Lord Archer of Sandwell said Lord Irvine's determination to introduce conditional fees into personal injury (PI) cases was comparable to the stubborn insistence by the Titanic's builders that the ship was unsinkable, when the two clashed over the Access to Justice Bill in the House of Lords last week.
Conflict of opinion over Lord Irvine's controversial proposals to reform personal injury cases came to the fore on the first day of committee hearings in the Lords.
Lord Irvine stood his ground against amendments from a cross-party group that urged the Government to retain the status quo, where all personal injury cases, except road accident claims, are funded by legal aid.
Irvine refused to accept the amendments, insisting that “the majority of personal injury cases do not warrant public funding in the future because there is a viable alternative in the private sector; namely conditional fees”.
“If the private sector can support these cases – and we are confident that it can – the advantage is that resources are freed up for other purposes,” he said.
While accepting that Lord Irvine had “directed his mind to the questions we raised”, Lord Archer denounced his assurances. “Those who said that the Titanic was unsinkable had directed their minds to the question. They, too, had consulted and made enquiries.
“My noble learned friend denies he is proceeding on a hymn and a prayer. I have more confidence in hymns and prayers than in some predictions I have heard.”
Irvine, however, conceded it would “not be possible overnight” for conditional fees to fund all PI cases.
“It may be that some [public] funding will be needed where there are exceptionally high costs, or issues of a wider public interest.”
He also acknowledged that personal injury could be “brought back into scope” if the insurance market failed to function effectively.