Who's suing whom: Woolf keeps your diarist in the dark

DEAR READER: "Who's Suing Whom" has gone into suspended animation. The column hasn't actually died - yet - but Lord Woolf's so-called "reforms", enacted just over a month ago, may have dealt it a mortal blow.

The life blood of the column has been a steady supply of writs - which are public documents, firmly in the public domain. For now, the supply has been choked off.

For the past couple of years I have enjoyed sauntering down to the Chancery writ room in the High Courts on the Strand each week, to peruse the latest writs. Although the process of actually getting your hands on a writ has become progressively more difficult and expensive over recent years, following other "reforms" of the court service, it proved a rich source of stories on - well - who is suing whom.

No more. On Monday 26 April a whole new regime for civil litigation came into force, known colloquially as "The Woolf Reforms" or simply "Woolf". The aim is entirely laudable - to cut the costs of operating the legal system, and to encourage people to settle with each other rather than gum up the courts with their grievances.

In practice a whole area of the legal system covering commercial disputes has become - for the first time in history - secret.

There have been no debates in the Commons, no furious leaders in the papers about freedom of information, no rows on the Today programme. A simple change in procedure is to blame. Woolf has decreed that, in order to encourage people to settle before going to court, their writs should be kept secret, away from the public eye - until the writ has been served.

For those non-lawyers among you, a writ is issued at the High Court, and then served by the plaintiff on the defendant. But the plaintiff can hold the writ "in reserve" before serving it.

It used to be that members of the public could examine all writs, whether issued and/or served. Now you have to wait for the plaintiff to inform the High Court that, yes, they've served their writ as well, before you can get your hands on a copy.

Two weeks ago I asked to see seven writs. I was allowed just one. The other six I had requested hadn't been served (or if they had, no one had told the High Court). Last week I asked for five and got none.

This week I have relied on various sources within the legal community to come up with the goods.

Meanwhile, I will leave you to ponder - which part of the legal system will be rendered confidential next, in the name of "reform?"

THE MAN behind Welsh whisky has been sent to jail for 12 months for allowing drug dealers to use his nightclub.

Dafydd Gittins was jailed by a judge at Swansea Crown Court after being convicted by a jury of permitting Chequers nightclub in Tenby to be used for the selling of ecstasy and amphetamines.

For the past two years Mr Gittins has been involved in an entirely separate law suit brought by two Scottish whisky companies which claim that his Welsh whisky company sells repackaged Scottish whisky.

Matthew Gloag & Son, which owns Famous Grouse, and Chivas Brothers, which owns Chivas Regal, launched a legal action against Mr Gittins and his company Welsh Distillers in August 1997 for trying to pass off Welsh whisky as Scottish whisky.

Mr Gittins produced a variety of brands including "Swyn Y Mor Welsh Whisky" and "Prince of Wales 12 Year Old Aged Welsh Malt Whisky".

There was due to be a hearing on this case in the High Courts in London on 10 June, when Mr Gittins intended to apply for an original decision against him, by Mr Justice Laddie last year, to be set aside. Lawyers working on the case are unsure of the future course of the litigation, now that Mr Gittins is in jail.

ALFRED DUNHILL, the luxury goods maker, appears to have established the principle that you can trademark the word "millennium".

Last week, De Beers, the world's biggest diamond supplier, settled a legal action it had brought against Alfred Dunhill over the use of the word millennium, registered by Alfred Dunhill as a trademark in 1980. De Beers, which controls 70 per cent of the world's diamond supply through its London-based Central Selling Organisation, was challenging the firm's right to trademark such a common word.

It was seeking an urgent ruling since it has already launched the De Beers "Millennium Diamonds" collection to mark the year 2000. Each diamond will be numbered, from 1 to 2,000, and will have the name of a star etched on it. The diamonds will retail at around $10,000 (pounds 6,000) each.

Last week De Beers agreed to take a licence from Alfred Dunhill for use on the gem stone collection. A joint statement said that the settlement was "without admission and without prejudice" to De Beers' contentions.

THE WOOLF reforms may have made accessing writs more difficult, but they helped prompt the pounds 68m Maxwell settlement by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) last week.

Valerie Davies, the partner in charge of the legal action against Coopers & Lybrand (Maxwell's auditors, now part of PwC) and herself head of the corporate and banking litigation group at City solicitors Norton Rose, believes Woolf helped.

"It was the final twist which focused people's minds," says Ms Davies.

PwC, Britain's biggest firm of auditors, agreed to settle a negligence claim brought by Grant Thornton, the administrators of the American side of the late Robert Maxwell's business empire, Maxwell Communication Corporation (MCC). A trial of the case was pencilled in for around 2002. Then a "case management conference" between the parties was held, a Woolf innovation, and the trial date was brought forward to 2000. This seemed to give existing settlement negotiations a push, says Ms Davies.

Not before time. Ms Davies helped draft the original application to put MCC into administration - way back on 20 December 1991. But it's not over yet. There are still two further bits of Maxwell legal action left over, concerning disputed shares in Berlitz and a claim under an insurance policy.

Perhaps Woolf can speed settlement of these matters as well.

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