International criminal court/legal aid. Time to change reform tactics

Barring further delays, practitioners should get a chance this week to read the long-awaited legal aid White Paper. Although the White Paper working party at the Lord Chancellor's Department has been disbanded, no team has been put in its place to consider a Bill. And if one is planned, it is being left rather late, unless a truncated version involving tinkering rather than wholesale reform is planned.

This is no time for complacency, however. The continued call for public spending cuts from the right wing of the Conservative Party remains a significant danger. A legal aid Bill could be used to pacify those calling for cuts to allow for pre-election tax giveaways.

The LCD's handling of the Family Law Bill could impact on a decision over legal aid reform in two ways. First, the Cabinet committee charged with allocating parliamentary time for legislation may decide the LCD has had its chance and should now keep silent in the pre-election period.

Second, some senior Tories still angry about the Family Law Bill may jump at the chance to get back at the Lord Chancellor and the legal profession.

Government departments tend to hate loose ends, including White Papers not followed sooner or later by an appropriate Bill. Former LCD minister Jonathan Evans MP made it clear before his departure for the Welsh Office that he was keen on a Bill this session. His successor, former Assistant Whip Gary Streeter MP, has yet to make any pronouncement.

However keen individual ministers and LCD officials are to bring forward a Bill, the decision ultimately lies elsewhere. Lord Mackay will be less able to influence the process as he pushed for parliamentary time for the Family Law Bill against the objections of Conservative Central Office. After the events of the past few months, Mackay is unlikely to command sufficient clout again in the course of this Parliament.

If a truncated Bill does appear a number of areas could be explored for political reasons, including tackling issues such as funding for cases brought by the rich or non-UK nationals, and the exclusion of the middle classes from legal aid because of the eligibility thresholds.

As with any legislation, there are winners and losers. The Government's approach, particularly in what could be an election year, is to listen to those who shout loudest.

However, the noise expected from angry practitioners, the Law Society, the Bar and, in some areas, advice agencies, will not necessarily deter the Government from bringing forward a Bill. Lawyers have never been and will never be flavour of the month.

Sooner or later, legal aid will be reformed. The question is not if but when, regardless of which party wins the next general election.

One basic question remains: if legal aid must be reformed and our legal system overhauled, how should it be done?

The legal profession must decide whether it should obstruct any changes, or bring forward constructive, far-reaching reform proposals of its own before someone at the LCD does it for them.

It is inevitable that some sort of battle will ensue. The Law Society's initial approach is to try to alter media perceptions of the legal aid system. This includes educating certain national newspapers about legal aid to stop them from running anti-legal aid campaigns, and educating the public about the cost of justice. If these targets are met, Parliament will follow.

When you watch MPs in Parliament it is evident that they form their opinions not from ministerial or House of Commons briefs, but from press clippings, prominently displayed on many legislators' knees in the course of debates.

If the legal profession persuades the regional and national media to treat the issues rationally and sensibly, the Government may find itself, however unwillingly, following suit.