Pressure forces Lord Irvine to drop CFAs in family law cases

The Lord Chancellor has admitted he was out of step with government policy after backing down on his controversial plan to permit conditional fee agreements (CFAs) in family law cases.

As the Access to Justice Bill was debated in the House of Lords last week, Lord Irvine bowed to widespread criticism that CFAs would encourage “lawyer-driven litigation in marital disputes” and create huge “practical difficulties” in deciding who had won or lost a divorce case.

The Government was planning to make no win-no fee agreements available to those ineligible for legal aid, but family lawyers universally denounced the proposal as “ridiculous”.

Family law representatives are jubilant at the concession, and have heaped praise on Lord Meston, who led the opposition in the Lords.

Solicitors' Family Law Association (SFLA) vice-president Rosemary Carter says: “It's a time for celebration, not just for family lawyers, but for our clients.”

Meanwhile, SFLA president David Salter comments: “We're over the moon. Or should I say over the Hoon?”

The pair met with Minister of State for the Lord Chancellor's Department, Geoff Hoon, the day after the debate, when, according to Salter, Hoon confirmed the Government would “stick to the policy change”.

Lord Irvine has promised to bring forward an amendment at the report stage that will keep CFAs out of family law.

A spokesman for Lord Irvine says he was swayed by arguments over “the practical difficulties in defining success in cases of this nature”.

“The other thing was that the Lord Chancellor could understand the concern expressed in terms that this proposal was not consistent with the Government's other policies of reducing litigation in divorce cases.”

In the house, Lord Meston quoted from The Lawyer, saying comments from the Lord Chancellor's Department suggested the proposal was “quite unworkable and has not been thought through”.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal argues: “When one is dealing with family disputes, one is dealing with a lose, lose situation.”

see Leader page 17