Legal aid lesson must be learned from Mansell case

In 1993, Penny Mansell, a desperate young Milford Haven mother on income support, approached Nicola Castle, a partner at Altrincham's Alexander Harris, for legal help.

Mansell was looking for financial compensation to help her look after her young son – struck down with cerebral palsy after being starved of oxygen at birth.

With Castle's assistance, Mansell brought a case for medical negligence against the Dyfed-Powys Health Authority and Pembrokeshire and Derwen NHS Trust.

Last week, 11-year-old Sam Mansell was awarded a record #3.28 million damages by Manchester's High Court.

If legal aid had not been available – and Sam's family had been forced to rely on a conditional fee agreement – the outcome could have been very different. Mansell would have been told by her lawyer that establishing a case against the health authorities would take up to 18 months and cost up to #10,000 to investigate. What mother would relish that prospect?

Lord Irvine has only delayed his decision to withdraw legal aid from personal injury cases for a year – and he still harbours plans to remove legal aid for medical negligence. But through this postponement, the Government has bought itself valuable time to get legal aid reforms right. Let us hope, for the sake of future Penny and Sam Mansells, it does not waste the opportunity.