The government has been heavily defeated in the House of Lords over plans to remove legal aid for benefits appeals.
An amendment to the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill means legal aid will now be retained for the initial appeals of people with complex benefits problems, although the change is likely to be overturned when the bill returns to the Commons.
The Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Doocey, who proposed the amendment, said: “These benefits are crucial to many disabled people; they provide just enough money for those people to avoid poverty and to make some small contribution to the additional costs resulting from their disability.”
She added: “These people are going to have major problems mounting an appeal because they will have no idea what to appeal against.”
The disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low said that 81 per cent of all cases heard at this first level of appeals were for disability-related benefits.
He pointed to last week’s report by the joint committee on human rights which found that reforms and cuts to benefits and services risked “leaving disabled people without the support that they need to live independently”.
He said these cuts and reforms would mean “less work, much less benefit support and now no legal aid to challenge the mistakes that are bound to be made in such a colossal re-engineering of the benefits system”.
He added: “People fear that the cumulative impact of these changes will force them out of their homes and local communities and into residential care.”
Another disabled crossbench peer, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, also supported the amendment, which she said “offers some protection to ensure that the right people are supported”.
She said: “Both inside and outside your lordships’ chamber, we hear an awful lot about how we want to help and support disabled people. If we want to do so, this is our chance to prove it.”
The Liberal Democrat justice minister Lord McNally said the government needed to make some “very tough decisions on public expenditure”.
Despite the cuts, he said the government would still spend £50 million a year on social welfare law, while legal aid would be retained for judicial reviews of benefits decisions.
He added: “While we appreciate that many people rely on welfare benefits, these decisions are made in a tribunal, which is a court especially designed to ensure that claimants do not require legal representation.”
Despite his comments, Baroness Doocey’s amendment was passed by 237 to 198 votes.
A second amendment, that would allow legal aid for benefits appeals that reach the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, was also passed, with the government defeated by 222 to 194 votes.
The votes came only two days after a review by the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned that the proposed legal aid cuts raised “serious human rights issues” for disabled people.
The government wants to cut about £350 million a year from the £2 billion legal aid budget for England and Wales by 2014-15.
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com