The government suffered three defeats on the first day of Report stage of its legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill in the Lords on Monday. Despite almost universal hostility during the ten days of Committee stage, ministers had hoped that it would not translate into parliamentary defeats. The bill now seems destined to endure the same difficult passage through the Lords suffered by the proposed changes to health and welfare.
The first defeat came on amendment 1, proposed by crossbencher Lord Pannick, looking at the wording behind the Lord Chancellor’s functions. He said: “This amendment is a very simple one. It does not undermine the heart of the Bill at all. It ensures that individuals, rich and poor alike, have access to legal services that effectively meet their real needs” and “seeks to ensure that the Bill contains a statement of this uncontroversial and fundamental purpose of legal aid.” He quoted Ken Clarke who, in a recent newspaper article, wrote: “Access to justice is a fundamental part of a properly functioning democracy.” He stressed that the amendment does not require any further expenditure by the Government. The vote followed, with 235 members for the amendment and 190 members against.
Amendment Two focused on the provision of legal services in cases of domestic violence. Proposed by shadow attorney general Baroness Scotland it requested that: ‘…the Lord Chancellor must ensure that victims of domestic violence are able to access civil legal services in accordance with the financial eligibility criteria in Section 20 (financial resources).’ She said: “The simple truth is that if the current proposal is brought into force, genuine victims are going to be excluded from obtaining the help and support they desperately need to bring themselves and their children into a place of safety.” The Lord Chancellor had received a sharply worded letter signed by ten leading clerics and heads of faith organisations, criticising the narrow definition of domestic violence. The House agreed, the vote resulting in a government defeat with 238 for and 201 against the amendment.
The triple whammy came with amendment three to clause four, looking at the role of a Director of Legal Aid Casework. Proposing the amendment, Labour’s Lord Hart said: “Everybody agrees that this individual will be independent but the Government appear unable or unwilling expressly to say so. Every noble Lord who spoke in the debate wanted there to be some unequivocal statement in the Bill that this individual will be independent.” Again the House agreed, voting 212 for and 195 against.
This first day of five at Report also included consideration of eleven other amendments. Two were agreed, two were not moved and seven were withdrawn. One of these amendments was proposed by Lord Bach, who was concerned that the Lord Chancellor would have the power to take extra matters out from legal aid by regulation but not have the power to put them back in, when it should be the other way around. He withdrew the amendment when Lord McNally for the government said: “I give a clear undertaking to the House to bring back our own amendment at Third Reading which I think will meet the concerns that have been expressed.”
Meanwhile there was a late concession by the Ministry of Justice last week, ensuring that children who suffer brain damage at birth retain entitlement to legal aid.