Irvine defiant over legal aid shake-up

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday indicated its determination to press ahead with radical plans to reduce the legal aid bill despite widespread hostility from lawyers and consumer groups.

The Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine and his junior minister Geoff Hoon are said to be "firm and resolute" on the plans which could cut pounds 300m off the pounds 1.5bn cost of legal aid.

They believe much of the opposition to the proposals, which will phase in the conditional no win, no fee system for most civil damages claims next April, comes from solicitors who are "addicted to subsidy" in the form of legal aid whether they win or lose cases. In a Commons debate on Friday Mr Hoon will signal little compromise on the sweeping reforms put forward by Lord Irvine last month.

A senior source in the Lord Chancellor's Department said they would be commissioning management consultants to show how law firms can deal with the commercial risks of litigation. They hope to publish its findings early next year when a consultation document is issued on the wider legal aid plans.

The source said the message from ministers is that these "fairly radical" plans are "going to happen ... Otherwise there will be an assumption that things will not really change".

The toughness of yesterday's comments show the frustration of ministers that the perceived benefits of their plans have been ignored. Removing legal aid from most civil damages actions could free money for more deserving cases, such as tenant claims against landlords, and give more not less access to the poor, they claim.

They insist that solicitors should be prepared to bear the risk of bringing cases - and funding the upfront costs involved - in the same way as other businesses. "Lawyers seem to want a situation where everybody bears the risk apart from themselves," said the source.

The Law Society said yesterday it was concerned the Government wanted to go ahead with its "ill-considered and ill-thought proposals".