The low down
When Tony Blair won the 1997 general election, legal affairs was a policy backwater. Then the new Labour prime minister appointed his one-time pupil master, Derry Irvine, as lord chancellor. Irvine declared war on the civil legal aid budget. Legal aid, he said, ‘must be made a tool to promote access to justice for the needy and not be seen by the public as something basically keeping lawyers in business’. The biggest shock was felt by personal injury lawyers. But with an eye on access to justice, achieved with little call on the public purse, Irvine and his deputy, solicitor Geoff Hoon MP, ushered in ‘no win, no fee’. The personal injury sector boomed – an outcome that successive governments seemingly in hoc to the insurer lobby have sought to reverse. Twenty-five years on, the repercussions of Irvine’s cuts are still playing out.
First, a little history. It is the morning of 2 May 1997. I do not know it yet, but as a Commons researcher for the Liberal Democrats amid this political ‘new dawn’ I am going to be a minor witness to a revolution of sorts. Later that day Tony Blair will appoint his old pupil master Derry Irvine, Lord Irvine of Lairg, as his first lord chancellor. The following Tuesday Geoff Hoon MP, a solicitor, will become parliamentary under-secretary, Irvine’s deputy.
The legal affairs brief, on which I worked, was something of a policy backwater pre-1997. But Irvine and Hoon were about to change that. Their plans were made public in a speech the lord chancellor delivered on 17 October. As the Independent reported, the speech signalled ‘a huge cost-cutting exercise which will result in the most severe reduction in access to civil justice since legal aid began in 1949’.
The plans, the paper