It is ‘inevitable’ that someone will die if the government proceeds with planned legal aid funding cuts for cases involving domestic violence, the Law Society has warned.
Vice-president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Liverpool that the definition of domestic violence used in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill is too narrow.
The evidential requirements to establish domestic violence were so high that they exclude the majority of victims, she stressed.
Scott-Moncrieff said it would be very difficult for people who have suffered domestic violence to take matters to court and stand up to their abusive partners without legal aid for representation.
Domestic violence often preceded murder and manslaughter, she added, and it was therefore ‘inevitable’ that someone would die as a direct result of the cuts.
Shadow legal aid minister Andy Slaughter MP told the meeting that the government’s proposals amount to ‘the most sustained attack on access to justice since legal aid began’.
The unwillingness of ministers to listen and respond to the legal profession’s concerns about the bill had caused a breakdown in relations between government and the profession, he added.
Slaughter promised to continue his party’s opposition to many of the bill’s proposals, pressing for a wider definition of domestic violence and the retention of funding for social welfare law.
Labour would not have sought to reduce legal aid for social welfare law, but would instead have pursued measures to reduce the amount spent on criminal legal aid, and the introduction of best value tendering, he said.
Slaughter predicted that the government will continue to face intense pressure over its planned reforms to civil litigation funding.
He told the Gazette: ‘People are waking up to the implications of the changes. They are starting to understand that the issue concerns the ability of ordinary people with limited means to get redress against those with assets who have harmed them.’
He criticised the government’s ‘piecemeal, cherry-picking’ approach to the recommendations made by Lord Justice Jackson, an approach that ‘played to the insurance industry’.Slaughter said the measures in the bill did nothing to control the excess costs in the system created by referral fees and advertising by claims management companies.
Former legal aid minister Lord Bach, who will lead Labour’s opposition to the bill in the Lords, told the meeting that the government’s plans were ‘practical and financial madness’, which would cost more than they save and leave people with nowhere to turn except their MP’s surgery.