“Ping pong” action

The Parliamentary process known as “ping pong” has truly begun. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Bill was back in the House of Commons on Tuesday night. The House of Lords had changed the LASPO Bill 11 times for the better – see our earlier post for details. On Tuesday night the Commons voted to overturn all 11 amendments.

Some concessions

During the Commons debate Government made some key concessions. They have decided to:

  • Allow legally-aided advice and representation for welfare benefits appeals in the Upper Tribunal, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court; and
  • Widen the list of criteria that the Legal Services Commission will use to decide whether an individual is entitled to services as a victim of domestic violence

We believe that these changes do not go far enough to protect the vulnerable clients we work for.

In particular, there will be no legal aid for welfare benefits appeals at the First-Tier Tribunal or requests for revisions outside of the First-Tier Tribunal system. During the debate Ken Clarke said that he hoped to devise a way of ensuring that appellants in the First-Tier Tribunal had access to legal representation when their case involved “points of law”. We believe this is an artificial distinction that the Government continues to draw between so-called “general” and “legal” advice. Responding to Ken Clarke, Tory MP Robert Buckland commented that individuals do not come through the door saying “I am a problem of fact” or “I am a problem of law”. He argued that individuals come with a “particular issue that needs untangling by somebody with expertise. That somebody will… often be a lawyer”.

The London Advice Services Alliance (LASA) has also commented that Ken Clarke’s distinction is false and misleading. Our members who work in welfare benefits law support that view – they know that individuals are best advised by people who have been trained in and are employed as social security law experts.

Therefore we call on the Government to stand by Ken Clarke’s statement that they are “open to the argument for ensuring that we have legal representation when there is a legal issue that we cannot expect a lay person ordinarily to argue” and retain legal aid for welfare benefits First-Tier Tribunal appeals and revisions.

The Government also failed to ensure legal aid is available for children’s legal cases, which had been strongly argued for by the Just Rights coalition of children’s charities. This is disappointing. We feel that it is particularly important that children are able to access independent legal advice. Therefore we would urge Government to reconsider its rejection of that important amendment.

Back in the Lords

The LASPO Bill will be back in the House of Lords on Monday 23 April. Lords will debate and vote on whether to accept the Commons’ changes or not. The Government has pleaded “financial privilege” for a number of the amendments, which traditionally means that the Lords cannot overturn the Commons’ decision. Instead “new” amendments have been laid down for Monday’s debate including:

  • A statement at the top of the LASPO Bill that the Lord Chancellor (within the resources that he decides to make available) shall secure that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs;
  • Retaining legal aid for welfare benefits appeals to the First-Tier Tribunal; and
  • Putting on the face of the LASPO Bill a list of the criteria that the Legal Services Commission will use to decide whether an individual is entitled to services as a victim of domestic violence.

We hope that Government will also listen to concerns about retaining legal aid for clinical negligence cases and for children’s legal cases. We would also urge peers to support any amendments laid for the debate on Monday that would have that effect.

What you can do

Our members have been incredibly active over the last few months contacting their MPs and emailing peers through the Justice for All “pair up with a peer” scheme. You have done a brilliant job so far managing to persuade the Government to make significant changes to the LASPO Bill for the better. We are now asking you once again to contact peers to ask them to support the amendments during Monday’s debate. If you are not “paired up” with a peer, you can find the contact details of and send messages to peers here. The very active mylegal forum also has ideas for how you can contact peers for Monday’s debate.

Please do all that you can to try to save legal aid.