Ackner in last-ditch fees fight

LORD ACKNER has tabled two amendments to the Lord Chancellor's conditional fee proposals in an eleventh hour attempt to alter regulations which he claims will lay clients open to exploitation.

His amendments come as the Bar Council is also voicing “profound doubts” about the scheme.

Lord Mackay's Conditional Fee Agreements Order, laid before Parliament shortly after Easter, is due to be debated by the House of Lords next week.

The amendments tabled by Lord Ackner, a former Law Lord, propose either a restriction of the 100 per cent uplift chargeable by lawyers to 20 per cent or a cap on the proportion of damages payable in fees.

Under Lord Mackay's current plans, which have also been attacked by the Bar Council, lawyers are able to double their fees in successful cases while there is no limit on the amount of damages that can go towards fees.

Lord Ackner says the proposals fail to protect clients from lawyers who “are not as honest as they should be” and is fearful that unjustifiable uplifts will be charged on cases which have a high probability of success.

“Poor litigants will find that their damages are swallowed up by the successful lawyers' double fees,” he claims.

But, although confident he will win the argument, he fears the “payroll vote” will be standing by ready to support the Government.

Lord Ackner has been a persistent critic of Lord Mackay's “no win no fee” proposals and counts on the support of several leading figures including the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, Lord Hailsham and Lord Steyne, chair of the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Education (Aclec) In a widely leaked letter to the Lord Chancellor Lord Steyne expressed grave reservations about the proposals and urged in vain for them to be delayed. Lord Ackner's amendments are in line with Aclec's own proposals for a lower uplift and a cap on damages payable in fees.

The Law Society also pressed for such a cap but the Lord Chancellor maintains he is not empowered to impose one under the Courts and Legal Services Act of 1990.

The society, whose guidelines for solicitors will recommend a 25 per cent damages cap, has welcomed conditional fees and argues they will only be viable for lawyers if there is a 100 per cent maximum uplift.

But the Bar Council has decided to issue a brief to peers expressing its own concerns about conditional fees.

A Bar Council spokesman says: “We have profound doubts as to whether putting more money in lawyers' pockets is the best way to promote access to justice.”

Matt Kelly, of the newly formed Personal Injury Bar Association, says: “There is strong opposition at the Bar about the whole system. People are concerned that it will deny access to justice.”