Hoon offers hope on conditional fees

GEOFF Hoon, Parliamentary Secretary at the Lord Chancellor_s Department (LCD), has indicated that the Government may give some ground on a key element of its reform package , the straight substitution of conditional fees for legal aid for most civil claims.

In his first public response to criticism of the reforms, Hoon writes in The Lawyer this week that the Government may consider a subsidy to ensure the poor are not deprived of legal advice and representation under the reforms.

He acknowledges the fear that under the proposals, poor people will not be able to afford the start-up costs for a conditional fees action, which include legal costs insurance.

Our first response is to ask why solicitors should not bear the insurance or investigation costs and factor them into the prices, he says.

But Hoon adds: Before we decide whether continuing subsidy is needed in apparently difficult cases, we will need to be convinced that the risk should be borne by the taxpayer rather than by those who make a profit from the cases.

His comments will provide hope for the alliance of lawyers, pressure groups, charities and voluntary organisations which is fighting the controversial plans to replace legal aid with conditional fees.

Although the Law Society and the Bar Council will be key supporters of the campaign, they will also be pursuing their own separate agendas.

The Law Society is not opposed to conditional fees in principle but it is set to campaign vigorously against solicitors having to cover the cost of insurance premiums and disbursements for poor clients out of their own pockets.

The Bar Council will still try to convince LCD officials of the worth of its proposed Contingency Legal Aid Fund.

In a separate development, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers has accused the Government of getting its sums wrong over legal aid.

Executive committee member Patrick Allen will present a paper to the LCD which, he claims, shows the State profits from personal injury cases.

Personal injury cases cost u61.8m during 1996-7, roughly 5 per cent of the total legal aid budget.

According to Allens report, the Government clawed back benefits worth u70m from successful legal aided personal injury litigants for that period.

See page 9