At meetings of the Public Bill Committee considering the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 6th and 8th September opposition amendments were comprehensively rejected.
Opponents wanted to return the large areas of law that the government has sought to exclude, including welfare benefits, clinical negligence, disability, education and housing law, into the scope of legal aid. Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter told the Commons committee that the amendments went to the heart of their opposition to the Government’s strategy of restricting legal aid. He said: “Legal aid was devised to allow those who are impecunious and cannot afford access to legal advice to get their cases into court to reach a fair resolution, to be put on a level peg with those who have such resources…The Government’s intention [is] very clear: to be as restrictive as they can possibly get away with being in the provision of social welfare legal aid and to allow exceptions only where they believe it is untenable not to, either for public relations reasons or for reasons of simple morality. Otherwise, they will do their level best to close down those options for legal aid that have grown over time.”
He went on to say: “We are saying through these amendments that we wish to stay potentially with the status quo. That does not mean things should not be reviewed. On the contrary, the point I am making is that if we want to constantly review what is and is not appropriate, we should not set up a system so restrictive that it will give little justice to anybody who is seeking that in any of the areas currently in scope.”
Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly responded that: “The amendments are contrary to the basis of our whole programme of reform and would increase the cost of legal aid dramatically at a time when we are seeking to focus it on the highest priority cases.” The voting was always close, usually by 11 or 10 to 9, but sufficient to leave the relevant clauses unamended. Any hopes that the two Liberal Democrat members of the committee might be persuaded to vote against the government were dashed.
According to the ‘Law Gazette’, speaking out of committee Andy Slaughter said: “Reading out pre-prepared scripts in response to every amendment and failing to answer questions undermines the ability of the committee to properly scrutinise this legislation and insults lawyers, advisors and volunteers in the sector that are watching us and hoping their voices are heard.” The Parliamentary timetable provides for the third reading of the bill next month before it is passed on for debate in the House of Lords.