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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK

UK Politics

Head to head: Access to Justice Bill

Minister of State in the Lord Chancellor's Office Keith Vaz puts the case for the government's Access to Justice Bill, while the Law Society argues for its abolition.

Minister of State Keith Vaz:

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Giving people legal aid will not change the course of their case if they don't have a case.

What we are proposing to do is to ensure that the lawyers, the good quality lawyers who will represent them are able to discuss these matter with their clients and present the case to them."

We will not be withdrawing legal aid in those cases where there is a high investigative cost, in clinical cases and cases that have the wider public interest at stake.

You talk about the Labour rebels and frankly I welcome the chance to have a debate in Parliament about this matter.

I've spoken to a number of people who have signed this amendment and they have been reassured the bill is designed to provide the people of this country with a modern system of justice, and that must include ensuring the tax payers' money is spent wisely.

It is very, very important people to go to professionals who are able to explain the chance of success of the persons they purport to represent

The lord chancellor and I would not be proposing these schemes if we thought for one moment that a single child, a single person who is a patient within the Mental Health Act, or a person with disabilities is not going to get the kind of good legal advice that is available

I come from the same party as the people who have signed this amendment to the Access to Justice Bill.

I stood on the same election manifesto as them. I believe firmly that the proposals we are putting forward will provide better access to justice for all these people.

We are a listening government but we are not a government that has to do everything every special interest group tell us to do.

We have listened to the points made to us by a number of special interests groups about the bill.

Since I took over this job six weeks ago I have visited a number of firms that do personal injury work and I have not met a single solicitor who does not agree with the conditional fee agreement.

If we thought the vulnerable people of society were going to be hurt by our proposals we would not bring them in.

We believe people will be enhanced by the kinds of the proposals that we are bringing forward.

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The Law Society, which is part of a coalition of organisations including the Child Poverty Action Group, the disability network RADAR, and the mental health charity MIND, opposing parts of the bill.

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There are many aspects of the Access to Justice Bill which the Society supports. However, there are other provisions which will seriously decrease access to justice for the most disadvantaged in society.

The government says this bill is about making access to justice available to more people.

It is a crude attempt to ration peoples' access to their rights. It will take away help from people who need it most because the amount of money available will be strictly limited.

Luck will be a big element in getting help. Even if you qualify for legal aid, if the money runs out - tough.

Under the bill, the right to justice will remain in theory, but is not guaranteed in practice. The lord chancellor has given assurances that people's legal rights won't be affected.

However, unless these assurances are included in the bill justice may be turned into a lottery for millions of people - depending on where they live and what's left in the legal aid budget.

For the first time in its history the legal aid budget is being capped.

This is despite the fact that legal aid spending is now clearly under control, with recent increases well below the rate of inflation.

And if this is not enough, we are now told by the lord chancellor that funding for civil legal aid will consist of what is left over after criminal legal aid claims have been met.

This could lead to civil legal aid being squeezed out of existence altogether.

To prevent this and to protect the public's legal rights the Law Society is calling on the government to insert five cast-iron guarantees in the bill.

  • Guarantee that legally aided clients have the same access and choice as privately paying clients
  • Guarantee that legal aid will continue to be available for personal injury cases where clients cannot reasonably get or afford legal insurance
  • Guarantee that the budget for civil legal aid will be ring-fenced, and never used to top-up the criminal legal aid budget
  • Guarantee safeguards in the bill to protect disadvantaged groups, such as the disabled.

Tuesday represents the final chance for the self-styled listening government to do just that - sit up and listen.

Such a diverse range of groups and people - including the government's own backbench MPs - cannot all be wrong.

The government must admit that the bill is flawed as it stands and change it.

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