Last updated:2023-09-18
Legal aid and the missing minister
Justice for All (JfA) was at the Conservative party conference this week, bringing to an end its tour of the three main party political conferences. As with the other two conferences, JfA talked to MPs and delegates attending the conference in Manchester and held a joint fringe meeting with the Law Society. This took place yesterday afternoon. Unlike the Liberal Democrat conference at which Lord McNally defended the government, no minister attended the fringe meeting at the Conservative conference. Perhaps the minister with responsibility for legal aid, Jonathan Djanogly, did not fancy venturing out from behind the security barriers to face campaigners? Instead the Conservative backbench MP, Ben Gummer, was present to give his thoughts on government policy. He gave a nuanced performance which offered some hope to the not for profit sector especially, but reiterated the government's case for the cuts due to the overall budget constraints.
Jonathan Djanogly did appear at a fringe meeting in the secure zone on Monday (the night before the JfA meeting) to defend the government's proposals on civil damages claims which are included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. He argued that these would return the law to the position it was in prior to Labour's Access to Justice Act 1999. In a question, LAG pointed out to the minister that the Lord Justice Jackson report, which the proposals are based on, stated that legal aid should not be reduced further if the report's recommendations were to be implemented and that clinical negligence especially should not be removed from scope. In response Jonathan Djanogly said that such cases could be picked up by no win, no fee agreements which he stressed would continue under the new legislation and that plaintiffs would 'have to look harder at their chances of success before bringing a claim'. He said he believed that a third of such cases would fall under the new exceptional cases rule which would be introduced by the bill.
It was disappointing that Jonathan Djanogly refused the invitation to attend the JfA and Law Society fringe meeting. He appears to be more engaged with the parts of the bill which deal with reforming damages claims or 'ending the compensation culture' as he sees it than the reductions in legal aid which will lead to over 500,000 people losing entitlement to help with their civil legal cases. His boss, Kenneth Clarke, made only one reference to legal aid in his speech to the conference, referring to the need to cut out 'excessive spending on legal aid'.
In his speech to the fringe meeting, Ben Gummer continued with the theme of the necessity of cutting spending and to 'make savings in this parliament'. He said that even with the proposed reductions the legal aid system would remain 'more generous than most European countries'. Ben Gummer, who is a member of the House of Commons committee scrutinising the bill, offered some hints that amendments might be considered on the detail of the bill. He was pressed by Lucy Scott- Moncrieff from the Law Society and LAG on the clauses in the bill dealing with victims of domestic violence. He said he was aware of the argument to adopt the Association of Chief Police Officers' definition of domestic violence and added that 'the debate on this would have to be held in the House'. On the criteria for claiming legal aid in domestic violence cases he said this was 'an evolving area and I hope we will see a more settled position on this in the next few months'. When pressed by Paul Waugh, who was chairing the meeting, about what amendments the government was bringing forward, he said 'he was not in a position to be indiscreet about these' as he was not party to the government's thinking on this, but said that he hoped that 'especially the advice sector would be pleased by some of these changes'.
LAG believes that now the conference season is over, attention will shift once again to parliament and pressing for the bill to be amended either at the report stage in the House of Commons or in the House of Lords. Ben Gummer's comments at the fringe meeting yesterday also seem to indicate that MPs on the government benches want ministers to make good on their promises to assist the not for profit sector to deal with the planned cuts in legal aid. Gummer made several references to the £21m fund which has been promised to the sector, but as LAG pointed out to him in the meeting this will be of little use if it is only a one-off grant in the current year as the cuts in legal aid will hit the sector next year.