Election 97/women. New Labour, new legal challenge

Presuming Labour wins the coming General Election with an overall majority, the way the profession works and the income of its practitioners is likely be radically affected.

One of Prime Minister Blair's first appointments will be his Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. Paul Boateng would initially become minister for the Lord Chancellors Department, with minister of state rank rather than under secretary, but he is likely to move on and up soon.

The new team will institute a review of the Justice system to last for approximately one year. All initiatives and existing programmes will undergo strict cost-benefit analysis. Users of the justice system, from lawyers to victims, will be consulted.

The Woolf report may be implemented in part, but Labour will cost and may ditch the more expensive proposals. Any extra money would come from cutting existing budgets at the LCD. Those lobbying for full implementation of Woolf will have to think hard about the implications.

The LCD itself will probably be reorganised, with more emphasis placed on better and wider consultation and research, and greater use of panels made up of practitioners and lay people. There will also be greater budget accountability.

The LCD will focus on the interests of the consumers, rather than providers, of the justice system. Solicitors, for instance, will be encouraged to be more transparent in their billing arrangements. A more consumer-conscious LCD should also mean positive movement on rights of audience.

Expect the Office for Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) to come under early scrutiny, with self-regulation coming under fire, not just from Paul Boateng, but also from his close ally at consumer affairs at the DTI, Nigel Griffiths. Boateng will make a very strong case for multi-disciplinary practices and attempt to push the profession in this direction. He and other senior party figures will continue to encourage solicitors to undertake pro bono work under a formal structure.

There will be an early Labour Budget and very tight spending targets. There will be no more money from Labour. This may lead to a significant attack on legal aid in year two of a Labour administration. There will certainly be early action on issues such as restricting legal aid for the apparently wealthy. There is strong speculation that Henry Hodge will head up the Legal Aid Board under Labour, and the Board is likely to become more accountable to Parliament.

The left wing of the party will urge the LCD to look at old chestnuts, such as a public defender scheme. Their influence will depend on the composition of the new intake.

The Home Office will be at least as high profile as it has been under Michael Howard. Expect early initiatives on juvenile crime and a generally “firm, but fair” line. If Jack Straw becomes Home Secretary, expect decentralisation of the Crown Prosecution Service and cuts in the criminal legal aid budget.

Labour is short of lawyers with parliamentary experience. MPs with legal backgrounds such as Geoff Hoon, John Hutton and Barbara Roche may play a bigger role in legal affairs. Lord Williams of Mostyn is tipped for office.

Overall, expect legal affairs to be at the heart of government under Labour. The party is led by a barrister. His close ally, Lord Irvine, will be far more politically motivated than his predecessor.

If the Conservatives retain power, expect continuity. Lord Alexander of Weedon is the best bet for Lord Chancellor. There would be early cutting of the legal aid budget. Elsewhere, the LCD may have to fight for a major bill in continuing penance for the Family Law Act.

If Howard remains he would seek to reverse recent defeats on the Crime and Police Bills. The Narey Report, allowing courts to decide trial venues, is likely to be implemented.

Whoever wins power, the profession can look forward, as the Chinese might say, to living in interesting times.