Law: Bar Council sides with the poor over plans to axe legal aid for civil claims

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The Independent Online
Barristers claimed the Government's plans to abolish most legal aid for many civil claims will deprive the poor and needy of justice. They gave the example of a CJD victim whose family won damages - but only through getting legal aid. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, heard the argument.

The Bar Council claimed yesterday that the successful medical negligence legal actions such as that by Patrick Baldwin's family would not be brought under the Government's proposals.

Mr Baldwin, a marine engineer in the Royal Navy, contracted CJD - the human form of mad cow disease - and died, after being given human growth hormones as a teenager. Yesterday, at the barristers' press conference, his father, Noel Baldwin, described how he had won pounds 125,000 damages for his son's two children after being granted legal aid to take action against the Department of Health.

He said: "I cannot see how I could have afforded to bring legal action if I had not had legal aid. When I was granted the aid, having watched my son die, at least I knew that one day I would find out how and why it happened."

Unknown to his family, Patrick Baldwin's treatment had been part of a research project to test the hormone therapy. According to the family's lawyers, it took investigations costing more than pounds 300,000 before they knew they had a viable legal case.

The Bar Council claims that under plans by the Government to scrap legal aid for all civil actions involving damages or compensation and replace it with a no-win no-fee conditional fee system, no lawyer would be prepared to take on such an expensive and complex case.

Launching their alternative proposals, Heather Hallett QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said that while Mr Baldwin's case was particularly tragic, such cases were not unique.

She said: "If there is to be a general extension of Conditional Fee Agreements then there must be important exceptions for which legal aid is still available - above all the poor, as well as the disabled, defendants, public interest litigation, litigation against the police and state and judicial reviews."

The Council yesterday published its own proposals for a Contingency Legal Aid Fund (CLAF) to work alongside the current system under which claimants would pay an initial application fee, unless they are too poor, and then, if successful, pay a slice of their winnings back into the fund to help other cases. If they lost, the fund would pay the defendants.

Critics, including the Government, say such schemes simply encourage the less meritorious schemes. Ministers say they have already accepted the need for hardship and public interest funds.