Wednesday, 1 February 2012

For and most importantly against the LASPO Bill

Various government proposals and bills seem to be having a tough time in the House of Lords, not least the rocky ride being shown to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) which proposes cuts to legal aid and sweeping changes to civil litigation.

Currently in committee stage there have already been a few concessions made but with many peers opposed to the Bill the next report stage should be very interesting.

The last couple of weeks have seen a number of articles in the news with varying opinions on the LASPO Bill.

In the Telegraph over the weekend, the Justice Minister Ken Clarke was defending the Bill by highlighting the costs that the NHS pays in success fees to lawyers in clinical negligence cases. According to their figures:
  • the number of claims rose from 5,426 in 2006/07 to 8,655 in 2010/11
  • legal costs of claimants suing the NHS rose over the same period from £83 million to £195 million
  • the cost of defending the actions rose from £49 million to £62 million.
Blaming the compensation culture, Clarke explained that "Taxpayers expect that the system should compensate claimants properly and reward their lawyers appropriately, not liberally.”

On the other side of the fence, the Telegraph article mentions phone-hacking victims like the Dowler family who have lobbied the government with a letter saying that “the changes will make it difficult for any but wealthy people to launch legal actions.”

Similarly, a range of charities, organisations and campaign groups are fighting back against the Bill, including AJAG and the CJA both of which ARAG is a member of.

The latest press release from the Law Society explains: “Peers in the House of Lords will discuss altering the legislation in a bid to eradicate "compensation culture" but the move would instead penalise victims of accidents, fraud, negligence and wrong-doing as well as businesses and even the Government.”

In an article in the Guardian, charities Oxfam and Amnesty International have joined the campaign on behalf of those suffering human rights abuses, warning that, “Victims of oil spills, pollution or land grabs in developing countries will no longer be able to pursue claims in British courts against multinational corporations under [these] legal reforms.”

Another hole identified in the Bill is that of the money saving aspect. Concerns have been raised by many that the calculations haven’t been done and that the cuts in legal aid and amends in civil litigation will cost more than they save. A report by King’s College London identifies that “these changes will incur new costs for the taxpayer by simply shifting the burden onto other parts of the public purse.”

In another academic report, Dr McIvor, Senior Lecturer at Birmingham Law School, accused the reforms of being “excessive and over-zealous”. She advised that “the evidence does not necessarily demonstrate that the primary source of the current high level of costs is the recoverability of success fees and after-the-event insurance premiums.”

What is also surprising about the Bill is the lack of joined up thinking in the government. With Clarke, together with his counterpart, Eric Pickles, continually following the party line about saving money (Guardian article: Eric Pickles: council tax rise a 'kick in the teeth' for cash-strapped residents), if the Bill is passed and legislation implemented then Council Tax will increase. The reason for this is quite simple. Unlike the present system where Local Authorities can recover their legal costs when they successfully defend a claim, under the new proposed system, they will not unless the case is deemed to be fraudulent or frivolous, which is extremely difficult to prove. This Bill is leaving Local Authorities will their hands tied behind their back. One the one hand they will want to defend cases, but on the other they know that if they do they won’t recover costs. Claims won’t reduce, so compensation payments by local authorities will increase, meaning only one thing, a cut in services or an increase in the Council Tax.

With the report stage to come and many amendments expected to be tabled by the Lords to all sections of the Bill, the fight is not yet over for those battling for and most importantly against the LASPO Bill.

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