Lord Irvine's assurances could be a promise too far

Last week Lord Irvine came of age politically when he gave an assured performance before the Home Affairs Committee. Now comes the difficult part.

Lord Irvine is entering a crucial phase of his tenure. In the next year-and-a-half or so he will have to deliver on the confident promises he has made to cut legal aid, speed up justice and make the courts accessible to all.

His legal aid reforms, his plans to end the Bar's near-monopoly of the higher courts and Lord Woolf's massive shake-up of the civil courts, are all looming over the horizon. All three reforms could go badly wrong.

Of the three, he has had the least influence over the Woolf reforms, which are due to be implemented in April. The groundwork for the massive shake-up of the civil courts was prepared long before he arrived on the scene.

Earlier this year, The Lawyer revealed that the computer systems needed to underpin the reforms will not nearly be ready by the April deadline.

If the civil court system grinds to a halt, Lord Irvine will take the flak for not heeding calls for the reforms to be either delayed, or piloted. There are also fears that the county courts are just too under-resourced to handle such a huge shake-up.

Lord Irvine has also adopted a risky stance towards his legal aid reforms. His promise to make civil litigation affordable for the middle classes is based on his belief that conditional fees can replace legal aid. How does he know? So little research has been done into how conditional fees are working in practice, he must be working on a hunch. What happens if he is wrong?

Then, of course, there is the issue of rights of audience. Lord Irvine will be well aware that Lord Mackay's term as Lord Chancellor was defined by his inability to end the Bar's monopoly in the higher courts in the face of its determined opposition.

He will be bracing himself for a similar fight. If he fails to deliver on any of his promises, he risks being remembered as a failure, however droll his appearances before future parliamentary committees.