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Legal aid: Parents of missing girl urge Prime Minister to amend 'no-win, no-fee' law

Kate and Gerry McCann are among a number of high-profile signatories to an open letter to the Prime Minister, urging him to rethink government proposals to amend the law on 'no-win, no-fee' legal representation.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill is due its third and final reading in the House of Lords this week. Despite a number of previous defeats in the Lords at the committee stage, the bill is now widely tipped to become law.

The letter was coordinated by organisations 'Hacked Off' and the 'Liberal Rights Campaign' and has been signed by a number of members of the public who have had to issue libel proceedings against newspapers in recent years.

Kate and Gerry McCann sued the Express newspaper, accepting damages of £550,000 for utterly false and defamatory stories published about the disappearance of their daughter in 2007.

Another signatory is Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist, who used a no-win, no-fee lawyer to successfully defend himself against three libel actions brought by American companies. The letter is also signed by Christopher Jeffries, the Bristol landlord who successfully sued eight newspapers after being publically, and falsely, accused of the murder of his tenant Joanne Yates.

The bill will attempt to cut around £350m from the public legal aid bill, but also includes provisions designed to amend 'no-win, no-fee' legal representation. These changes would prevent claimants from recovering their insurance premiums and lawyer success fees from a losing defendant. These considerable costs will instead now be paid from the court award of compensation.

Opponents, including the Law Society, say that this will drastically reduce the financial award from bringing a claim. Cutting this vital incentive will deter those who are wronged from seeking justice, as the risk of bringing a case will outweigh any potential benefit.

The letter reads: "Parliament is on the cusp of passing a law that will grossly restrict access to justice for ordinary people in privacy and libel cases, without even any saving to the public purse. We strongly object to the passing of this unjust measure and urge you to amend it before it is too late."

However, the Government has previously reiterated its support for changes it believes will make the system fairer.

In response to a letter from the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, the Prime Minister's office wrote: "There are many deserving cases brought before the courts. But we have to stop the abuse of the system by others pursing excessive, costly and unnecessary cases. Under the current arrangements, innocent defendants can face enormous costs, which can discourage them from fighting cases. This simply isn't fair."

The bill receives its third and final reading in the Lords tomorrow (27 March 2012).

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Guardian)

No win, no fee agreements: pros and cons (FIndLaw)