Government Concession On Legal Aid ‘Step In The Right Direction’ But More Needed

Expert Welcomes Move But Calls For Further Action

01.03.2012

A LEADING personal injury lawyer has welcomed last-minute concessions by the Government to retain legal aid funding for brain-injured children as its civil justice reforms reach a key stage in the House of Lords – but has urged ministers to do more to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society before it is too late.

The call from Stuart Henderson, Managing Partner for Personal Injury at leading national firm Irwin Mitchell, comes as the Ministry of Justice announced a u-turn on plans to remove legal aid funding for obstetric negligence cases causing severe disability, just days before its controversial Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) reaches the Report stage in the upper house.

A wide body of charities, campaigners and lawyers have argued vehemently against the plans since they were first mooted by the Secretary of State, Kenneth Clarke, more than a year ago but Henderson said the Bill still contained a number of other ‘misguided proposals’ which, if allowed to progress, would deny access to justice to some of the most seriously injured and vulnerable claimants.

And he urged the Government and peers from all sides of the House to look again at the proposals before it was too late, saying that victims of life-changing injuries and those suffering from fatal illnesses such as the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma would be hit the hardest by the ‘unintended consequences’ of the reforms.

“This is undoubtedly some positive news which will be welcomed by those who have fought to protect the rights of brain-injured children and their families to be able to seek redress through legal aid for the devastating injuries suffered and the lifetime of care victims of serious obstetrics cases need as a result, but we still need to know if this will cover claims for all severe disability arising from birth injury” said Henderson.

“We welcome the fact that the Government has seen sense on this issue and it is a step in the right direction of course. But the LASPO Bill contains a number of other very worrying proposals which will have serious unintended consequences for the ability of other seriously ill or injured people to access justice at a time when they need help from the law the most.

“Plans to reform the civil justice system in these areas, in some of the most complex cases in the personal injury arena, will mean victims having to pay some of their legal costs from their damages – damages which are carefully calculated to fund the lifetime of care these victims need or the devastating loss of earnings suffered through no fault at all of the claimant.

“This will include people suffering paralysis, brain injuries, serious spinal injuries or those suffering from terminal illnesses such as mesothelioma. In all these cases, the victim was affected through someone else’s negligence and it cannot be right that they will have their fair compensation eroded.”

Henderson continued: “Much has been made by the defendant lobby and ministers about the so-called ‘compensation culture’, even though two Government reports in the past 15 months have said there is no such thing. But claimants in these cases cannot possibly be considered to be part of any such culture, even if it existed, and it would be manifestly unjust if their access to justice was to be eroded as a result of misguided rhetoric.

“We would accept of course that some reform can be justified as the Government seeks to control costs in civil justice but this should be limited to the more straightforward, fast-track cases. Including serious injury, fatal injury and illness cases such as mesothelioma would be a devastating blow to anyone who needed help from the law in the future at the most difficult time in their lives.

”The Bill reaches report stage next week. This is now the time for peers on all sides to act and stop this attack on access to justice before it is too late – and for the Government to listen and see sense.”