Conditional fees threat casts a shadow

The future of legal aid hangs in the balance as the Government edges towards “no win no fees”. Legal aid and civil justice reform will be the main topics of the conference. Russell Jenkins, president of Cardiff Law Society, for one accepts that Lord Irvine has effectively set the conference agenda before getting anywhere near Cardiff. So what will Lord Irvine say?

Conditional fees will definitely be extended and Lord Woolf's fast-track system for claims with a value of less than £10,000 will also go ahead

Far more radically, the Government appears to be considering using conditional fees as a substitute for legal aid.

In other words, as The Times put it, it apparently wants to scrap the legal aid system.

Although this may be a long-term objective, it seems inconceivable that the Government would extend conditional fees to new areas while simultaneously withdrawing them from the ambit of legal aid.

However, it may well withdraw legal aid from personal injury cases, as Henry Hodge, the deputy chairman of the Legal Aid Board, predicted at a fringe meeting during the Labour Party conference.

At least personal injury conditional fee agreements have been operating reasonably successfully for the past two years, although even such a limited withdrawal of legal aid would prove highly controversial given the question marks which still hang over the “no win no fees” principle.

The Labour MP Andrew Dismore, who was a leading personal injury specialist before entering Parliament this year, says he thinks that there is “great scope” for conditional fees.

But he argues that rumours that the Government will abolish legal aid for all civil cases is “wild speculation” similar to predictions that “the world will end at the millennium”.

One informed source says Lord Irvine's reforms will be less extreme than anticipated – but the Government does aim to cut £300m from the civil legal aid budget of £800m.

The source also suggests that multi-party actions and medical negligence cases are too complex to be left to conditional fees.

“There are strong public policy arguments for keeping medical negligence within legal aid,” says the source.

Delegates at the conference will also be anxiously awaiting news of how private practitioners will be involved in delivering legal aid in the future.

Hodge predicted a shifting of resources towards the voluntary sector, which would work in partnership with the private sector to fulfil Labour's pre-election vision of a community legal service.

He also predicted only franchised firms would soon be able to handle legal aid work and that solicitors faced a new era of “more work for less pay”.

Expect a similar, uncompromising stance from Lord Irvine.