Legal Aid has been a valuable option for many people for a long time, however its scope has been so widened, it has resulted in our legal aid system costing more than any other major country. In New Zealand for instance it costs £19 per head of population, whilst in Britain it costs £39 per head or in total, over £2billion. In the current fiscal climate, this is simply unsustainable.
The Government is reforming Legal Aid to ensure it remains targeted at appropriate cases for people who need it. The Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishing of Offenders Bill returned from the House of Lords last week with their Lordships proposed amendments.
Legal Aid is not being removed completely and for issues such as domestic violence, which people have written to me about, I am pleased to say the Government have agreed that it will be retained with an expansion of the criteria for evidence.
Whilst I was happy to support the Government on the majority of the Bill, I did oppose it on one amendment. The amendment proposed the removal of sufferers of Mesothelioma from the reforms to No Win No Fee agreements.
Mesothelioma is a particularly nasty respiratory disease brought about by exposure to asbestos and the High Peak has had a higher than national average rate of incidents of Mesothelioma. Because of this and the possibility of more cases in the future I felt compelled to vote for the amendment and against the Government, who were opposing it.
As I have said before, I do not defy the Government whip lightly but it was a case putting the High Peak first due to the specifics of the amendment and how it relates to the constituency.
Also included within the Bill are measures as part of the Government's commitment to curb the compensation culture.
The Government will ban the payment of referral fees in personal injury cases. The current arrangements have led to high costs, encouraged the compensation culture and led to the growth of an industry which pursues claimants for profit.
It is not in the public interest for potential claimants to be sought out and encouraged to make claims by people who profit from their claims being pursued. Referral fees add to the high costs and volume of personal injury litigation, one of the factors underpinning increases in insurance premiums and also, in my view creating a stranglehold in many areas of everyday life. The measures contained within the Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishing of Offenders Bill will see a return to common sense on justice and a return to the original, more sensible ‘No Win No Fee’ system introduced in the 1990's.