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The Government is planning to replace clause one of the Access to Justice Bill with a "vague" new objectives clause which does not guarantee equal access to justice, The Lawyer can reveal.
The Government plans to scrap the clause as the Bill goes through its Committee stage in the Commons and insert a new one, which outlines general objectives for the Community Legal Service (CLS).
However, the Legal Action Group (LAG) says that the new clause is too vague and no substitute for the existing non-discrimination clause.
The proposed new clause requires CLS staff to "have regard to the desirability of exercising" their functions "so far as is reasonably practicable so as to:
promote improvements in the range, quality and accessibility of services;
resolve disputes as quickly and fairly as possible without unnecessarily long court hearings;
allocate appropriate services according to a matter's nature and importance."
LAG's policy director Vicki Chapman says : "The clause is vague and doesn't go far enough. In seeking to scrap clause one and replace it with a vague purpose clause shows that the Government is not committed to equal access to justice.
"It is still crucial that there is an overall objectives clause at the beginning of the Bill, clearly stating the purpose of the legislation," she adds.
She says she is backing an amendment tabled by MPs Dominic Grieve, Edward Garnier and John Taylor, which extends the non-discrimination measures in clause one to other areas.
A Consumers' Association spokesman comments: "It is difficult to believe that the Government is serious about creating a fairer system when it is so hostile towards the clause, which would put all people on an equal footing whenever they need legal aid."
The Consumers' Association's Head of Legal Affairs, Ashley Holmes dismisses the new clause as "half hearted" and "anodyne" and adds: "The Government is clearly in a difficult position. By getting rid of clause one they are going to be accused of being discriminatory and not protecting vulnerable groups, so to prevent this they have come up with something of a sop."