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Legal Aid

Speech in the Second Reading Debate of the Legal Aid Bill Mon 21 Nov 2011 Column 872

 

Baroness King of Bow: My Lords, this House knows that when a Bill is put before it, the government of the day usually get some of the legislation right and some wrong. But the wrongs contained in this Bill, whether by accident or design, are monumentally devastating. They cannot be made good by the benign aspects of the Bill or written off as collateral damage to be borne by British citizens in times of austerity. The Bill undermines the very compact between citizen and state. Were it to become law, British citizens who cannot afford a lawyer will effectively lose fundamental rights they have today.

 

I will confine most of my remarks to the legal aid section of the Bill. Those affected could be almost anyone but they include some of the most vulnerable groups in Britain: disabled children whose lives are ruined by medical negligence, battered women who are victims of domestic violence, terminally ill patients-for example, those suffering from asbestosis-related disease-the disabled, the abused and the sick. Under this Bill these are the scapegoats for austerity Britain. What is the Government's argument? They say they must clamp down on frivolous and trivial cases and the claim culture. We all agree with that. But how can they claim that a person dying of asbestos-related disease is a trivial or frivolous case or is part of the claim culture? I am sure the Minister does not claim that; in which case, surely he must bring those claims back within the scope of legal aid.

 

The same is true of domestic violence. Those crimes can never be described as trivial or frivolous. I was struck by what was said by a domestic violence survivor, Jeanie, who came here to the House of Lords to address Peers a fortnight ago. She said:

 

"It's not an ideological issue; it's one of basic fairness and justice".


Jeanie was thrown down the stairs by her husband late in her pregnancy. She gave birth at the bottom of her stairs to a still-born child. Eventually, on a subsequent occasion when her husband cracked her skull, she received legal aid and was able to escape with her children and prosecute her psychotic husband for GBH. Jeanie says that without legal aid she would not have been able to leave her husband and he would have killed her. He might have killed the kids as well. Under this Bill as it now stands, Jeanie would not be eligible for legal aid. It is clear that these provisions must be amended because the criteria for domestic violence are now so narrow that in many circumstances even if a perpetrator admits that he has raped a woman, his own admission no longer counts in getting his victim legal aid. This is madness.

 

It is no good asking a woman who is beaten and raped by her partner to use what the Minister described earlier as "less adversarial means" to resolve disputes. Not only is it inappropriate to ask a woman to do this, it is adding insult to terrible injury. Again, I know the Minister would never intend that so I am sure that he will want to rectify the Bill as it stands. If he is not able to give women in Jeanie's position access to justice, I am sure he will never sleep again at night. To prevent terminal insomnia on his part and to put all our minds at rest, I ask him to abandon the narrow definition of domestic violence which is not used in other parts of Government, to lift the 12-month time limit and to ensure that no victim of domestic violence is forced to either ruin their life or lose their life because the justice system is now closed to them.

 

I now turn my remarks to the Bill's impact on children. The Government have said that where children are involved, legal aid will still be provided. In the Minister's opening remarks he said that 95% of children who are currently covered by legal aid will retain that protection. First, having spoken to all interested parties, I am not yet convinced of that fact. Secondly, the Minister cannot be including within that statistic all the children affected by their parents' or carers' loss of legal aid under these proposals. The Minister will know that almost 150,000 children will lose civil law and family law protection provided by legal aid. Children are the main party in 6,000 cases a year that will no longer qualify for legal aid. They are financially affected by more than 140,000 cases a year involving their parents.

 

Another obvious example, about which we heard earlier, is welfare benefit advice. Currently in tribunal appeals where the applicant has legal advice-this is an incredible statistic; if your Lordships are drifting off, I advise you to come back for this one and remember it: 55% of all DWP decisions to cut benefits are declared wrong and are overturned. On decisions taken to appeal, the Government are proved wrong more often than they are proved right.

 

This means without a shadow of a doubt that low-income households will unfairly and through no fault of their own suffer when they no longer have recourse to legal aid. That includes 36,000 children every year from the poorest families who will no longer be able to appeal poor benefits decisions of this nature. A previous speaker talked about equality of arms. This is a precise illustration of how we are losing that equality of arms and how power is slipping from the individual towards the state. I do not think that this is an ideological issue, but, if it is, surely noble Lords on the government Benches would want to stop this drift of power from the individual to the state.

 

On the subject of children, the NSPCC unsurprisingly says that it is "gravely concerned" by the Bill and that:

 

"The proposals fail to protect the interests of children's welfare and the interests of justice".

 

That is a damning critique. The Children's Society is equally concerned and says:

 

"Taking whole areas of legal matter out of scope will inevitably affect the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised families".

 

So let us add those vulnerable families to the other specific groups targeted by the Bill: the disabled, the abused and the sick. There must surely be a better way of reforming legal aid than making life unbearable for those on the margins.

 

I was so concerned about the proposals in the area of medical negligence that I wrote to all Peers on the subject before the summer. I was overwhelmed by the responses that I received from all sides of the House. Your Lordships clearly do not think that it is wise or just to remove legal aid in medical negligence cases. I am sure that the Government will want to listen intently to the will of the House by accepting an amendment on this subject at an early stage.

 

My last sentence on this matter returns us to the victim of domestic violence, Jeanie, whose husband's violence killed her child. Jeanie named her daughter, who was stillborn at the bottom of her stairs, Hope. She found the courage to protect her children and save her own life using legal aid. Jeanie is relying on us, on the Minister and especially on Peers on the government Benches to ensure that other lives are not ruined by a legal system where justice is denied.

 

Hansard link: 21 November 2011 Column 872