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.

Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker