advice at the police station. McNally said he hoped the Lords would use the bill’s committee stage for a ‘useful and productive’ examination. ‘We will listen to some very serious points that were made in a very serious way,’ he said.
McNally also criticised an ‘in flux’ legal profession for failing to appreciate the impact of alternative business structures. ‘The world is changing and lots of people receive advice on the net and by telephone,’ he said.
The Law Society’s chief executive Desmond Hudson said of the debate: ‘The Lords delivered an unequivocal message to the government that it is on fundamentally the wrong track. The Society hopes that the House of Lords will continue to undertake full and proper scrutiny of the bill, and that the government will take this opportunity to bring forward much-needed changes.’
The bill will now go to committee where it will face closer scrutiny by the Lords. That is expected to take eight or nine days, starting on 20 December. After the report stage and third reading by the upper house, the bill will return to the Commons.