MPs have again launched a stinging attack on the Government following what they described as a “maladroit” review of claims for the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma.
A short inquiry by MPs on the Justice Select Committee found the consultation had not been prepared in a thorough and even-handed manner and it should be undertaken again.
Their report also called on the Ministry of Justice to work with the Department of Health to reduce delays in the production of mesothelioma victims’ medical records and highlighted the excessive average legal cost of £20,000 for every claim.
Middlesbrough Labour MP Andy McDonald, one of the committee members, said: “What is abundantly clear from our investigations is the Government never had any intention of retaining the exemptions they agreed to and which were secured by parliament for the benefit of mesothelioma victims and their families.
“The protective measures that were so hard won from the Government, which meant that victims didn’t have to suffer additional legal costs brought about by litigation funding changes introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), were simply a sham.”
Mr McDonald accused the Government and the Association of British Insurers of “dodgy deals behind closed doors”.
Last year, MPs from this region condemned a “roll over” to the insurance industry when they criticised weaknesses in the Mesothelioma Bill, legislation designed to compensate victims of mesothelioma who have been unable to trace employers who exposed them to asbestos.
Mesothelioma, a painful and almost always fatal lung disease caused 2,291 deaths in 2011, a higher number of which on average occurred in the North-East. This is thought to be because of the region’s background in heavy industry.
James Dalton, an assistant director of the Association of British Insurers, said the insurance industry had always been “open and transparent”, adding: “We make no apologies for negotiating with Government a scheme, paid for by insurers, that will compensate an extra 3,000 sufferers over the next ten years, who would otherwise go uncompensated.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “We are considering the best way to get claims settled fairly and quickly.”
“We will consider the report’s recommendations and respond in due course.”
Source – Durham Times, 01 Aug 2014
Nine out of ten Citizens Advice Bureaux (92 per cent) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year, the charity has found, leading to benefits appeals failing because of lack of written submissions and supporting evidence.
Citizens Advice is reporting it is now extremely hard to get legal aid around issues such as housing, relationship breakdown or employment disputes. Where limited provision of legal aid remains people have to meet very stringent criteria. The length of time it takes to get legal aid means people’s situations often become far worse than they would have had there been earlier intervention.
In some cases legal aid is now simply not available, such as to help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.
Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gillian Guy will today share this evidence with the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the impact of changes to civil legal aid. Guy will call for a Government strategy on funding of advice, to ensure that people can access the right level of advice, at the right time, in the right way for them.
Citizens Advice also reveals a 62 per cent increase in people seeking online advice about help with legal costs.
“Cuts to legal aid have created an advice gap, stranding people with nowhere to turn. At precisely the time when people’s need for specialist advice on issues such as housing and welfare increased, provision for this support has been slashed.
“Modern life presents increasingly complex problems and people need help to understand, adjust to, and in many cases challenge decisions affecting their income, housing and work status.
“In a rapidly changing world, where people’s expectations of services are rising, accessing the right advice at the right time will be critical to help people solve problems and understand what government changes mean for them.”
In the year before changes introduced under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into effect Citizens Advice Bureaux provided specialist advice in approximately 136,000 cases to help people struggling with legal problems. Changes introduced under LASPO have withdrawn support for approximately 120,000 of these cases.
A CAB in the North West reported:
“Benefits appeals are failing as clients are unable to pay for supportive medical evidence and/or are attending on their own without submissions. There have been problems with referring clients to specialist advice to challenge decisions on benefit entitlement and overpayment issues, including assembling specialist medical evidence to support ESA and DLA/PIP claims and preparing cases for appeal.”
Source – Benefits & Work, 08 July 2014
Legal aid cuts have led to an alarming number of people having to represent themselves in family courts in the North East.
The proportion of unrepresented North East parents attending court to contest custody of their children and other family matters has leapt from 34% to 53% of litigants since the removal of legal aid from family lawyers in April 2013.
Between April and December 2012, 4,698 people represented themselves at North East courts for child-related proceedings.
In the same nine-month period for 2013, the figure jumped to 7,562. This is a year-on-year rise of 61%; the highest in England and already more than the previous year’s total of 6,502.
Publication of the Ministry of Justice figures, secured via a Freedom of Information request, has sparked a call among some of the region’s lawyers to keep warring parents away from the courts.
Seven law firms in Newcastle currently offer a fixed-fee service which offers couples a way of resolving disputes without the need to go to court.
Sue McArthur, a lawyer at Newcastle-based firm McKeag and Co, said: “The massive increase in people representing themselves is leading to huge delays at court as judges struggle to help people representing themselves understand the proceedings and what is happening.
“Often people find that decisions go against them because they’ve not been able to refer the judge to the relevant legal points of their case. They can end up getting too emotional or angry and not presenting their case in the best possible way.
“To respond to this crisis in representation the legal industry is having to completely rethink how best to serve clients.”
Marc Lopatin, founder of LawyerSupportedMediation.com said: “The answer is not putting lawyers back in the courtroom at the public’s expense. Instead, the government should be doing all it can to encourage lawyers and mediators to work in tandem. This is the only way to make available the support parents need at a price most can afford.”
But The Law Society – which represents solicitors in the UK – says removing solicitors from the process will have a knock-on effect on children whose parents are fighting in court.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: “The legislation, which came into force last April, could easily cost more than it is intended to save.
“As well as all the knock-on costs to the tax payer and the social consequences of severely limiting access to legal aid, it is the couples fighting in court and their children who will be the worst hit.
“Removing solicitors from the process and cutting access to justice for people on low incomes is a devastating false economy.
“As we have also outlined to the Justice Select Committee, the reality is that solicitors steer separating couples away from the courts and towards alternatives such as mediation.
“The Law Society has previously suggested alternative savings that would make a bigger contribution to reducing the deficit by making the civil justice system more efficient, but the Government chose to ignore this.”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 07 June 2014