Association of Personal Injury Lawyers' president Deborah Evans fumed at the lack of time taken by MPs to debate the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, declaring after last month's House of Commons reading; "is 20 minutes of discussion all injured people are worth?" Well, she got her wish as 54 members of the House of Lords spent eight full hours on Monday 21st November, largely tearing the government's proposals to pieces.
It wouldn't be an understatement to say that presently the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in its current form has some popularity issues. According to the Law Society Gazette, 51 of the 54 Peers who debated it on Monday were 'critical' of the Bill, which has become known as #LASPO in twitter parlance.
Lord McNally on behalf of the government appeared humbled by the strength of Peers' views, saying "I cannot go further on these issues than saying that we will listen, but we will listen to some very serious points that were made in a very serious way."
His comments came in the wake of impassioned speeches from the likes of Oona King, now Baroness King of Bow, who said: "They say they must clamp down on frivolous and trivial cases and the claim culture. We all agree with that. But how can they claim that a person dying of asbestos-related disease is a trivial or frivolous case or is part of the claim culture?"
Lord Martin of Springburn spoke of his interest in retaining no-win-no-fee by pointing out that his own libel action against the Times would not have been possible without the existence of conditional fee agreements; a fact that was echoed by former Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Prescott.
The Lords' debate of LASPO came in a month during which claimant groups appeared to have rolled up their sleeves against perceived threats. Often criticised for lacking the lobbying strength to compete against a powerful insurance industry, papers have been served on the government that would commence judicial review should Whitehall implement its proposed referral fee ban.
Claims Standards Council chairman Darren Werth served papers on the government earlier this month that it would commence judicial review proceedings if/when the Ministry of Justice implements its proposed ban on referral fees.
He said: "It is time the government stopped treating claims management companies as being to blame for all that is wrong with motor claims. Its attention should be on better regulation to weed out those rogue traders and offshore marketers responsible for abuses like cold phone calling and SMS spamming. It is plain wrong to victimise legitimate businesses who provide a service to the public and help them achieve access to justice, as the Legal Standards Board reported only a few months ago. A ban would be unlawful, procedurally unfair, irrational and disproportionate. In any event, it would be impossible to enforce effectively."
Interestingly, Mr Werth's suggestion that enforcement may be tricky is emphasised in a story from defendant insurance specialist Kennedys attacking referral fees. The law firm's head of liability Richard West claimed that there should be no stone unturned when telling Insurance Age how solicitors may pay insurance companies for services, such as training, risk management assistance or business consultancy, and have cases referred to them in return. "Whilst we welcome the intention of the ban on referral fees, we are keen to ensure that there is no room for exploitation of any loophole," said Mr West.
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