Irvine provides surprise reform U-turn

THE Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, delighted the profession last week by finally admitting the folly of his plans to withdraw legal aid from personal injury cases this year.

In a retreat from the original reform timetable, Lord Irvine said that the legal aid system would remain intact until October 1999 at least. Withdrawal of legal aid will be among a “package” of civil justice reforms to be included in a Modernisation of Justice Bill, pencilled in for inclusion in the next Queen's Speech.

The Government had intended to withdraw legal aid from personal injury cases in June, but the date was put back to the autumn.

A Lord Chancellor's Department spokesman put the delay down to a “recognition of the need for the extension of conditional fees to bed down and for the insurance market to develop”. But fear of a successful judicial review against it will also have contributed to the decision.

The move was welcomed by the Bar Council, the Law Society and several lawyers' groups. “We are very pleased that the Lord Chancellor has recognised the need to move cautiously,” said the society's newly elected president Michael Mathews.

But Lord Irvine did make some progress with his reforms last week when he laid a statutory instrument extending conditional fees to all civil proceedings other than family cases. It will become law as soon as the Government can find time to debate the proposed changes.

Lord Irvine also announced that only specialist medical negligence solicitors will be able to handle medical negligence cases from next January, and said he had instructed the Legal Aid Board to set up a panel of lawyers to conduct group actions.

He also wants all legally-aided family cases to be handled under contract by the end of 1999.