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Proposed cuts to legal aid threaten coalition unity

Date:5 SEP 2011

ReportMPs will tomorrow reconvene to resume their examination of the controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, known as the LASPO Bill. The plan is to advance the bill to the House of Lords on 13 October, where it is expected to meet with intense opposition, particularly from peers with legal backgrounds.

The bill proposes considerable cuts to legal aid, including the removal of legal aid from all private law children cases (subject to limited exceptions). It was introduced in the House of Commons on 21 June 2011 and has provoked outrage in both legal circles and Parliament. There are increasing fears that more legal aid solicitors will abandon their practices and that the courts system will become overloaded, with more litigants in person pursuing cases without legal advice.

The Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke also wants to limit no win, no fee agreements, forcing claimants to pay their lawyers' success fees out of any compensation payments. Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter warned: "Victims of wrongdoing by multinational companies ... phone-hacking, pension mis-selling or asbestosis sufferers will find it impossible to get justice.

"We intend to force the Tories and Liberal Democrats to justify why they think it's right to restrict legal aid for children, the disabled [and] victims of medical negligence or bad decision-making by the state."

Max Hill QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, told the government: "You can destroy the publicly funded bar if you want, but you will want it back when it is too late to recover what you have lost."

Liberal Democrat MPs are coming under increasing pressure to split from the coalition government over the LASPO bill. Alistair Webster QC, chair of the Liberal Democrats Lawyers' Association (LDLA), has labelled the bill a "litmus test of whether there's any point being in the coalition". A fringe meeting of the LDLA will take place on 18 September to discuss how the party's policies can be fed into the government's programme.

Tendering for interim contracts until the bill comes into force has opened today. Carolyn Downs, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, said that all firms that met the mandatory requirements would receive an interim contract, starting in February 2012, but not necessarily all of the matter starts that they applied for. The deadline for tenders and amendments is 3 October 2011.