Lord Willy Bach is Labour’s Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) is really three Bills in one: legal aid, civil justice and sentencing changes.
On Monday, the Lords started the Bill’s Report stage by considering Part 1 and changed the Bill in three key areas. First, by placing a duty on the Lord Chancellor to secure access to legal services to effectively meet the needs of individuals. Second, by ensuring that ALL domestic violence victims are entitled to access civil legal services and that legal aid is open where they need it in private family law cases. Thirdly, courtesy of Labour Peer Garry Hart and a cross party group of supporters, by guaranteeing that the independence of the new Director of Legal Aid Casework should appear on the face of the Bill.
There were three votes and the Government lost them all – a great result.
Yesterday, a number of fellow Peers and I met with clients who had had their lives changed because of legal aid, as well as their advisers from CABs and Law Centres. If legal aid had not been available these clients’ serious problems would have been made worse. I only wish that Ministers had been present. Perhaps then they would have a different view about the difference legal advice can make. We left the meeting even more determined to do right by these people.
This afternoon in the Lords we start debating the scope of legal aid. The LASPO Bill destroys social welfare law by removing welfare benefits, debt, housing, employment and education law from remaining in scope.
3-0 was a good score on Monday but there can be no resting on our laurels. Today the central issue of maintaining legal aid in social welfare law will be the subject of a series of debates and votes. Some powerful names – across parties – have signed a crucial amendment (number 11) that would keep welfare benefit advice in scope. Further debates will cover debt, housing, employment and education advice. We cannot be sure of victory, particularly as a senior LibDem Peer is trying to protect the Government from losing by proposing a weak discretionary fund in place of legal aid. This is very disappointing as many brave words were said at Committee in favour of keeping these areas in scope. There are, however, many Peers who believe that it is wrong to deprive poor (often disabled) people– from getting legal advice as will clearly happen if this Bill is passed in its present form.
It is clear that the Lords are generally not big fans of the LASPO Bill – and they are right not to be. If carried into law, Part 1 would diminish our much admired legal system, prevent access to justice for the most vulnerable, and will almost certainly cost the public more than the savings planned. We are working as hard as we can to maximise support for the vital votes.