Peers plan attack on reforms

Peers from across the political spectrum are planning attacks on the Access to Justice Bill when it reaches the committee stage this week.

More than 200 amendments are being proposed from opponents and sympathisers alike, as the Lords debate the Access to Justice Bill for four days over the next fortnight.

At the forefront of concerns is what is widely seen as Lord Irvine's misguided attempt to extend the Lord Chancellor's power into unacceptable areas, the possible creation of a public defenders system, the introduction of conditional fees – especially into the matrimonial cases – and the abolition of legal aid.

These, as one peer put it, move the legal system “away from an entitlement culture to another, unknown sort of culture”. There was also concern that the Bill was being rushed through to its detriment.

Shadow Lord Chancellor, Christopher Kingland, says he will be “pressing very hard” over Irvine's “massive” move to centralise power in the Chancellor's hands. “It's an extremely undesirable thing.”

“The hearing is going to be a relatively non-party political occasion because most of the amendments are going to be backed across the house.”

If Irvine listens to the arguments, Kingsland believes the Bill could be a success.

“However, if he determines to be propriertorial, there will be things in this bill that will go badly.”

Liberal Democrat Lord William Goodhart QC says: “We are putting down a great number of amendments, including those put down by the Bar Council and most by the Law Society. It is not our intention to wreck the Bill, but we consider that there are considerable elements in it that cause us concern.”

Another Liberal Democrat, Lord Meston, says: “By no means is every amendment going to be pushed to a vote at committee stage, but it is a way to make a point.

“We have quite a strong feeling that the conditional fees proposal in relation to family cases needs to be attacked if at all possible, and there will be amendments to try to remove that.”