Labour lawyers in bid to bridge communication gap with Irvine

Backbench Labour lawyer MPs are to meet the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine early next month to quiz him on his planned legal aid reforms.

The meeting, the first to be held by a new backbench group of Labour lawyer MPs headed by barrister Gareth Thomas, will provide Lord Irvine with a crucial opportunity to garner parliamentary support for his widely criticised reform plans.

The committee has been created by the Parliamentary Labour Party's Home Affairs Committee, which elected Thomas, MP for Clwyd West, last month.

Thomas said: 'It was felt that there should be greater communication between Labour backbenchers and the Government, particularly at a time of considerable changes in legal affairs.'

At the first Commons debate on Irvine's reform plans, which was attended almost exclusively by lawyer MPs, not a single Labour MP, including Thomas, was unreservedly in favour of the reforms.

As The Lawyer revealed last week, the Government has put back the 1 April deadline for the introduction of the most controversial aspect of the legal aid reforms the replacing of legal aid with conditional fees for most money claims at least until the early summer.

There are even indications that it is willing to consider some form of self-financing fund to help those on low incomes who may not be able to afford to pursue a case funded by conditional fees.

Thomas said: 'It's quite clear the Government is willing to listen to all parties.'

Last week the Bar Council reinforced its opposition to the Government's plans when it published its detailed response to the proposals and also launched its own proposals for a Contingency Legal Aid Fund (CLAF).

Bar Council chairman Heather Hallett QC insisted conditional fees were an additional means of providing access to the courts, and were 'not a substitute for legal aid'.

Under cases in the CLAF scheme, means-tested participants would pay an application fee, and a percentage of any damages awarded would be paid back into the fund to finance future cases. The scheme would also be dependent on insurance to cover the payment of costs.

David Hartley, head of solicitors remuneration at the Law Society, welcomed the Bar's proposals as 'a contribution in the debate on alternatives to the Government's proposals'.

But he added: 'Our view is that the society's own proposals for linking legal aid and conditional fees are a better approach because they acknowledge the Government's wish that the lawyers involved should participate in some risk-sharing.'