Headlines: December 4th, 1998

The Lord Chancellor has set out his ideas for making justice more accessible to the very poor, and to ‘middle England’. The White Paper, Modernising Justice, sets out the biggest programme of reform in British legal services for at least 50 years, including plans to radically change legal aid and end restrictive practices in the legal professions.In future, two new organisations will replace the Legal Aid Board and purchase legal services on contract from lawyers and other providers with established skills and expertise. At present, any formally qualified lawyer can do legal aid work and then claim fees according to the time taken. New, fixed price contracts are aimed at being an incentive to efficiency and driving up quality by introducing competition.

Lord Irvine said, “Change is long overdue. Think of all those urban estates where people have no advice centre, no neighbourhood solicitor, nowhere to find help in disputes about housing, or benefits, or debt or immigration.

“Think of the ordinary people of ‘middle England’ who have no real access to justice because they do not qualify for legal aid but dare not risk the costs of going to law to protect their rights. I know that fear of lawyers’ bills rules out ordinary people protecting their rights. But it is not acceptable that civil justice is for only the very rich or the very poor.”

The Lord Chancellor said, “People will soon know how to get the legal advice they require quickly. They might use an advice centre, a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, a solicitor’s office, the Internet or the telephone. They will be given high quality advice on how their cases can be taken forward – not necessarily through the courts.”

Abolishing restrictive practices in the legal profession, such as rights of audience rules which exclude 90 per cent of trained lawyers from presenting cases in the higher courts, should make the courts simpler and cheaper to use.

For more detail on the content of the Modernising Justice White Paper view the Lord Chancellor’s Department website at www.open.gov.uk/lcd/index.htm