MPs are voting today on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. The Bill makes sweeping reforms to the funding of legal cases. It is important that savings are made in the total legal aid budget and that we take steps to reduce the cost of litigation, while protecting access to justice and social welfare legal aid. But the Government’s proposals coupled with their cuts to social welfare legal aid, at a time when funding for advice services such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau are being cut, are both disproportionate and unfair and could prevent the most vulnerable in society from pursuing legitimate legal action, including on complex claims for life threatening illnesses.
The Bill, which is in its final Parliamentary stage, has suffered 11 defeats in the House of Lords. Coming after votes on domestic violence and medical negligence, we will vote on the exemption inserted by the House of Lords to exclude industrial disease cases. Amendments seeking to exclude industrial respiratory diseases from the scope of Government reforms aimed at tackling the “compensation culture”, which would require claimants to pay 25% of damages to their lawyers will be voted on tonight.
This vote will resonate in my constituency, Leeds West, because of the terrible illnesses caused by exposure to asbestos fibres.
A stone’s throw from my constituency office in Armley is the site of the JW Roberts factory, which exposed its workers and neighbouring homes to the dangerous fibres found in asbestos. The factory is now notorious for releasing asbestos fibres into the surrounding area and leaving the tightly packed streets covered in a dusting of asbestos. The companies knew that asbestos fibres were deadly, but they didn’t tell that to the parents of children playing with asbestos ‘snowballs’, marking out hopscotch grids in the dust, or to the workers being exposed to deadly fibres at work.
The reforms in this Bill are based on the costs related to some litigation claims, which can approach and even exceed the damages awarded. I agree that altering legal arrangements can work for spurious whiplash claimants, who might be put off by the idea of losing their damages if they pursue dodgy cases, and other straightforward actions.
But someone with an asbestos-related cancer, like mesothelioma, is not making up their illness to make a quick buck. For mesothelioma cases, the average total legal costs are just 17% of damages paid, compared to other types of claim where the costs match and exceed the damages. These are cases where the victim will die, usually a painful death, punished by a cancer which has been caused in so many cases by the victim having simply turned up to work to do their job or even just because they lived near a factory.
The complex claims often turn on the legal minutiae in employers’ insurance documents and can take years to resolve. The Supreme Court recently ruled on a landmark case which defines when insurance documents ‘trigger’ liability. The case argued whether the words ‘disease contracted’ and ‘injury sustained’ made insurance policies pay out to workers who have developed the disease over time. It has been a protracted legal battle, which will have profound impacts on other potential claimants.
The claimants who bring these cases cannot possibly be part of the “compensation culture” the government says it is targeting. June Hancock, who contracted mesothelioma when she lived in Armley, fought a protracted battle to get compensation. She was supported by my predecessor John Battle, and her case paved the way for further complex claims to come to court. How can it be right to legislate to take 25% of a damages payment away from victims like her?
This is an issue that has united campaigners across the political divide. The amendment we are voting on today is one of 11 defeats suffered by this controversial Bill – more defeats than any other Bill this Parliament. so far, the most to a Bill brought by the Coalition Government. When they go to the lobbies tonight, MPs must bear in mind the experiences of mesothelioma sufferers – those exposed to the fibres at work, at school or in the streets – and compare their experiences to the ‘compensation culture’ and consider the fundamental importance of access to justice.