Legal aid reform overshadows first multi-party action victory

Lawyers who successfully represented human growth hormone victims have paid tribute to the Legal Aid Board for funding the action – but they say the Government's reform plans could jeopardise future multi-party actions.

The case, conducted by David Body, of Irwin Mitchell, and Peter Llewelyn, of the Smith Llewelyn Partnership in Swansea, was the first multi-party action to come to trial which had been funded under a contracting system introduced by the board in 1992.

Body said: “There were many advantages to working with a small steering committee. We enjoyed much more direct relations with the board, which cleared disbursements quickly.”

He described the evaluation process by the Legal Aid Board as fair. “Reporting to the board on how the case was progressing and the economics of the action was quite demanding but imposed a proper discipline,” he said.

Colin Stutt, legal adviser at the LAB, said: “We are pleased with the outcome but it is too early to draw any conclusions about how the contract operated. We have an ongoing review of all our contracting procedures.”

But the success of the legally-aided litigation was overshadowed by fears that the recent White Paper on legal aid – which proposes to cap the legal aid budget and increase litigants' liability for costs – will put an end to test cases of this sort.

Speaking at an information session on the paper at the House of Commons last week, Body said that if the proposals were in force, this case could not have been brought. He said: “The key to the courtroom door has been legal aid. We should retain this and if anything extend it.

“You cannot expect people to bet the equity of their house in actions against the government and large companies.”