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THE GOVERNMENT has confirmed the profession's worst nightmare by announcing it will withdraw legal aid from the bulk of civil actions while delivering the rest of it through cash-limited block contracts.
Its plan to substitute a large swathe of legal aid with conditional fees was widely leaked, but practitioners assumed the Government was bluffing.
Law Society president Phillip Sycamore said the plans would lead to a severe curtailment of access to justice.
Michael Napier, the leading personal injury lawyer, said the Government was combining "draconian cuts to legal aid" with "anti-lawyer rhetoric".
An expert on conditional fees, Napier was shocked at the plan to replace legal aid with conditional fees in areas where they had not even been tested.
Davis Arnold Cooper senior partner David McIntosh said lawyers had been "ambushed".
For those cases which remain under the ambit of legal aid - social welfare cases - as well as criminal law, the Government has stolen Lord Mackay's idea of imposing fixed block contracts on firms.
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, also said that legal aid would only be granted on civil cases if there is a 75 per cent chance of success.
He warned that the LCD would be monitoring the accuracy of firms' predictions of success to test whether they deserved a contract.
"No government can tolerate an ever growing demand-led budget," he said.
The limit on criminal legal aid raises the prospect of a European human rights challenge.
The introduction of Lord Woolf's proposed fast track in civil justice will be delayed until April 1999 and the limit on cases it will handle has been extended from £10,000 to £15,000.
There were chaotic scenes at the Solicitors' Annual Conference on Friday when news of the reforms leaked out following a Downing Street briefing - to the fury of the Law Society which accused the Government of announcing a major reform through "off-the-record briefings".