Tuesday 01 May 2012 by Catherine Baksi
The controversial Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders act received royal assent today, 11 months after it was introduced to parliament. Part 1 of the act paves the way for cuts to the scope of and eligibility for legal aid; part 2 reforms conditional fee agreements. Both come into force in April 2013.
Part 3 of the act deals with sentencing reform, creating a new offence of threatening people with a knife in public or at schools and causing injury by driving dangerously. It also criminalises squatting.
The bill met strong opposition in both houses, which inflicted 14 defeats on the government. The act will remove legal aid for wide areas of law including most private family law, social welfare law, clinical negligence, education and employment.
Part 2 abolishes the recoverability of success fees and associated costs in conditional fee agreements. A last minute climb-down by the government meant that the reforms will not be introduced for mesothelioma cases until a review of their impact on other cases has been carried out.
The act also creates tougher community sentences, gives prosecutors the right to appeal against Crown court bail decisions and clarifies the law around self-defence.
Justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said: 'These reforms will strengthen our work to cut crime, protect the public and ensure taxpayers' money is being spent where it is most needed and most effective.'
Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said: 'This act ensures we will continue to have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world, which together with no-win no-fee deals means that legal help is widely available for those who cannot afford a lawyer. It will help people to explore the range of practical advice available to them to tackle problems early, rather than immediately taking legal action.'
Djanogly added that the act 'will reduce lawyers' fees, which we all end up paying for through increased prices and insurance premiums. It will make legal costs fairer between people suing for compensation and the defendants, so that the defendants are not denied access to justice through fear of high legal costs.'
But Law Society president John Wotton warned: 'The consequence of this act will be that, in some very important areas like housing and welfare benefits law, vulnerable members of society will find legal advice and representation in the courts, funded by legal aid, more difficult to obtain.'
Wotton said the campaign against many aspects of the act, by the Law Society and others, had led to important concessions and amendments. But he said: 'We cannot pretend that the final act is the outcome for which we had hoped.'