Page last updated at 19:28 GMT, Monday, 5 March 2012

Ministers' legal aid changes dealt blow by peers

The government has suffered the first of several defeats at the hands of peers over its plans to change the legal aid system.

The House of Lords voted by 235 to 190 to approve an amendment creating a new duty for ministers to provide people with access to legal services.

Introducing his amendment on the first day of report stage on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, crossbencher and QC Lord Pannick insisted the change would not cost anything because the duty would only apply "within the resources made available" by the bill.

He told peers it was "right" for Parliament to restate its commitment to provide access to legal services, particularly when the government was "redefining the scope" of legal aid in the future.

The amendment did "no damage whatsoever" to ministers' "general objectives" to reduce expenditure on legal aid, he claimed.

Labour peer and fellow QC Baroness Mallalieu agreed, telling peers the change was crucial because it would show the government was "not abandoning what is an essential pillar of our constitution... that nobody should be denied the right to go to a court of law because they can't afford it".

Lord Newton of Braintree, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said he was "inclined" to support Lord Pannick's amendment, despite not agreeing with it when it was presented at committee stage.

"The more I look at the provisions of this bill, the more I doubt if the government is really committed to the principle in this amendment," he told peers.

Replying for Labour, shadow justice minister Lord Bach described the proposal as a "very important statement of principle" which he supported wholeheartedly.

But Lord Thomas of Gresford spoke against the "otiose and unnecessary" amendment and defended the government's plans.

"This bill isn't about abolishing access to justice, it's about rebalancing it," he claimed.

Justice Minister Lord McNally refused to give ground, dismissing the amendment as "unnecessary" and "not appropriate".

He told Lord Pannick: "The bill covers all the important commitments that you seek without misleading the public or Parliament about the very real constraints that we and previous governments have had to put on the limits of legal aid.

"Access to legal aid has always been restricted; we've always had to draw lines," he told peers.

Dissatisfied with the minister's reply, Lord Pannick pushed his amendment to a vote, which he went on to win with a majority of 45 votes.

You can watch the second part of the debate here.

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