A disabled peer has spearheaded the latest defeat of the government over its plans to reform the legal aid system and cut £350 million from its budget.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson told peers that plans to force people to use a telephone helpline as the first point of contact when seeking help with cases of debt, discrimination, community care and special educational needs would create serious problems for many disabled people.
Her amendment to the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill would ensure that those eligible for legal aid advice would be able to access it in the forms most suited to their needs, such as a face-to-face meeting.
She said some disabled people might “struggle to explain complex problems over the phone”, while “people with language or speech difficulties may be deterred from seeking advice”. The government proposal would have saved less than £2 million a year.
The crossbench peer said that a “telephone-only legal aid service” might suit many people, but “those with language difficulties, learning difficulties or mental health problems may be disadvantaged”.
Lord Wigley, the Plaid Cymru peer, said the government’s proposals would “in effect disfranchise individuals with learning difficulties or disabilities that impair their ability to communicate efficiently from being able to access advice” and would “put up shocking barriers to equal access to justice”.
The Liberal Democrat justice minister Lord McNally said that “face-to-face advice” would still be an option in those “exceptional circumstances” when suitable adaptations could not be made to the service.
But he said a telephone service would be easier to access and of a higher standard than face-to-face contact, although he did make a concession by agreeing that those seeking help with community care cases would not need to use the “telephone gateway”, because of the complexity of that area of the law.
Despite the concession, Baroness Grey-Thompson’s amendment was passed by 234 votes to 206.
The government wants to cut about £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by 2014-15, but has now suffered a string of defeats over the bill in the Lords.
Last week, it was heavily defeated over plans to remove legal aid for complex benefits appeals.
But coalition MPs are likely to attempt to reverse the defeats when the legislation returns to the Commons, as they did with amendments to the welfare reform bill.