By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor
Peers from both sides of the House of Lords condemned the Government's plans to cut legal aid for vulnerable people in a lengthy debate on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on Monday night.
Fifty four peers spoke in the eight-and-a-half hour debate, 42 of whom spoke in opposition to the Bill.
Opening the debate for the Government, Lord McNally argued: "For those who say that those most in need must have legal help to support them when they have a serious legal problem, I agree. For those who say that people must have legal help for whatever they want, whenever they want, I cannot agree. Access to justice is not the same as state-funded access to legal representation at court. We must do more to encourage people to use alternative, less adversarial means of resolving their problems."
Several peers spoke specifically about their concerns about the protection of victims of domestic violence in family law cases.
Former Labour MP Oona King, now Baroness King of Bow, made an impassioned statement against legal aid cuts for victims of domestic violence. "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 stillborn 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," she said.
The Baroness continued:"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."
Baroness Grey-Thompson also spoke about the risks of the cuts to domestic violence victims: "The bill proposes that legal aid should be provided for some alleged victims of abuse in private divorce and children proceedings, but not for the alleged perpetrator. This will almost certainly result in those alleging abuse, including disabled people and vulnerable adults, being cross-examined by the accused, creating significant risks to their welfare through the court process."
Earlier this month, the House of Lords Constitution Committee published a report on Part 1 of the Bill which deals with legal aid. The Committee said that the extent of the proposed cuts to legal aid, and the manner in which they are to be delivered, raises issues around important constitutional principles of access to justice.
The Bill will now proceed to the committee stage where it will come under detailed scrutiny before amendments are proposed.