New legal aid laws introduced last year have had what appear to be unintended consequences for disabled people.
The changes were discussed in this week’s Lords debate on Tackling the Advice Deficit, the report of the commission on advice and legal support on social welfare law.
The work of the commission, which was headed by the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low, was widely-praised by other peers.
His fellow disabled crossbench peer, Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson, told the debate that until 1 April last year, disabled people could bring a case for discrimination under the Equality Act by instructing a solicitor on a “no win, no fee” basis.
The disabled claimant could take out an insurance policy that would protect them against the costs of losing the case. If their case was successful, the insurance premium was reimbursed.
But last year’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPOA) shifted the costs of personal injury cases to the defendant and scrapped recoverable insurance premiums for claimants.
Because Equality Act cases do not include a claim for personal injury, the disabled claimant’s costs are not shifted onto the defendant – which could be a college, hotel or bus company – and instead they need to pay a hefty insurance premium to protect against the costs of losing the case.
Even if the claimant is successful in proving that a service-provider was discriminating against them, and even if they win compensation and achieve changes to a policy or practice, they will not be reimbursed for the insurance premium.
These premiums are almost certain to outweigh any compensation they might win under the Equality Act, so even if they win, they lose out financially.
A campaign headed by Unity Law, a firm of solicitors which specialises in discrimination cases, is calling for an amendment to LASPOA – or to civil procedure rules – to ensure disabled people can access discrimination law again.
Unity Law believes that the current legislation breaches article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on equal access to justice.
Chris Fry, Unity Law’s managing partner, is set to meet Shailesh Vara, the junior justice minister, together with Lord Low and Baroness Grey-Thompson, to discuss the campaign.
There are also plans for a meeting with the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg.
Fry said: “Generally there is a groundswell of recognition that this was an unintended consequence of LASPOA and there is quite a simple fix.
“We are confident that once we can get that message across, we stand a good chance of getting that amendment.”
27 February 2014