Geoff Hoon has the tough job of making conditional fees work and, despite his genial nature, he is taking a hard-line position to ensure the profession sets up a market for them, as Robert Lindsay discovers
Waiting in a soulless reception room in the office block that is the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), the photographer wants to know if Geoff Hoon is going to be any trouble given his boss's legendary suspicion of the media.
He need not have worried. As soon as we were ushered into his office, Hoon, the Parliamentary Secretary at the LCD, was up with a smile and a firm handshake, and asking the photographer: “Where would you like me to sit for the picture? It's entirely up to you.”
The moustached former law lecturer, football fanatic and rock music fan is the opposite of his boss, the prickly Lord Irvine. Where Irvine tends to be dictatorial, hyper-sensitive and loath to give press interviews, Hoon is outgoing, uses his sense of humour to defuse criticism and is prepared to talk to the press and backbench MPs.
And while Irvine is an entrepreneur, a founder of his own commercial chambers, who has been catapulted to high political office through his friendship with the Prime Minister, Hoon has gone through the conventional politician's training course he was a practising barrister for a short time, a lecturer in law, was elected as a Labour MEP and won a Commons seat five years ago.
But as far as policy goes, there is no discernible difference between him and his boss. Ever since Irvine's bombshell announcement at the Law Society's Cardiff conference in October that he wanted to replace legal aid with conditional fees, Hoon has become Irvine's de facto spokesman (and, lawyers would say, his rottweiler), popping up on television and at dinners and conferences explaining, persuading and hammering home the point of the reforms.
Hoon, Irvine and the LCD have, as a whole, agreed a hard-line no-surrender position to force the profession and insurers to start setting up a market for conditional fees. Until an LCD consultation paper is published in the New Year, they are sticking to that line. Hoon adopts a deep, measured tone for putting across “the message”.
“One of the things that has been overlooked in some of the criticism of the proposals is that the costs of litigation should be more controlled when the Woolf reforms come in,” he says when asked about the availability of insurance for conditional fees.
Irvine's plans to raise the limit for small claims from £3,000 to £5,000, to extend the limit for claims on the fast track from £5,000 to £15,000, and the rigorous case management required for cases above £15,000 will “mean that insurance companies and individuals have a much clearer idea of what the costs are going to be”, says Hoon.
“That inevitably means that the insurance costs for clients will certainly be more acceptable for a greater number of people.”
But are there really insurance companies out there who are keen to offer backing to plaintiffs when, after all, the insurers are also often the defendants? And many insurers already provide traditional before-the-event legal expenses insurance which may be cannibalised by new after-the-event insurance.
The Law Society's parliamentary affairs spokesman, Chris Philipsborn, claims that Hoon and his department made a major mistake in failing to ask insurance companies whether they could support conditional fees before announcing the policy changes last month. “I wouldn't expect that of Hoon,” says Philipsborn. “His reputation is as a clever, careful fixer.”
Asked about insurance companies, Hoon is vague : “We've had an enormous interest from insurers,” he says. “We even had a letter on Monday after Cardiff. And all through the summer we've had interest from the insurance industry.”
He adds, in reassuring-politician mode: “We'll follow some of those up, nothing is overlooked.” But he refuses to name which companies he has spoken to.
Interestingly, last week, in an off-the-record press briefing, his department did name some companies it is in contact with. There are apparently only two: Litigation Protection, run by Brian Raincock, and Abbey Legal Protection.
Even if these companies can produce reasonable premiums, what about poor people unable to afford premiums, however cheap? Like Irvine, Hoon does not see why solicitors cannot include the costs of the premium in their uplift.
All this talk of conditional fees is particularly worrying for the Bar, unused as it is to taking risks with fees. Hoon says he understands their concerns he was once himself a practising barrister doing legally-aided cases.
But then he adds: “One of the problems of the Bar is that every change tends to be seen in apocalyptic terms. Notwithstanding every change, the Bar has seen a steady increase in size. When I was practising in Nottingham I saw the advent of solicitor advocates in magistrates courts there was a lot of talk then from the Bar, but the Bar is still growing.”
Conditional fees will be a culture shock for the Bar, he agrees. He does not quite say it, but you can tell he feels that it is about time barristers started taking a few risks, like people working in other businesses.
Fellow MPs say Hoon, an ambitious man, was disappointed that he only got a junior minister's position in what is considered the political backwater of the LCD. After all, he had been a Department of Trade and Industry shadow, with responsibility for information technology.
He has been made number two to Blair's mentor: “Derry” Irvine. If his ambition to gain a cabinet position is ever to come to fruition, he must toe Irvine's line. “If Irvine is unhappy, Hoon's career is doomed,” comments one Whitehall insider.
Hoon is certainly well-liked among the officials and MPs who know him, but he has not been as assiduous in courting backbench MPs as some of his Tory predecessors have particularly Jonathan Evans, who spent a lot of time in the tearoom and in garnering opinions on Lord Mackay's policies.
He could also have done more to bring the consumer groups onto his side. An LCD source said last week: “We have been slightly surprised to see the Consumers' Association and others simply lining up behind the Law Society… I'm surprised by the extent they have gone overboard.”
The Consumers' Association, which has allied with the Legal Action Group, the National Consumer Council, Liberty, Justice and Action for Victims of Medical Accidents, and the Law Society, has complained of getting short shrift from Hoon in a private meeting.
He has, however, shown that he recognises the importance of keeping Labour backbenchers happy by launching a personal initiative to set up a parliamentary Labour group made up of lawyer MPs. Although this initiative apparently stalled for a while, MPs say Hoon has recently made moves to revive it, probably because he is keen to keep the party with him over the legal aid reforms.
Hoon and Irvine are taking a big gamble. They have only now announced that they are to hire management consultants to see whether and how law firms can organise their business around conditional fees. If their plan works, everyone gets to litigate more cheaply, taxpayers get a better deal, and legal aid will be available for those who really need it.
But if insurers and the legal profession are unable to create a market in conditional fees, Hoon and his powerful boss could well have to preside over one of the biggest policy U-turns since the Tories abandoned the poll tax.
Let's wish them luck.
Hoon speaks his mind on The public interest fund. “Our idea for a public interest fund would be a specific fund of money, probably administered by the Legal Aid Board, that would be available to litigants where their particular case raised issues beyond their specific individual concern.”
Piloting of Woolf's fast track. “Piloting is something we are still looking at. If you are not careful you encourage forum shopping. We felt we could go ahead with Woolf despite all the other changes in the legal system because of the widespread enthusiasm among the judiciary for his proposals.”
Contracting. “Contracts might be agreed with solicitors or they might be with barristers that's something we're still open to persuasion on. It's a matter for the lawyers how they deploy their resources. Some of the cases they may have to spend more time on and would be relatively expensive; some would involve relatively less time, which they would gain on legal aid. There would be no overall loss of income.”