Labour one year on: could do better

LABOUR'S first year in office has been frenetic to say the least. But aside from shaking up the legal community with a mixture of threats to end lawyers' gravy train and sweeping promises to change the legal landscape, the Government has achieved surprisingly little in the legal field.

True, the swift fulfilment of its commitment to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights promises to boost civil liberties in this country. And Jack Straw has come up with some fairly sensible youth justice proposals which are, crucially, going to be piloted. But he also antagonised many lawyers with his unjustified attempt to brand all immigration lawyers as crooks.

If there is a theme to Labour's first year in office, it is one of contradictions. Soon after taking office, the new Attorney General, John Morris, confidently announced plans to decentralise the CPS. Then he effectively put the whole project on ice by setting up an independent review of the service which has lumbered on for months on end.

And for all his public words of support for women and ethnic minority lawyers, Lord Irvine has turned his back on the one reform that many believe could make a real difference: the creation of a judicial appointments commission.

Shortly before the election he branded the legal aid system as a success story. Now he has started to dismantle it, in the area where it is most effective – personal injury. Meanwhile, the criminal QCs, whose "fat cat" salaries he has so famously derided, have been left to get on with it.

The jury is still out on Lord Irvine's legal aid and civil justice reform plans. He has only just started on what is a massive project, much of which has been inherited from his predecessor. But the topsy-turvy way he has embarked on it says a great deal about the Government's entire legal agenda.

Ambitious? Yes. Exciting? Maybe. But coherent? Not yet.