LCD puts brake on reforms

THE LORD Chancellor, Lord Irvine, is poised to make a public admission that he will not meet the tough self-imposed 1 April deadline for the implementation of his controversial legal aid reforms.

The Lawyer understands that he or his deputy, Geoff Hoon is preparing to concede that only the plan to replace legal aid with conditional fees in personal injury cases will go ahead on time.

Hoon, the parliamentary private secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), may allude to the problems when he faces parliamentary questions this Monday.

Legal aid practitioners have always believed that Lord Irvine imposed an unrealistically tight deadline for plans to substitute conditional fees for legal aid for most money claims.

Doubts about his ability to meet it were fuelled when it emerged that the LCD had made little effort to establish whether the insurance profession could step forward to insure conditional fee cases in time.

However, last month Lord Irvine restated his determination to press ahead with the reforms during a debate in the House of Lords.

The delay will buy the profession and consumer groups valuable time to lobby against those elements of the reform which they oppose.

Concern has focused on the ability people on low incomes to pay the insurance premiums they will need in order to launch a conditional fees action.

In December, the Law Society unveiled plans for a contingency legal aid fund based on the conditional fees principle which it claimed would plug the gap.

Meanwhile, the society's Justice Task force is considering running an advertising campaign in the national press in order to influence the reforms.

Eileen Pembridge, a member of the task force, said that the group will not make a decision until the LCD releases its consultation paper which is expected in mid-February.

The society is also to commission research on the impact of the reforms on solicitors.