"Solicitors have absolutely nothing to worry about...."
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7 February 2013
The Bar is pleased to note that prime minister Tony Blair, new Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg, LCD parliamentary secretary Geoffrey Hoon and the bulk of the Labour legal team are barristers.
But solicitors are less enamoured. Lord Irvine is described as conservative with a small 'c' and is expected to keep a tight control over the contentious issue of rights of audience. Barristers think he will do little to upset the Bar's 600 years of cherished traditions. Some solicitors put it another way, saying that he will do little to threaten barristers' level of income by encouraging further rights of audience.
But the Solicitors' Association of Higher Court Advocates chair Paul Hampton says there is no reason to think that Labour will be less committed than the Conservatives to the cause of solicitor advocacy. Solicitor advocates should be looking to fully exploit the opportunities that are already there, he says, instead of looking to the Government for further changes.
In any case, Lord Irvine's first 12 months on the Woolsack are expected to be taken up with constitutional matters such as devolution and reforming the House of Lords. Realising this, Lord Irvine has appointed Hoon "to take the initial lead" on legal aid, criminal justice and magistrates' courts.
Although called to the Bar in 1978, Hoon has spent much of his career as an academic, lecturing in law at Leeds and then Nottingham University before going into politics 13 years ago. In the shadow cabinet he was Trade and Industry spokesman and a Blairite who forged links between the party and big business. He is known to colleagues as a workaholic, and while described as pleasant-natured, he is also seen as fiercely independent.
He and Lord Irvine are expected to have a better working relationship than Hoon's shadow predecessor, Paul Boateng, who leaves the LCD to take a junior ministerial role in health. In Boateng's removal from legal matters, solicitors can find some comfort. It was Boateng who threatened the Law Society with a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission if it did not allow multi-disciplinary partnerships.
Senior Law Society Council members believe his departure to health will give them time to formulate an MDP policy and be in the driving seat rather than being dictated to when Labour's legal team gets around to addressing the issue.
Once he emerges from the constitutional maze Lord Irvine will tackle the Woolf Report with a detailed cost/benefit analysis; the legal aid budget may also be trimmed 12 months down the track. As proposed by the Conservatives, resources for the Woolf reforms will have to come out of the existing legal aid budget.
Lord Irvine promised civil justice and legal aid reviews when he spoke at the Bar conference last autumn, but Legal Action Group director Roger Smith says details of what will happen are scarce.
"I think that - like the Blair Government in general - the Irvine and Hoon team enter the LCD with a pretty clean slate. They could do anything. At this time I think it's just questions, questions, questions."
Lord Irvine is expected to resist calls from the left of the party for the introduction of a public defender scheme, although he has expressed sympathy for publicly funded legal projects.
Much of the legal action in the first 12 months will come from the Home Office under Jack Straw as he reforms criminal legal aid and shakes up the Crown Prosecution Service in a bid to improve its conviction rate and to toughen up policy on sentencing.
In this he will be assisted by more barristers: Attorney General John Morris QC and Solicitor General Charles Falconer QC, an Islington friend of Blair who helped organise the £500-a-head fund-raising dinner in Hammersmith for leading Labour lawyers. Andrew Hardie QC is to become Lord Advocate for Scotland with Colin Boyle QC becoming Solicitor General for Scotland.
Bar Council spokesman and Labour party member Jon McLeod claims solicitors have nothing to fear from a barrister-led Labour Party.
"I think solicitors have absolutely nothing to worry about," he says. But then, of course, he would...