Law: I'll see you out of court

Enough litigation madness! The Woolf reforms will knock heads together and encourage claimants to settle.

Yesterday's momentous changes in the civil courts came too late for Rotherham widow Hazel Archer. For the last 10 years she has been embroiled in one of the longest house repossession cases in history. There has been such delay and uncertainty in her case that she has been forced to keep all her plants in pots at the back of the house because she didn't know whether she owned the garden earth in which she wanted to plant them.

In 1988, the Northern Rock building society sought possession of her home after she was unable to pay back a pounds 21,000 loan linked to the mortgage. The case became further complicated when she sued her former solicitors for not advising her properly in the transaction. Last year, after half a million pounds had been spent on the case, the Court of Appeal finally ruled in her favour.

Mrs Archer's case is the very type that the Woolf reforms are intended to help. Her lawyer, Louise Sykes of law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: "I would now expect this case to be heard within two years, maximum, and I would expect the parties to have had their heads banged together to come to a settlement."

From yesterday, incompetent lawyers will be penalised by judges, frivolous and vexatious claimants will have their cases struck out, and legal bills will be proportionally limited to the value of the case. In short, justice is expected to be quicker, cheaper and fairer. The reforms, part of recommendations made by Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, also include greater emphasis on alternative dispute resolution.

Under the new procedures Mrs Archer's case would be heard much quicker, the legal costs would be restricted and both parties encouraged to find an alternative solution at an earlier stage.

The reforms are also designed to stop the sort of litigation madness which allowed a Sheffield man to sue 113 different people including his milkman, gasman and finally, God. It cost him just pounds 60 to cause a lot of misery for innocent people who found themselves having to go to the expense of defending writs. From this week, the merits of a case like this will be assessed much more quickly, and additional payments on top of the writ or "claim form" fee, will kick in so that only those serious about their litigation can move forward.

The legal profession is expected to hit the ground running, and judges have already warned lawyers to expect little mercy if they walk into court unprepared. But old habits die hard, and on Friday the High Court taxing office was crammed full of solicitors desperate to submit their last bills under the old, more generous costing rules. But many lawyers still have reservations about the initial success of the new system.

Sir Richard Scott, the Vice Chancellor, head of civil justice, has already said that the courts' new computer system will not be up and running for at least another 12 months. Ian Walker, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, said: "It's all very well expecting us to be proactive and dynamic, but if the technology can't deal with the changes then there will be problems." Louise Sykes also warned: "It's all right for those who can pay for a Rolls Royce legal service - but what we don't want is lawyers cutting corners."

Yesterday was also the day the Law Society chose to launch a radical newspaper advertising campaign attacking Government proposals to change legal aid. According to the Law Society, a number of underprivileged people will be worse off if the Access to Justice Bill is enacted. One of the cases that the Law Society is highlighting concerns a Bradford couple, Roselyn and Christopher Fontaine, who were stopped by police while driving home form a wedding. They were assaulted, falsely imprisoned and faced a number of trumped-up charges which were later dismissed by a magistrate. The Law Society says: "Luckily, thanks to legal aid, the couple were able to highlight this example of police misconduct, by being able to sue West Yorkshire police in the High Court." In November 1997 the couple were awarded pounds 18,000 in compensation. The Law Society adds: "Without legal aid, solicitors won't be able to do this kind of work. Only the very rich will be able to pursue such cases."

One of the ads placed in national newspapers shows a black man who claims he has been "stitched up" by the police. The advert says: "Under the Access to Justice Bill, legal aid won't be available unless he can prove he is almost certain to win his case - even though it's against the State." At the bottom it adds: "The parents of the late Stephen Lawrence share these concerns about the impact of the bill."

The Law Society describes the Access to Justice Bill as a "crude attempt to ration people's access to their rights." Law Society president Michael Mathews said: "The advertising campaign is a wake-up call about the threat to justice posed by the Access to Justice Bill. There is a real danger that the Government, despite the view of its back- bench MPs, will push through proposals that will deny justice to many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society." This is the first time the Law Society has taken out advertising to oppose Government policy. It is a decision that has annoyed the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. He said yesterday that he was "very disappointed" and accused the Law Society of "scaremongering." He added: "Many vulnerable people will be made to believe that they will lose their access to legal aid. That is just not true. In fact, legal aid will be available in precisely the types of cases raised by the Law Society." The Lord Chancellor's Department has gone to a lot of trouble to answer each of the Law Society's criticisms. It takes issue with almost every thing the Law Society claims and describes as "myths" the five case examples chosen to illustrate how people will be worse off under the new Bill. In the case of the Fontaines, the Department says that because police brutality and false imprisonment are not examples of negligence, legal aid would remain available.

What the Lord Chancellor will have more difficulty defending is the result of a survey carried out by Harris and commissioned by the Law Society. It showed two thirds of Labour MPs believe the Government's proposals to open up justice will have the opposite effect. Ninety-six Labour MPs responded to the survey, which also found that two thirds of Labour MPs thought legal aid should be a right. The Bill proposes to scrap legal aid in most types of personal injury and replace it with a "no win, no fee" arrangement for financing litigation. Under Woolf, the two sides would be encouraged to mediate as soon as possible.

What does Woolf mean?

Fast track: uncomplicated cases under pounds 15,000 will be heard more quickly - within 30 weeks of the start of proceedings.

Multi-track: claims above pounds 15,000 will go to the County Court. Claims above pounds 50,000 will go to High Court.

Hands-on judges: judges will have greater powers to stop lawyers using delaying tactics or making unnecessary applications.

Mediation: judges will get parties together at an early stage in order to assess whether an alternative to litigation would be a more suitable course of action.

The cost of litigation: It will be more expensive to bring a case, but cheaper in the long run as judges will keep down overall costs in proportion to the case.

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