What big teeth, Mr Woolf

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The Independent Online
Lawyers are braced for the publication on Friday of Lord Woolf's report on the reform of civil justice. Many of their clients, though, are unprepared. "Business doesn't appreciate the extent to which Woolf will change things," says Antony Gold, head of litigation at Eversheds, the firm of solicitors.

If the final document takes the same approach as the interim report, the system of settling disputes could be radically altered. It is expected that Lord Woolf will recommend, as part of his investigation of ways of speeding up justice, that judges do more to manage cases, that lawyers and their clients control costs better and that more be done to reach early settlements. He is also understood to be considering "equality of arms" proposals, whereby large corporations are not given an advantage over individuals by being able to spend more.

Each of these ideas has the potential to affect the running of solicitors' litigation departments. But Mr Gold believes that there will also be important ramifications for companies, which are large contributors to the billions spent on litigation every year.

It is possible that they will be encouraged to give greater consideration to mediation rather than suing opponents. One approach could be to adopt a "multi-entrance" system in which judges could act in different ways (mediation, arbitration or litigation) depending on the circumstances.

The advantage of this to business is that it would probably be cheaper, though this could lead to more consumers making claims, especially with an "equality of arms" provision.

Though mediation and arbitration have not taken off to the extent that has been expected (Eversheds, for example, has only handled a few mediation cases) more companies will perhaps follow those that are already exploring other ways of resolving disputes. Equally, there are some areas of business, notably construction and recovery situations, where litigation is "part and parcel of what the companies do". Such "professional litigators", as Mr Gold calls them, could soon find themselves in a different world.