Page last updated at 22:43 GMT, Monday, 23 April 2012 23:43 UK

More government defeats on legal aid

The government has suffered fresh defeats over the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, as peers voted to reinstate amendments that had been rejected by MPs.

The House of Lords inflicted 11 defeats on the government during report stage of the bill, the largest number for any bill introduced by the coalition.

Last week, MPs overturned all the changes made by peers and the bill returned to the Lords as both houses sought to agree on a unified wording of the legislation.

Opening debate on 23 April 2012, Justice Minister Lord McNally said that the government had offered several concessions to peers.

"We have listened, and we have amended," he said.

But crossbench peer Lord Pannick, moving a motion that would reinstate a requirement in the bill "that individuals have access to legal services that effectively meet their needs", argued that MPs had not given thorough enough consideration to Lords amendments before rejecting them.

Fellow crossbencher Lord Alton suggested that the treatment of the bill in the Commons was "indicative not of the need to reform this place... but of the need to reform the other place".

MPs had rejected the amendment on the grounds of the "financial privilege" of the Commons, which has primacy when it comes to matters of public spending, but peers did not accept this reason, voting to reinstate Lord Pannick's amendment by 248 votes to 233, a majority of 15.

The government suffered a second defeat when peers backed a Labour motion concerning access to legal aid for victims of domestic violence, despite concessions by ministers.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke had announced amendments broadening the definition of domestic violence for legal aid purposes to include emotional and psychological harm, not just physical abuse.

Women admitted to a refuge, those receiving social services support, and any victim whose partner or ex-partner has a caution for violence against them will also be entitled to claim legal aid.

Labour spokesman and former Attorney General Baroness Scotland argued that making use of women's refuge services a qualification for legal aid would "exclude many women who are unable to access such services, and yet are experiencing violence".

Referring to the potential costs, she added: "If we cannot afford to protect women, children - and men - who are in this position then we are a very poor country indeed."

Lord McNally insisted that government concessions meant that women and children would get access to legal aid, but Baroness Scotland claimed that "over 50%" of victims would not obtain help under the government's proposals.

Peers voted to support the Labour motion by 239 votes to 236, a majority of just three.

Ministers escaped a further defeat when peers voted to back the rejection by the Commons of an amendment giving people applying for legal aid the right to have a face-to-face interview, rather than be assessed over the telephone.

For the government, Baroness Northover insisted that people will be assessed on whether they can "give instructions and understand advice over the telephone" and that what was proposed was not "a call centre service" as some critics had suggested.

Crossbencher Baroness Grey-Thompson, who previously defeated the government on the issue by a majority of 28, said she was "not reassured" and was concerned that people who had been told by services such as Citizens Advice Bureaux to phone for an assessment instead may think that they had been rejected for legal aid.

She pushed the matter to a vote but the government won by 231 votes to 243, a majority of 12.

The bill makes wide-ranging changes to legal aid, the cost of litigation, and sentencing guidelines.

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