THE LORD Chancellor's department is planning to publish a White Paper on legal aid reform in the spring.
A spokeswoman from the department has identified November 1996 as the earliest possible date for legislation.
But she said that the date depended on the availability of parliamentary time and the length of the consultation period needed after the White Paper's publication.
When he published his reform Green Paper in May, Lord Mackay appeared determined to see through the core proposal of exclusive cash-limited block legal aid contracts.
In an interview with The Lawyer (23 May) he said the Law Society's plans to improve the current system would not stop the legal aid budget from growing.
Recently, however, there has been a growing belief among lawyers that the almost universal opposition to the paper's key proposals would deflect the Government away from the radical legal aid shake-up envisaged in the paper.
The tight timetable for legislation signals that the Lord Chancellor is determined to press ahead with reform.
News of the White Paper coincides with the publication of the Law Society's own response to the Green Paper. This builds on the Design for the Future consultation paper issued prior to the Green Paper.
The society rejects the Government's plans for a complete overhaul of legal aid, claiming "the basic structure remains sound". Instead it has a series of proposals to improve the current system, including more efficient procedures for granting aid, controlling QCs' fees and ensuring the costs of acquitted defendants are paid from central funds.
Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society, revealed this year's legal aid budget was heading for another underspend. He claimed the growth in the budget had been halted. "There's no need for the Government to legislate," he said.
Although the Bar Council is yet to publish its response to the Green Paper, chair Peter Goldsmith QC said at the recent Bar Conference that the budget could be controlled through graduated fees in criminal and other areas while efforts should be made to halt legal aid abuse.