Lawyers have warned that the introduction of a residence test could ‘destroy’ civil legal aid after MPs voted in support of the measure.
Labour, which opposes the plan to restrict legal civil legal aid to those who pass a 12-month residence test, forced a deferred division on the measure and the government’s proposals passed by 273 votes in favour to 203 against.
The proposals were criticised in a report from the joint committee on human rights last month, which said they will lead to breaches of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
A report by Law Society Gazette revealed that the plans are also the subject of a judicial review challenge brought by the Public Law Project in which judgment is expected next week.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said the change could be very damaging to civil legal aid.
She said that while the government’s aim is to stop foreigners receiving legal aid, in reality it will prevent most eligible people from getting aid because they will either not have the evidence to prove residency or will not be able to gather it.
Law Society vice-president Andrew Caplen said the Society has consistently opposed the ‘unnecessary and discriminatory’ test.
“The test places a huge administrative burden on legal aid practitioners who will have to apply the test to all clients including British nationals,” he told Law Society Gazette.
“We have serious concerns that many of the most vulnerable clients will not be able to provide the necessary documentation to satisfy the test and will be denied legal aid to which they should be entitled.”
In a parliamentary debate, justice minister Shailesh Vara admitted that the government had ‘no precise figures’ to show any savings would be made from the amendment.
Justifying the move, Mr Vara said it is ‘unfair’ to British taxpayers that legal aid is currently available to those here on a visa as tourists or those who are in the country illegally.
He said the test is underpinned by a ‘clear and commonsense’ principle that individuals should have a strong connection to the UK in order to benefit from taxpayer-funded public services.
It is likely that the new measure will be introduced in August.