Lord Chancellor of ideas bows out on principle>

Principled, radical, thoughtful, charming, but courageous and with a hard core.

The adjectives have been flowing about the Lord Chancellor since he announced his retirement from his post last week.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern is adhering to one of his own principles relating to the judiciary and stepping down before he reaches 70.

His decision ends the longest continuous service of a Lord Chancellor this century. It also ends a term of far-sighted policies and clashes with the Establishment and the profession.

He wrote to the Prime Minister on March 13, saying it had been a “privilege to take part in the work of the governments led first by Lady Thatcher and then by yourself, and to have had the chance to contribute to the historic achievements of those governments”.

His department said he would remain active in the Upper House and could still sit judicially in the Lords.

His successor will depend on the complexion of the government after the General Election, but his most likely replacement is the Labour peer and Shadow Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg.

Like any Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay has had to tread a path between government dogma and professional reform.

The general feeling among practitioners is that he has been an ideas man. His reforms include the matrimonial overhaul, block legal aid funding, franchising and arbitration. But he is also remembered for cuts to the legal aid budget and court fee rises.

The Master of the Rolls, Lord Woolf, said history would prove Lord Mackay to have been one of the great Lord Chancellors. “There are so many things that he intended to do that the catalogue of things that he has achieved is quite extraordinary,” he said.

Patrick Lefevre, the co-ordinator at Brent Law Centre, formerly sat on the Lord Chancellor's advisory panel. He recalls with gratitude how Lord Mackay backed the centre when its funding was threatened by the then Tory council.

He says: “I would say he has been probably the most radical thinker to occupy the office in modern times and a lot of his thinking has been extremely valid and valuable. But I am bound to say little of his real thinking has been delivered.”

He blames the men in suits for what he describes as “sabotaging” sensible concepts.

Roger Smith, the director of the Legal Action Group, rejects the notion that Lord Mackay could be influenced by the bureaucrats. “In some ways he's been a very good force. He's been more open to change than any Lord Chancellor,” he says.

But he calls Lord Mackay's efforts to increase court fees “outrageous” and a blot on an otherwise illustrious career.

Legal aid lawyers have traditionally been at loggerheads with the Lord Chancellor's regular attempt to contain the legal aid budget. Bill Montague, co-chairman of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, says: “He has been an extremely able and principled, reforming Lord Chancellor. But unfortunately as regards the legal aid system his principles have owed rather too much to Conservative market dogma.”

Others praised his work unreservedly. The chairman of the Law Commission, Mrs Justice Arden, said Lord Mackay had made a lasting contribution to law reform.

And Lawrence Cramp, the president of the Justices Clerks Society, said Lord Mackay had been held in the highest regard within the magistrates courts service. “He has questioned much of what he found in the English legal system and has sought for improvement when not satisfied with the answer.”