Legal reform plan `will add to acrimony of divorce' say lawyers

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT PROPOSALS to overhaul the legal system will make divorce more acrimonious and threaten the independence of the judiciary, lawyers' groups warned yesterday. The Access to Justice Bill was attacked by the Law Society for its emphasis on US-style "no-win, no fee" cases as it received its second reading in the House of Lords.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, outlined the details of the Bill yesterday with a pledge to bear down on the pounds 700m-a-year legal aid bill "in the interests of the public rather than lawyers".

The Bill aims to introduce the biggest changes to the legal aid system for more than 50 years by contracting out work to a small number of specialist firms. It will also allow solicitors to represent clients in the higher courts and replace criminal legal aid with a Criminal Defence Service comprising quality-approved lawyers.

But in an attempt to cut legal aid costs, the Bill will introduce so- called "conditional fees" to cover property disputes that arise from a matrimonial break-up.

The president of the Law Society, Michael Matthews, said the "US-style approach" would make divorce much more confrontational by creating a "winner takes all outcome". Mr Matthews said the "bizarre" proposal flew in the face of other government policies to improve mediation on divorce and persuade the parties to negotiate differences amicably. "Conditional-fee agreements need a clear winner and a clear loser and that's not something you want when a couple are going through divorce," he said.

Lord Irvine said conditional fees would open up the courts to those who could not afford to contemplate the cost of losing a case. He said the Bill would introduce "quicker, simpler and cheaper" court procedures while sweeping away restrictive practices in the legal professions.

The Lord Chancellor told the House of Lords that the Bill was a "realistic and fair" way of ensuring that the public got value for money at the same time as increased access to the courts.

The Bill will end the current system whereby any lawyer can take a legal aid case. The number of firms offering a legal aid service will be cut from 11,000 to about 3,000 nationwide, a move critics have claimed will create "legal-aid deserts".

The Bill also came under attack from the Tories for its controversial proposal to end the powers of the four senior "designated" judges to veto any rule change affecting the profession or advocacy rights.

Sir Nicholas Lyell, the shadow Attorney General, said that moves to give the Lord Chancellor the right of veto would give him unprecedented power that would threaten the independence of the judiciary.

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