The Law Society and Bar Council have urged Liberal Democrats to hold their party to account over the government’s reforms of legal aid and civil litigation costs. But Lib Dem peer and justice minister Lord McNally (pictured), who will pilot the legislation through the Lords, has signalled that compromise is not on his agenda.
At fringe events held at the party’s autumn conference, the representative bodies warned of the threats posed by the £350m legal aid cuts, particularly to children and domestic violence victims, who will lose representation.
The Law Society’s deputy vice-president Nick Fluck told a meeting on access to justice that it was wrong to deny people representation. And he described changes to civil litigation funding which will see up to 25% of damages going towards the cost of bringing claims as ‘unjust and unfair to victims’.
Fluck added: ‘The government, your coalition partner, has leapt on the changes and is now championing them, it seems mainly at the behest of the Association of British Insurers, who seem to be virtually jumping with delight at the prospect of this being brought in.
‘These changes to the current, elegant system of "no win no fee" will, in our view, have a devastating effect on access to justice because lawyers simply will not be able to take the additional risk of their costs not being paid.
‘I urge you to hold the coalition government to account. Let’s not go back in time. Let’s fight to keep legal aid.’
The bill has so far passed through the House of Commons without significant amendments, with opponents hoping for concessions in the Lords.
However, Lord McNally told the same meeting that his job is to get the bill through the Lords unchanged.
He admitted that in the context of £700bn of government spending each year, £350m was a ‘tiny’ sum, but that the cut had been forced on the government by the economic situation.
At the party’s spring conference, members voted against the government’s legal aid cuts and, at this conference, have voted for its retention in appealing welfare benefits decisions. But McNally warned that the party could not expect motions passed at conference to become government policy.
At a fringe meeting last weekend Tom Brake MP, a Lib Dem representative on the bill’s scrutiny committee, hinted at compromises on the reforms, including the police station means test, and legal aid for clinical negligence and domestic violence cases.
But he dismissed many of the Law Society’s proposed alternative savings as merely ‘shifting costs from one government department to another’.
The Law Society responded with a letter to Brake, asserting that its ‘polluter pays’ suggestions were about placing responsibility for costs on the body that caused them, and that they would only shift costs if the responsible body failed to improve its performance.
The bill is expected to go before the Lords in November, after its third reading in the Commons.