The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) effectively ended its parliamentary passage yesterday after one final effort by the House of Lords to force a government rethink over domestic violence failed by the narrowest of margins.
Three issues remained outstanding in the final stage of ‘ping pong’ between the two Houses, but peers were content with the concession offered on Tuesday to delay the application of the Jackson reforms to mesothelioma claims pending a review.
Lord Pannick reluctantly withdrew his amendment that sought to require the Lord Chancellor to ensure that people have access to legal services “that effectively meet their needs”, saying that peers had already given MPs the chance to rethink once.
Former Attorney General Baroness Scotland pursued her bid to make evidence of domestic violence more than two years old as acceptable for the purposes of legal aid eligibility – she said it should be six – and that evidence from specialist domestic violence organisations should count as acceptable proof of abuse. However, peers voted 238-238, meaning the amendment was defeated.
Justice minister Lord McNally insisted that the government had already moved a long way to protect the victims of domestic violence under the bill, and pointed to two “very important safeguards that will provide genuine victims with a route into legal aid even if they do not have the headline forms of evidence” – findings of fact of a court, and the exceptional funding scheme.
In the debate over the mesothelioma compromise, Liberal Democrat Lord Thomas suggested that, when the Jackson reforms are finally introduced for such claims, asbestos support groups should put together lists of law firms which have agreed not to charge success fees.
Lord Pannick was highly critical of the government’s “inflexible” approach to the bill, which he said “involved a failure adequately to assess the impact of the provisions before their implementation, a refusal to take on board the fact that many of the financial savings at which part 1 is aimed are illusory because the denial of access to legal services will result in other financial costs to the state for disadvantaged persons who will be denied the benefits to which they are entitled, and because of a refusal to recognise that the limits on the scope of legal aid imposed by part 1 will hit hardest the weakest and most impoverished sections of our society, often on complex questions of law such as are raised by immigration law”.