Political ineptness reigns at Lord Chancellor's Department

The Government's flagship policy on conditional fees runs the risk of damaging the justice system, says MP Edward Garnier QC.

When I was appointed opposition spokesman on legal affairs by William Hague in June 1997, I thought it was going to be difficult to do much to chip the new government's shining paint work.

Little did I realise how much work the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, was going to do for me.

His ill-judged remarks last summer about fat cat lawyers, which were designed to poison public opinion about hard-pressed legal aid lawyers, were a useful start.

His speech to the Law Society conference last October about conditional fee arrangements and legal aid reform was even more helpful, not least because his desire to do away with legal aid for personal injury claims was contrary to the PSI research he had commissioned and against careful advice in the Middleton Report. His failure to stay on at that conference to answer questions did not help his cause.

By November last year the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) was beginning to look a touch ragged. Parliamentary Secretary Geoff Hoon opened a debate in the Commons on civil justice and legal aid. Only one back-bench Labour MP, David Lock, gave him wholehearted support. He was immediately made Mr Hoon's Parliamentary Private Secretary which meant that he could not speak in the Chamber or at other public meetings on his minister's behalf – an interesting decision by the Government to silence its only true supporter on his brief.

Come the spring a somewhat chastened LCD was trying to make more soothing noises towards the legal profession and by 4 March it was in a fevered retreat as it recast its proposals for the future of legal aid. It even went so far as to announce a consultation exercise, something of an oxymoron in the context of the LCD.

Not content with a dismal first year, the Lord Chancellor and his team planted an intellectually dishonest parliamentary question about the earnings of legal aid practitioners. Far from pouring scorn and opprobrium on those named, this exercise simply made the government look and sound, simultaneously, ridiculous and tyrannical.

The LCD's conduct during the first year of this government has been politically inept. Its flagship policy has been shown to be economically illiterate and will prove to be socially divisive.

As the opposition spokesman I clearly do not want to see the justice system damaged or access to it inhibited. I do not think the government does either.

It is simply that it cannot help giving me, and many others, the distinct impression to the contrary.