A 'no win, no fee' system for lawyers is being considered again by the Government amid widespread concern over prohibitive court costs, a spiralling legal aid bill and unrepresented parties. The radical move is expected to spark fierce debate over lawyer ethics and raise fears legal aid for civil cases might be abolished. The proposal, outlined by Solicitor-General Bob Allcock, comes at a time when smaller legal firms are struggling to survive the economic downturn. Solicitors and barristers are banned from offering services on a 'conditional fee' basis - where legal costs are paid by the client only in the event of a win. The Department of Justice is due to carry out a review, which is expected to be followed by a public consultation process early next year. The topic was first broached by the Attorney-General's Office in 1995, but was shelved despite a public opinion poll showing 56 per cent supported a review. An Audit Commission report on legal aid services released in October revealed a rise in the Legal Aid Department's deficit from $25.9 million in 1993-94 to $122 million in 2000-01. The commission urged that conditional fees be examined 'as another measure to help keep legal aid costs down'. Conditional fees could also help those wanting to litigate, but who are unable to afford it. 'The other question is all these unrepresented litigants,' Mr Allcock said. 'It at least needs to be looked at again.' He said the first stage of the review would take the form of an in-house study of conditional fee systems in the UK and other countries. 'After doing that, we will be consulting the Legal Aid Department, and then will have to decide how to take it from there . . . I imagine there would be a public consultation exercise,' he said. A key issue would be insurance. Unless indemnified by an insurer, the litigant would have to pay the opposition's legal costs. 'That's the most difficult aspect of this,' Mr Allcock said. 'These practical sides are as important as the ethical concerns.' Some lawyers worry that practitioners who have a financial interest in winning the case might use unethical means. 'One thing we suggested in our 1995 paper is there be very strict rules about conduct and a cap on how much can be earned on the success,' Mr Allcock said. Others fear conditional fees could be a precursor to the abolition of legal aid for civil cases, as happened in the UK in 1995. A partner at Wilkinson and Grist, John Budge, said: 'It would not be OK to see the abolition of civil legal aid - which has taken place in the UK. I don't consider that to be a great step forward.' The Bar Association opposed the 1995 proposal, but the Law Society did not take a stance. The Law Society is setting up a think-tank on the issue.