The Bill's stormy passage through the committee and report stages resulted in a number of key government defeats. Why? The Lord Chancellor is embarking on fundamental legal reform against a backdrop of severe Treasury restrictions on public expenditure by his department.
City and commercial practices should not ignore this legislation. This Bill has enormous ramifications for the future of both civil and criminal justice, and the fact that City firms see little profit from legal aid work does not mean they can afford to be complacent about its implications.
Many aspects of the Bill have given rise to serious concern, particularly for those seeking legal aid for civil cases. That civil legal aid will be funded with (as Lord Irvine announced) "what is left over after the requirements of criminal legal aid have been met" has sparked fury from all quarters. The Law Society is fundamentally opposed to the proposals.
There have always been four guiding principles in any system of civil legal aid. First, there must be adequate funding, including recompense to the solicitor for the work done.
Second, there must be choice for the potential claimant in seeking the firm to represent them, which they select.
Third, there must be local access, so that everyone is within easy reach of a solicitors' office.
Fourth, the advice given by firms must be of the highest possible quality. Here I warmly applaud the Law Society's initiative in introducing the practice management kitemarking system, "Lexcel". These new quality standards sit easily alongside "Investors in People" and will provide a marvellous benchmark against which all practices can judge themselves.
It is the denial of those four proper principles which lies at the heart of the Law Society's opposition to the reforms of civil legal aid. I strongly agree with it – it is the reason why the Access to Justice Bill is having such a difficult passage through Parliament.
The Lords – in a timely reminder of the revising chamber's value – also led government defeat by inserting a statement of principles in the Bill with three key objectives: access to justice regardless of means; access not impaired by disability; and high quality legal services facing parties in dispute on an equal footing.
City firms, many of which appear, if not dismissive, then apathetic towards the Law Society, should be putt ing their considerable weight behind its stance. The Access to Justice Bill should not be allowed to go through in its present form.