The government lost all three votes in the Lords last night over proposed amendments to its legal aid bill, making concessions on the evidence needed to prove domestic violence and on powers to bring cases back into the scope of legal aid.
In a series of votes at the report stage of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, peers backed by 235 to 190 votes an amendment tabled by barrister and crossbencher Lord Pannick to create a duty for the lord chancellor to ensure that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs.
The amendment is designed to ensure that the bill states on its face that its purpose is to secure access to justice so far as possible within the resources allocated.
Lord Pannick told the house: 'This amendment does not require any further expenditure by the government... the only relevant question is whether it is appropriate to include within this bill a statement of legislative purpose at the outset.’
For the government, justice minister Lord McNally said the amendment was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘not appropriate’.
The government lost by 238 votes to 201 an amendment proposed by Labour’s former attorney general Lady Scotland to ensure that all victims of domestic violence receive legal aid.
McNally told the House: ‘This government is absolutely committed to supporting action against domestic violence and supporting the victims of domestic violence whether through legal aid funding or other means.’ He agreed to broaden slightly the evidential criteria required to prove domestic violence.
The government's third defeat followed an amendment tabled to ensure that the director of legal aid casework, created by the bill to oversee funding decisions, was independent from government and could not be subject to interference from ministers. Peers backed the proposed change by 212 votes to 195.
The government also agreed to amend the bill to allow areas of law to be included in the scope of legal aid in the future through delegated legislation. Prior to this concession, the bill had allowed only for further scope cuts to be made.
The government’s defeats may have little ultimate effect, however. At the outset of the debate Conservative Lord Strathclyde said that it was 'likely' that the House of Commons would invoke financial privilege to bypass any amendments made by the Lords.
Strathclyde told the house that the decision was a matter for the Commons’ speaker, but that if the amendments were economic in nature, the Commons was likely to use the provision.
The bill continues its report stage in the Lords tomorrow.