Legal aid: Government defeated in Lords

Lord Bach Lord Bach said he was particularly concerned about the impact on disabled people

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The government has been defeated by 201 to 191 in the House of Lords over plans to restrict legal aid.

Peers backed a motion by Labour's Lord Bach accusing ministers of failing to honour a previous commitment on access to help in welfare cases.

Lord Bach said claimants appealing against a ruling on their welfare benefits would get no legal aid at the start of their case.

Ministers rejected the accusation and said no more concessions could be made.

Peers voted against the government on a piece of secondary legislation stemming from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which was passed earlier this year.

Former Labour minister Lord Bach said the government had failed to honour an earlier commitment by former Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke to allow support in "point of law" cases at the first-tier tribunal level - the first stage of the tribunal process.

He said he was particularly concerned about the impact on disabled people making their initial appeal against a decision by the Department for Work and Pensions on their benefit entitlement.

'Highest priority'

"No government, whatever its colour, should be allowed to get away with this. An undertaking to Parliament must be kept," Lord Bach said.

Liberal Democrat Baroness Doocey, who backed the motion, warned: "The government's present proposals will be catastrophic for many thousands of people."

She said ministers had not "honoured either the spirit or the letter" of its commitment.

"The conditions it has laid down for legal aid to be available require so many planets to be in conjunction that in practice it is doubtful that the vast majority of claimants could ever meet them."

Justice Minister Lord McNally said the government had listened but any further concessions would "affect the fundamental objectives" of plans to cut costs - the government wants to save £350m a year on legal aid by 2015.

The Lib Dem peer said: "Having listened carefully to the arguments we agreed to make available legal aid for advice and assistance for welfare benefit appeals on a point of law in the upper tribunal.

"In addition we agreed to make legal aid available for advice, assistance and representation for welfare benefit onward appeals in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

"At no point in progressing our... reforms did we say it is our intention for all first-tier welfare benefit appeals to receive legal aid.

"The government's position throughout has been that in these economic times we need to target legal aid at cases of the highest priority and where it is needed most."

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