He who pays the piper calls the tune

The refrain of the new legal aid tune consists of the phrases "block funding" and "cash limiting"- learn these words.

The practice geared up to this new world will be franchised, contracted to a local Legal Aid Board office, and will operate to monitor quality standards. It may work with or refer work to other agencies, or indeed may expand its expertise to handle a range of dispute resolution services.

With cash limiting will come prioritisation of needs. This will be the real differentiation from the present system. Outside criminal legal aid, the type of case handled will shift more to housing, employment and welfare cases. Whatever is said, price will become the dominant feature in being awarded a contract and competitive tendering cannot be ruled out.

The Law Society fears the rationing of justice. This will happen and Lord Mackay makes no bones about the fact that cases being funded now will not be under the proposed system. However, more cases should be resolved.

The society makes much play of the contribution Lord Woolf's reforms (when they are announced) could make to bringing down the costs of civil dispute resolution. The Lord Chancellor will clearly take these on board, but not as part of the legal aid architecture.

The alternative green paper on publicly funded legal services the society promises for spring will need to be very practical and highly convincing. The Lord Chancellor's juggernaut is under construction and past experience suggests he gets his way once it starts rolling.

The best hope for a different scenario is a new government before the changes are made. The problem here is that the Labour Party's thinking on legal aid is not yet realistic, so there is no telling what it might do when it stops indulging in wishful thinking.