No fee wins few of m'learned friends

Legal aid does not exist to "put the poor in a privileged position" Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, declared yesterday as he unveiled his much-trailed proposals to abolish a large part of the civil legal aid scheme.

Ministers believe the reforms, which affect England and Wales, will open up access to the courts to middle income earners who currently do not qualify for legal aid, but at the same time can not afford to take on potentially expensive litigation.

But consumer and legal groups renewed their opposition to the plans, set out by Lord Irvine at the Law Society's annual conference in Cardiff, insisting that the proposed extension of the conditional or "no-win, no- fee" scheme for most money or damages claims should run in tandem with legal aid, not replace it.

They argue that access to justice for the poorest in society, including children with legal claims, will be severely reduced.

While Lord Irvine's speech to the solicitors conference was received with restrained applause, some in the audience found certain of his remarks hard to credit from a Labour Lord Chancellor.

"I am willing to consider any arguments made to me, but I will always test them against the principle that legal aid exists only to remedy an imbalance between the poor and those who are better off, not to put the poor in a privileged position," he said.

He noted the opposition from barristers to his reforms, which will transfer the risks of litigation to lawyers. "Barristers are, of course, reared in a culture that they are paid, win, lose or draw. For them it would be a culture shock to be paid only if they win."

But Robert Owen QC, chairman of the Bar Council, warned that lawyers would increasingly take on only sure-fire cases or exaggerate the risks of others.

The Lord Chancellor also failed to answer the main criticism of introducing "no-win no- fee" on a wide scale without legal aid as a safety net. Under a conditional fee system litigants must still take out insurance premiums to cover their opponents' costs if they lose. They must also find the money to pay for up front "disbursements", such as medical and other experts' reports and court fees.