Tuesday. 2 September 2014

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Ministers set to drop plans over ‘right to a lawyer’

McNally signals climbdown in dramatic intervention in late-night Lords debate

The minister has given a clear indication that the government will withdraw the proposal

Lord Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions

Ministers are planning to back down on proposals to limit people’s right to a lawyer when accused of a crime in the UK. The government is redrafting proposed legislation after Lord McNally, the justice minister, indicated during a late-night debate in the House of Lords that it was preparing a climbdown over the issue.

He said that his department, the Ministry of Justice, had agreed to “remove the power to introduce means-testing for initial advice and assistance at the police station.”

Exaro last November highlighted what was then a little-noticed clause in a bill to reform legal aid that would introduce means-testing before a lawyer paid for by legal aid is made available. It also gives the government sweeping powers to carry out ‘merit-testing’ to decide whether a person arrested and taken into police custody should have access to a lawyer on legal aid.

Civil-rights groups and lawyers told Exaro that they were alarmed about  how the government intended to use clause 12 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

An attempt in the House of Commons to delete the clause failed.

Lord Carlile, the former government-appointed independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, was one of four Liberal Democrat peers who proposed an amendment in the House of Lords to delete the clause from the bill. In a commentary for Exaro last month, he wrote: “A single moment of reflection leaves one open-mouthed at the absurdity of this proposal.”

Much of the bill was controversial, he wrote, “but few of its provisions match clause 12 in the scale of that controversy.”

The government is hoping that the bill will cut spending on legal aid.

Carlile today told Exaro that he was “very pleased” by the government’s acceptance that the clause needed to be changed.

“Obviously, the devil is in the detail, and we shall be looking with great care at the proposal the government puts forward,” he said.

He described the original proposal as “completely impracticable”, and said that he was “fairly confident” that the government’s revised version would be acceptable.

McNally signalled the government’s change of mind late on Tuesday night just as the House of Lords was about to begin a debate on the proposed amendment to delete the clause.

He said: “My Lords, if I may interrupt, this may ruin a few speeches, but I think it will help if I say that the government intends to table an amendment to Clause 12.”

The government would do so at the later ‘report’ stage of the bill’s passage through the House of Lords, he said.

Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions and one of the four peers proposing the amendment, replied: “My Lords, I have never achieved such remarkable success with so few words.”

But peers questioned whether the government’s revised bill would fully address concerns about the clause.

McNally denied that his intervention was “a way of dodging a debate tonight”, adding, “The test of that will be what we bring back on ‘report’.”

Macdonald said: “The minister has given a clear indication that the government will withdraw the proposal that there should be some future means-testing. In those circumstances, the government’s response is appropriate. Let us see what the amendment will be, and, if necessary, come back on ‘report’ if it does not meet our objections.”

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