Backing "dead certs' as reforms raise the stakes. Elizabeth Davidson examines the reforms and how one firm believes it will fare under them

IF THE experience of high street firm Howe & Co is anything to go by, Lord Irvine's mission to shake up the legal profession is having its desired effect.

The firm says that, under the reform plans unveiled by the Lord Chancellor last week, it will lose its medical negligence work, be forced to change the type of personal injury case it undertakes and turn many former clients away.

The Ealing Broadway firm sees itself as a typical high street legal aid firm. About 30 per cent of the four-partner firm"s business is personal injury work, roughly 20 per cent of which is in the field of medical negligence. The firm also undertakes immigration work, conveyancing, and civil claims against the police.

Conditional fee funding is currently used for about 20 per cent of its personal injury cases, and about two-thirds of its personal injury clients are on benefits.

According to partner Janet White, who oversees personal injury work, the firm will not be able to fund disbursements and insurance premiums for those of its clients who cannot afford them unless cases conclude in a "matter of months and not years". And she has little faith in the ability of Lord Woolf's proposals to speed up justice.

White says proposals to change the rules of professional taxation will exacerbate the firm's cash shortage problem.

The firm is, however, already investigating whether it can secure bank loans for its clients to allow them to fund disbursements and insurance premiums.

White will discard a large part of her injuries at work practice and safeguard her income by switching instead to the more mundane but safer field of road accident claims.

In the future she "will have to back dead certs" and shy away from the more complex injuries at work cases let alone actions like the one her firm is currently taking on behalf of 12 legally-aided victims of an E-coli outbreak.

White is sceptical about the benefit to a firm like hers of the Government's proposed "public interest" fund which she envisages will cater for high-profile "glamorous" cases.

Under the proposals as they stand the firm will not be eligible for medical negligence work as it is not a member of any medical negligence panel.

White said she did, however, support the Government's plan to restrict legal aid for medical negligence cases to solicitors who have shown "sufficient competence" in the area.

She said the firm now planned to join the Law Society Medical Negligence Panel. But it will have to stop taking on medical negligence cases until it wins a place on the panel.