Law Society is fighting reforms

Chris Philipsborn argues that the Law Society played a crucial role in getting Lord Irvine to make significant concessions to his reforms. Chris Philipsborn is head of the parliamentary unit at the Law Society.

The Law Society had suspected for some time prior to the announcement of Lord Irvine's proposed reforms that radical change was on the way. But, when the Press Association report of the lobby briefing came through on a Friday last October, the sheer extent of the Lord Chancellor's proposals still had the power to shock.

Two major decisions were made by the society. First, the society would concentrate its fire against the withdrawal of legal aid. Second, the president, despite some pressure from the society, its staff and a few council members, was adamant that the society should not take an adversarial stance against the Lord Chancellor. In retrospect, that turned out to be a correct decision.

Representatives from consumer and advice groups attending conferences were contacted and a common line was hammered out. That common line, and our alliance with the Consumers' Association, the Advice Services Alliance, Shelter, the Legal Action Group, the National Consumer Council and others, holds to this day. That it does so is due to early recognition by the Law Society that the profession would get nowhere by beating a trade union drum.

A flurry of activity followed in Parliament and the press. The society organised an information session in Parliament, attended by some 80 MPs, Peers and their staff. An adjournment debate in the Commons, sponsored by Austin Mitchell MP, was followed by two government-sponsored motions, one in each house. MPs and peers were lobbied by letter and in person. Developments were monitored by a specially-appointed Justice Task Force, led by the president and including council members and staff.

Our network of 350 or so press and parliamentary liaison officers around the country were contacted. Lobbying seminars were held in the regions. The results were impressive: hundreds of articles were placed with regional and national media. Meetings were arranged with local MPs, who were encouraged to write to ministers. Flagship legal aid practices were contacted and asked to host their constituency MPs. Private meetings were held with ministers and backbenchers.

The turning point came during the Commons debate on the proposals. The participants had been carefully lobbied by the society, the Bar and others. As a result speaker after speaker Labour, Tory, LibDem and Plaid Cymru registered their serious concerns. There were only two supporting voices among 13 speeches. Even these registered disquiet.

It was clear that the minister, Geoff Hoon, was shocked and dismayed. His winding up speech contained the first hint of a concession: the taxpayer might continue to pay for certain civil actions after all.

Lord Irvine faced a similar barrage in the Lords. Again, he made a number of concessions. The merits test would not necessarily be strictly applied at 75 per cent. And he would consider a scheme to blend legal aid and conditional fees if it introduced lawyers to an element of risk in taking on a case.

We now expect the publication of the Government's consultation paper to reveal further concessions. We believe the LCD will not now withdraw legal aid from most civil cases, with the exception of mainstream personal injury. On this issue we will continue to fight.

Achieving a change of heart on headline policy by a government with a huge majority is no mean feat. The crucial elements in our campaign included Philip Sycamore's early decision not to antagonise but to influence; the concentrated approach of staff and delegated council members and the use of our country-wide networks; and the determination to keep consumer and advice agencies on our side.

There were many external factors, such as the assiduous lobbying by the Legal Action Group, the Consumers' Association, the National Consumers Council and others. It also cannot be denied that these changes came at an awkward time for the Government, just as the furore over welfare cuts worsened. Lastly, the insurance sector had not been sufficiently consulted.

But nothing would have been achieved if the Lord Chancellor and his minister had not been willing to listen to our objections and to act on them. The result of their open and constructive approach will be better and more workable reform, and that is good news for us all.