Civil Justice Council to probe impact of switch from legal aid to conditional fees

LAWYERS' fears that the switch from legal aid funding to conditional fees in personal injury cases will deny justice to litigants are to be investigated by the Lord Chancellor's new advisory body, the Civil Justice Council.

The 22-member council, which held its inaugural meeting on 20 March, is to set up a sub-committee to consider whether adequate funding mechanisms and legal expenses insurance packages are in place to allow for a smooth withdrawal of legal aid from personal injury cases.

The sub-committee likely to be chaired by Irwin Mitchell senior partner Michael Napier and one of five due to be formed before the council next meets in June, will also monitor the impact of conditional fees on lawyers and members of the public.

According to Napier, the council will have the power to commission research into a particular area either by an independent agency or by the Lord Chancellor's Department's own research team.

It will also hold a series of roadshows to gauge opinion across the country.

Napier said: “The intention is that the council should be outward looking and not a remote body sitting in London that doesn't listen to anyone.”

The council has close links with the thinking of the Lord Chancellor's Department in that the head of the civil justice division, David Gladwell, is one of its members but other members come from a diverse background and include judges, barristers, legal aid solicitors, and members of consumer groups.

The Lord Chancellor appointed the council's members last month fulfiling a suggestion contained in Lord Woolf's Access to Justice report to promote and monitor the justice system.

Other sub-committees are to be formed to examine whether:

increased court fees are discouraging litigants from pursuing cases;

alternative dispute resolution procedures are working;

successful claimants are managing to recover their remedies particularly in small claims cases; and

whether litigants find the justice system accessible in the early stages of claims.