Legal aid bill set to be law after escaping domestic violence challenge

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Despite vocal opposition, the House of Lords has failed to amend parts of the government's controversial legal aid bill that apply to domestic violence victims in England and Wales.

Domestic Abuse

After peers defeated the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill 14 times during its passage through parliament, the bill now needs only the formality of Royal Assent to become law.

For the opposition, Baroness Scotland had argued that the changes could lead to women dying. But despite Lady Scotland's warning, the Lords supported ministers with 238 votes for each side. In the event of a tie, victory is awarded to the government.

Although peers had already defeated the government 11 times, the Commons overturned all changes.

Lady Scotland called for the deletion of a 12-month time limit, within which anyone seeking legal aid for domestic violence cases must claim. But because victims often wait years before reporting their abusers, campaigners say this is inadequate.

Lady Scotland observed that if people with genuine grievances die for want of legal aid, it will be too late to apologise.

"This isn't a case where we can say, 'We don't know, we hope it won't happen'," said the peer, a former attorney general. "We have the empirical data. Over the last 30 years we have learned those lessons."

The Justice Minister, Lord McNally, said the coalition had "listened and learned from what Lords and MPs said about our proposals" and amended them. Ministers "absolutely agreed" that legal aid should reach domestic violence victims and the latest deal was "now worthy of support".

Lord McNally said the government would accede to senior police officers by widening the bill's definition of domestic violence. If courts determined legal aid was needed, it would still be available "even in older instances of domestic violence".

Last week ministers agreed a concession to the bill. Sufferers of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers will be exempt from changes to no-win, no-fee legal claims until the effects of the moves are reviewed.

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