The justice secretary yesterday accused lawyers of lobbying for their own financial interests as MPs rejected amendments to the Jackson and legal aid reforms going through Parliament.
During the final day of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill’s passage through the House of Commons, Ken Clarke criticised what he saw as “an army lawyers of advancing behind a front of women and children – vulnerable claimants who they say would not be represented if they are not paid as much as they are now. I am afraid I do not believe that”.
He insisted that the changes to the ‘no win, no fee’ system will not prevent access to justice. Citing references to the Trafigura case, he noted that “the millions of pounds paid to the lawyers far exceeded the millions of pounds paid to the claimants”.
Mr Clarke said: “We are not stopping the actions; we are getting the costs in proportion to the claim. All those disputes about legal aid and ‘no win, no fee’ are not about access to justice; they are about the profitability of the actions for lawyers.”
Debate over amendments to the Jackson reforms was shoehorned into just 20 minutes as part of the wider debate on the bill.
Labour justice spokesman Andy Slaughter said the common link between the legal aid and Jackson reforms is “the destruction of access to justice in a way that we have not seen since the introduction of legal aid… The insurance industry is being given one of the biggest pay-offs in history which, as we know from experience, will go into the pockets of their directors and shareholders”.
Among the amendments rejected was one from former justice secretary Jack Straw which aimed to slash in half the £1,200 fee solicitors receive for cases that settle through the RTA portal in the wake of the referral fee ban.
However, justice minister Jonathan Djanogly told him there would be action. “The department is now reviewing the situation, but to achieve this outcome does not require primary legislation. Instead, a reduction can be implemented through changes to the Civil Procedure Rules.
“I can give the commitment that we are looking at this. Indeed, my officials plan to consult on appropriate changes to the level of recoverable costs, and any changes will be placed before the committee for approval.
“I can also tell him that I do not intend to go to all the trouble of stopping referral fees being paid to claims management companies, only to see those same fees staying with the lawyers rather than going back to consumers in lower insurance premiums or prices in the shops.”
On legal aid Mr Djanogly appeared to suggest there was leeway over the deeply controversial clause 12, which would give the government power to introduce means-testing for advice and assistance for those in police custody, although it has said it has no intention of activating the power at the moment.
“I appreciate that there are many deeply held concerns across the House and more widely… I can confirm that we will, therefore, carefully review our approach to these clause issues as the bill goes through its stages [in the House of Lords].”
Having secured its third reading, the bill will now go to the Lords, where some concessions are expected.