LASPO regs debate
On 17 July 2013 Lord Bach moved a motion of “regret” against the legal aid regulations laid before parliament seeking to reduce eligibility for legal aid on the basis of capital in their house (the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013). The transcript of the debate that followed in the House of Lords can be found here.
Lord Pannick, Baroness Deech, Lord Bishop of Norwich and Lord Beecham all spoke in support of the motion. Lord McNally, the minister for legal aid, responded.
Lord Bach explained the changes brought about by the regulation. Previously, claimants of certain benefits (including Income Support or Guaranteed Pension Credit) would automatically pass the means test for legal aid. As part of the changes brought in by the current government, this “passporting” has been restricted and an assessment now has to be made of the capital held by a claimant, including any equity held in their home.
Lord Bach opened the debate by pointing out the unfairness of a system where the government deems an individual eligible for such subsistence benefits but not for legal aid.
Lord Pannick pointed out that “the inevitable result is that many people who own their own homes will be excluded from legal aid, even though they cannot in practice access the capital“. He described the regulations as”simply irrational” and warned that there was a failure to understand “the vital function of legal aid itself as a welfare benefit for the needy in our society“.
Baroness Deech, Chair of the Bar Standards Board recognised that these regulations would further limit access to legal aid and would impact on the junior Bar who already do an “extraordinary amout of pro bono work”. She also reminded the house of the increased pressures on the court system from an increase in litigants in person.
Lord Beecham illustrated the position: “A pensioner on pension credit whose mortgage has been paid off and whose home is worth £110,000, who could be living in a very modest property in London to exceed that figure, will be ineligble for legal aid… There is a real question of hardship here.“
In response, Lord McNally did little more than reiterate the government position and attempt to distinguish legal aid – “for people required to deal with a short-term legal issue and the associated expense” – from the welfare system as a whole.
In closing, Lord Bach reminded the House that these regulations applied to those areas of law that the government had decided legal aid should continue and was kept in scope and that legal aid has been, from its inception, “a vital part of our social security system and a protection for all our citizens“.
Lord Bach did not put his regret motion to a vote, but indicated that the Lords would return to debate the same subject in future.