The human rights organisation Amnesty International has issued a stark warning to the UK Government that plans to curb legal aid for human rights cases will affect access to justice for some of society's most vulnerable.
They urge the House of Lords to continue this week's efforts, which have seen six of the proposals defeated in the upper chamber.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill has so far had a torrid time in the Lords, with peers from around the House opposing several aspects. Many have also questioned whether the bill as proposed would actually save the £350m which the Government has anticipated.
Next week the bill will face further important votes on reform of the 'no-win, no-fee' system. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has attacked the system this year for fuelling a 'compensation culture'.
The bill will amend the scheme so that success fees and insurance premiums will now be paid from compensation awarded. Amnesty argues that this will wipe out any financial incentive for victims to bring a case.
"Taken together, these costs are likely to wipe out potential damages awarded and will make the claim financially unviable at the outset," said Amnesty.
"Under the proposed reforms, it is unlikely that victims such as the 69,000 people living in Bodo, Nigeria, would have been able to pursue a case against the multinational conglomerate Shell, who recently admitted full culpability for two massive oil spills in the region."
The Government, facing an embarrassing whitewash in the Lords, has turned the debate on the bill into a party political matter. This week David Cameron taunted senior Labour politicians, saying that they were unable as a party to support any financial cuts and were therefore no more financially responsible than Greek parliamentarians.
However, director of Amnesty International UK said: "The proposed reforms will not even come with a saving to the public purse. The only beneficiaries will be the multinational corporations defending the case whose costs will be reduced at the expense of the victims' damages. This should not be allowed to happen."
Despite the heavy defeats, the Government is expected to attempt to force the bill through when it returns to the commons. This is permitted on the basis that the bill is primarily a financial measure to reduce costs, and the Commons retains seniority in many legislative matters, by virtue of being the elected chamber.
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