In the courts: Legal aid faces sweeping changes

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The Independent Online
Sweeping cuts in legal aid are to be announced today by Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor. Colin Brown and Patricia Wynn Davies say that while lawyers are on the warpath, ministers are unrepentant

Lord Irvine will justify the most sweeping changes made to the legal system by declaring that radical action was needed to bring the pounds 1.47bn bill for legal aid under control, even if that means taking on the vested interests of the Bar.

Today's speech signals a huge cost-cutting exercise which will result in the most severe reduction in access to civil justice since legal aid began in 1949. It will be seen as the biggest attack on the welfare state by the Labour government. Plans for privatisation of almost half the civil legal-aid scheme far exceed anything contemplated by the Tories. Only a relatively small number of cases involving social welfare, housing, immigration and possibly medical-negligence claims are to be spared the axe.

The most far-reaching cuts will be in legal aid for civil cases, such as the pursuit of damages claims, and libel actions, which will be effectively ended and replaced by "no win, no fee" arrangements. Lawyers who agree to take on the case get paid only if they succeed. Most family cases will continue to get legal aid but lawyers must convince the legal-aid board they have a 75-per-cent chance of success.

Lawyers will be assessed on their strike rate and if they pursue too many cases which fail they could get struck off an approved list for legal- aid cases. There will be a cash limit to keep a lid on legal aid, which the Government said had risen by 115 per cent in the past six years. Lawyers taking on cases will have to work to a fixed contract price, whatever the real cost, to keep their bills down.

Downing Street made a pre-emptive strike against the hostility of the legal profession to the changes by making it clear Tony Blair is fully behind the measures to be announced by Lord Irvine. The Prime Minister's office said lawyers' bills had risen 38 per cent in six years - 26 per cent more than inflation.

Stepping boldly into the lion's den, the Lord Chancellor will tell a conference of lawyers in Cardiff: "Legal aid must be refocused. It must be made a tool to promote access to justice for the needy and not seen by the public as something basically keeping lawyers in business."

An exception to the curbs on legal aid for damages could be made for cases where there is a public interest in reaching a judgment, for example where a legal precedent may be set. Such cases could be paid for out of a special fund by the Legal Aid Board. More consultation will be carried out cases of medical negligence.

Lord Irvine will stress that the poorest people will be protected. The previous government planned to make recipients of income support contribute small sums, pounds 5 or pounds 10, towards legal aid. That plan will be scrapped.

The Government is also acting to prevent a repeat of the one of the most expensive criminal legal-aid cases, the defence of the Maxwell brothers, which ran up a bill for the taxpayer of pounds 14.78m and is still rising. In future criminal lawyers will be on a fixed hourly rates, negotiated with the legal-aid board before the case gets the go-ahead. There will be a consultation paper on court fees next month.

The small-claims level will be increased from pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000; access to the small-claims court for personal-injury claims will stay at cases involving up to pounds 1,000 but a fast-track system will be introduced for cases involving between pounds 5,000 and pounds 15,000 to be heard within 30 weeks of allocations.