Big shake-up in court begins

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THE BIGGEST changes in the civil legal system for more than a century are enacted today. Incompetent lawyers will be penalised by judges; frivolous claimants will have their cases struck out; and legal bills will be limited.

The reforms, part of recommendations made by Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, also include greater emphasis on mediation and the use of simple legal language.

Judges have already warned lawyers to expect little mercy if they come to court unprepared.

On Friday, the High Court taxing office was full of solicitors submitting their last bills under the old, more generous costing rules.

Many lawyers have reservations about the initial success of the new system. Sir Richard Scott, Vice-Chancellor of the Supreme Court, head of civil justice, has said the courts' new computer system will not be operating for at least 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."

The reforms are designed to stop the sort of litigation madness that allowed a Sheffield man to sue 113 people including his milkman, gasman and God. It cost him only pounds 60. Today each writ, or claim form as it is now called, will cost pounds 500 to issue in the High Court.

n Two-thirds of Labour MPs believe the Government's proposals to open up justice will have the opposite effect, according to the results of a survey released today.

The findings are part of a Harris survey commissioned by the Law Society, which found that two-thirds of Labour MPs thought legal aid should be a right. The Access to Justice Bill proposes to scrap legal aid in most civil cases and replace it with a "no win no fee" arrangement.