Legal Aid: Lords complete third reading

30 March 2012

Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill completed third reading with further scrutiny and 10 votes yesterday (Tuesday 27 March).

Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) opened the debate with Amendment One, part of a group of government amendments made following a commitment given during report stage. Lord Thomas of Gresford (Liberal Democrat) acknowledged the first amendment offered a suitable solution to increase flexibility in the bill for legal aid. Amendment One and related grouped amendments (1, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 18) were agreed.

Votes to Schedule One on provision of civil legal service

A number of amendments were suggested by members to Schedule One of the bill which covers the provision of civil legal services. Four amendments to Schedule One went to a vote with two government defeats.

Baroness Grey-Thompson (Crossbench) explained that Amendment Three 'would make legal aid available for children in all current cases, including when they are victim of medical negligence.' The government defeat, with 232 for and 220 against the amendment, means around 6,000 children under 18 will qualify for legal aid if the Commons agrees in the next stage (ping pong).

Lord Cormack (Conservative) moved Amendment Four which resulted in a vote and a second government defeat with 228 for and 215 against. He explained: 'If, in the care of the NHS someone is damaged through clinical negligence then there should be an automatic right of redress. That is more particularly the case when we come to children, and that is what the amendment focuses on.'

Baroness Howe of Idlicote (Crossbench) moved Amendment Five covering legal aid for vulnerable young people. The vote resulted in a government win with 206 for and 229 against the amendment.

Lord Best (Crossbench) pushed for a fourth vote to Schedule One. He said: 'Amendment 16 consolidates earlier amendments... to keep within the scope of legal aid the legal advice and representation that that prevent homelessness... by addressing the cause of arrears which otherwise lead to a household losing their home.' One hundred and ninety-nine members voted for and 224 against resulting in a government win.

Vote five to Clause 10 on exceptional cases for legal aid

Lord Pannick (Crossbench) moved Amendment 19 to Clause 10 covering the exceptional cases category for legal aid. He argued the government's proposal to include an exceptional cases category was too narrow and failed to meet its purpose. He said: '...the clause applies only if the refusal of legal aid would amount to a breach of rights under European Convention on Human Rights or would create a risk doing so.' Two hundred and one members voted both for and against the amendment resulting in an equality of votes (draw) and a government win (as there was no majority).

Vote six on Amendment 21 on international human rights cases

Baroness Coussins (Crossbench) moved Amendment 21 to insert a clause before Clause 44. She said that the group of amendments (22, 23, 26 and 27) are designed 'to preserve the status quo in our justice system for victims of international corporate human rights abuse.' The amendment went to a vote resulting in a government win with 176 for and 206 against.

Votes results to Clause 46 on legal fees

Lord Pannick moved Amendment 24 to Clause 46 covering conditional fee agreements ('no-win, no fee') and after the event insurance schemes ('no-win, no premium'). Without the amendment the bill 'removes the power of the court to make unsuccessful defendants pay success fees and 'after the event' insurance.'  He argued that: 'Successful claimants would need to make these payments out of their damages. Concern has been expressed... that this may deter or prevent claimants bringing meritorious claims and may operate unfairly by effectively reducing the damages which they obtain.' The vote on the amendment resulted in a government win with 162 for and 195 against.

Lord Prescott (Labour) moved Amendment 25 and argued his amendment along with others suggested 'would retain their recovery of success fees and 'after the event' insurance premiums from the losing side in privacy and defamation cases.' He said: 'The government are shifting the balance of payments and costs on to the complainant, even when the complainant is found innocent and the defendant is found guilty.' The amendment went to a vote which resulted in a government win with 120 for and 194 against.

Lord McNally, on behalf of the government, argued 'the bill and associated measures seek to reduce the costs' and 'discourage unnecessary litigation in the area of defamation'. He explained that the bill would not come into effect until 2013 and the Defamation Bill along with other procedural reforms are 'about reducing the complexity and therefore the expense involved'.

Final two votes of the bill's third reading

Lord Woolf moved Amendment 31 to insert after Clause 66 a new clause on 'restorative justice'. The vote resulted in a government win with 69 for and 123 against the amendment.

The final vote was moved by Baroness Miller who tabled Amendment 41 to Clause 152 covering the commencement of Section 145 and that it will not be implemented until local authority representatives and other appropriate people are consulted. The amendment went to vote with 26 for and 107 against.

Withdrawn amendments on squatting and scrap metal

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer withdrew her amendment (36) to Clause 145 on offences of squatting in a residential building and the amendment sought to mitigate 'injustices being perpetrated against the homeless'. She thanked members for the 'incredibly important debate about whether we should choose to criminalise a section of society.'

Lord Faulkner of Worcester withdrew Amendment 38 to Clause 147 on the offence of buying scrap metal for cash.

The bill returns to the Commons for consideration of amendments on 17 April.

What is equality of votes?

According to House of Lords Standing Order 57, no proposal to reject or amend a bill or piece of secondary legislation can be agreed to unless there is a majority in favour of rejection or amendment.  Where the votes are equal the amendment under consideration is rejected.

What is consideration of amendments/ping pong?

Once the bill has completed its passage through the second chamber the bill will return to the Commons where they will consider the amendments made.

Both Houses need to agree to the exact wording of the bill and the bill may 'ping pong' between both houses until this happens.

When the exact wording of the bill has been agreed by both Houses the bill is ready for royal assent. Once a bill receives royal assent it becomes an Act of Parliament (proposals in the bill become law).

Final stage: Royal assent

Once a bill has completed all its parliamentary stages in both Houses, it's ready to receive royal assent and become an act of Parliament (law). Royal assent is the Queen's formal agreement to make the bill into an act.

There is no set time period between the consideration of amendments and royal assent.

When royal assent has been given, an announcement is made in both Houses by the Lord Speaker in the Lords and the Speaker in the Commons.

At prorogation (the formal end to a parliamentary session), Black Rod interrupts the proceedings of the Commons and summons MPs to the Lords chamber to hear the Lords commissioners announce royal assent for each bill.

The bill's progress so far

The previous stage of this bill to be completed in the Lords was the second reading, which took place on 21 November 2011.

Some key areas of the bill:

  • The bill takes certain types of case out of scope for legal aid funding and provides that cases would not be eligible for funding unless specified in the bill.
  • It abolishes the Legal Services Commission.
  • It makes various provisions in respect of civil litigation funding and costs, taking forward the recommendations of the Jackson Review.
  • It makes changes to sentencing provisions, giving courts an express duty (rather than the current power) to consider making compensation orders where victims have suffered harm or loss, reducing the detailed requirements on courts when they give reasons for a sentence, allowing courts to suspend sentences of up to two years rather than 12 months and amending the court’s power to suspend a prison sentence.
  • It introduces new powers to allow curfews to be imposed for more hours in the day and for up to 12 months rather than the current six.

Further information

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