Legal Aid Bill a step closer to becoming law

 

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill has been back in the news recently. After its mauling last month by the House of Lords the Commons has voted to reinstate almost all of the measures the Lords had amended or dropped. Whilst it is expected that the changes would have to go back to the Lords for approval, there is speculation that the Speaker will designate the proposed law a “money bill” which, under the Parliament Act 1911, the Lords may only delay for a month but may not prevent from passing.

If the bill passes in its current form, it will have dramatic implications for all those seeking to rely on legal aid to fight their case. Most significantly, the bill reverses the current principle that legal aid is available for everything except where it is specifically denied by statute. Instead, under the bill, legal aid will only be available for the types of cases listed in the new law.

Courts should be the last resort

Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister and Lord Chancellor, believes that the bill will help to save a large amount of money from his budget. He has also stated that it will be good for justice. At present, with legal aid relatively easily available, many cases go to court that otherwise would not. Clarke reasons that denying legal aid in more of these cases will mean that the parties will have to find alternative ways of resolving their dispute, making the courts the last resort. He has come under pressure, however, with campaigners claiming that some cases will not be resolved at all.

Help for domestic violence victims

The Commons has made one concession to the Lords. Originally, the bill was going to refuse legal aid for victims of domestic violence unless they took their case through formal court procedures. After fierce opposition from groups who pointed out that victims who are not married would have little access to the courts, the Government revised its proposals in order to ensure legal aid is still available in these cases. This is, however, the only reform that the Government is willing to make.

It remains to be seen whether the Lords, concerned about the impact of the changes, will try to reinstate their modifications. If they do, the Government will surely be tempted to force the bill through regardless.
 

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