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Legal Aid

Baroness King of Bow: My Lords, in the time available I want to make three points about the proposed cuts to civil legal aid. First, the cuts target the poorest but reduce standards for all of us. Secondly, the cuts in their present form actually increase costs to the taxpayer. Thirdly, not only do they restrict access to justice but, as we have heard, they specifically remove legal aid from children who are victims of medical accidents or negligence.

I find that almost unbelievable. Who in their right mind would think that it was an acceptable idea to remove legal aid from a child who had been disabled for life due to a medical accident or, still worse, negligence? I have written to all noble Lords asking them to write to the Prime Minister on this point because I feel so strongly about it. Regardless of our politics, I do not believe that there is a single one of us in this House who thinks that that is a good and proper thing to do. I hope all of us believe that Great Britain should be a country that provides legal aid to children who are victims in these circumstances, not one that would deny those children any recourse to justice.

Giving Members on the government Benches the benefit of the doubt, what on earth is this about? Even more perplexingly, this is not just about saving money; if it were, the Government would welcome the Law Society's proposals with open arms. These cut more than the Government's £350 million cuts to legal aid. The Law Society, playing an excellent hand of poker, has raised the Government's cuts and said, "We'll cut even more". So, if this is about saving money, why cannot we take on board the expertise of those who actually work in the sector? Critically, the Law Society's cuts do not involve removing recourse to justice from the most vulnerable.

Coming to perhaps the most salient point, it is not just the poorest who will suffer. We will all suffer. If we do not have legal aid to challenge Rachman-type housing, for example, housing standards will not improve. If we do not have legal aid to challenge medical negligence, care in the health service overall will not improve. We see how case law in Britain protects all British people. Look at the Hillsborough disaster, the thalidomide case and the Clapham rail crash; all involved elements of civil legal aid and led to safety improvement, whether for healthcare, stadium safety or transport. Therefore, although evidently only the poorest qualify for civil legal aid, the resulting case law protects us all. We will be worse off if this goes through as currently planned. I ask the Government to think again and for intelligent cuts. None of us thinks that no cuts should be made, but they should not be self-inflicted cuts that will wound this country grievously.

I ask the Minister to reply to me on a particular point to clarify the Green Paper, which says on page 172:

"We propose to retain the current scope of Legal Help and Representation",

covering legal aid for medical negligence. It uses a few more words than that but that is essentially what it says. It goes on to say:

"We propose to remove all Legal Help and Representation",

around medical negligence, again using a lot more words. Which is it? I know the Government have said that it was an accident and that they did not mean to give children that cover. However, the good thing about such a contradictory Green Paper is that the Government can do a U-turn and say, "Oh, that is what we were thinking all along". That is what I hope they will do. Please step back from these proposals. It is bad enough to remove help from the most vulnerable, but to do so when it seems clear that it will increase costs to other departments is frankly insane. I shall write to the Minister with a full list of examples of how costs will increase in other departments.

I fully realise that in this House a law we often pass is that of unintended consequences. However, here the consequences are clear. I implore the Minister to commission an impact assessment before going further with something that could severely damage this country's fantastic justice system.

Hansard link: 21 November 2011 column 872