Opposition fails to extend time to scrutinise legal aid bill as Tories go on the attack

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By Legal Futures

15 July 2011

Parliament: witnesses had 15 minutes each to give evidence

A bid by opposition MPs to increase the amount of time they have to hear evidence and scrutinise the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill failed earlier this week.

The first day of the bill’s committee stage also saw a Conservative MP exploit divisions between the Law Society and Bar Council on whether money can be saved from the legal aid budget by reducing payments to barristers.

Labour asked for a third day to hear evidence – around 35 witnesses were packed into sessions held on Tuesday and yesterday, giving them around 15 minutes each – and four days on top of the six set aside for the line-by-line consideration of the bill.

Shadow justice spokesman Andy Slaughter argued that the short time given to each witness was “a subversion of the purpose of those sessions”.

But the Coalition majority on the bill committee ensured a vote of 11-8 in favour of the government’s proposed schedule, which should see the bill out of the House of Commons by the end of October. It is thought that the government is keen to get through the Commons so as to give the bill as much time as possible in the House of Lords, where it is expected to get a rough ride, before passing it next spring.

During the evidence session attended by Bar Council chairman Peter Lodder QC and former Law Society president Linda Lee, Conservative MP Ben Gummer pressed Mr Lodder repeatedly on Law Society suggestions that there are £42m of legal aid savings to be found from barristers.

“I do not particularly agree but I am not going to have that spat publicly here,” said Mr Lodder.

Ms Lee and another witness, Claire Fazan, a clinical negligence specialist at Leigh Day & Co, also defended success fees from an attack by another Conservative MP, Ben Wallace, who described them as “excessive fees” to compensate lawyers for other cases that fail, pointing to the way costs far exceeded damages in cases such as Trafigura and Naomi Campbell.

Ms Lee said: “If solicitors are to take on riskier cases, there has to be a fighting fund… The proposals in the civil costs part of the bill say that the defendant should take no risk or responsibility for their behaviour [in not settling earlier] and that instead it should be the injured person who does that.”

Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Legal Services Commission told the committee that even if the not-for-profit sector suffers as a result of the legal aid cuts, law firms and others will step into the breach.

She pointed to the closure this week of the Immigration Advisory Service, the country’s largest provider of publicly funded immigration and asylum advice. “We have a huge number of people contacting us who are prepared to take on that work,” she said.

The committee will start considering the bill on Tuesday, the last day before Parliament rises for the summer, with the proposals to remove most areas of civil work from legal aid first under the microscope.

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