Lord Irvine gives ground on merits test as legal aid plans take battering

The Lord Chancellor's legal aid reform plans took a severe battering in the House of Lords last week as peers lined up to attack the proposals.

Lord Ackner, who accused Lord Irvine of being a handmaiden of the Treasury, and Lady Wilcox, who said there was too little research available on conditional fees, were among his severest critics.

But Lord Irvine stood his ground on the plans – although he did concede that proposals for a strict 75 per cent merits test on those areas of the law still to be covered by legal aid could be too strict.

As predicted by The Lawyer last week, the Lord Chancellor told the House of Lords that his plans would go ahead in April. He added that the insurance companies had assured him that they would be able to provide suitable policies in time.

Lord Irvine contrasted the positive attitude of the insurers with the “doom and gloom” attitude of the legal profession.

He said the insurance industry was “already developing the products that will be needed, including products where there would be no upfront costs and where lawyers could protect themselves from an unlucky run of losing cases”.

However, Lord Irvine gave ground on his plans for a 75 per cent merits test, a move which has been welcomed by the Law Society.

He confirmed that he would like to see the test tightened so that only cases with a high probability of success were granted legal aid.

But he said that there may be justification for a lower threshold for cases involving the social welfare of disadvantaged citizens as well as cases which raised issues of wider public interest, such as alleged police malpractice.

During the debate, the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Lester, said he could not remember a single case where he was confident enough to advise a client it had a 75 per cent chance of success.