`Failing' civil courts face radical shake-up

Judges, lawyers and administrators are criticised in a new report, writes Stephen Ward reports
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The Independent Online
Lawyers, judges and the courts face the most radical reform this century after damning criticism yesterday that all parts of the civil legal system failed everyone except the legal profession.

Lord Woolf, a Law Lord appointed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to identify failings in civil justice in England and Wales, recommends changing the entire culture of a regime where cases drag on for years, which few can afford to use and where costs frequently exceed the amounts in dispute.

He makes no fewer than 124 recommendations in his interim report to Lord Mackay. Most changes he proposes could be brought in without needing new legislation and the Lord Chancellor is known to favour acting swiftly.

But solicitors and barristers warned that the new system would require large numbers of extra judges to make it work and risked making the system more complex still. There was scepticism about the likelihood of the changes happening. Other reviews of civil justice in recent years have brought recommendations but few results.

Lord Woolf's review proposes a new streaming system for civil justice, the removal of small cases from the courts into a less formal small claims system and allowing judges to take over control of cases from lawyers.

The existing small claims courts would have the claims limit increased from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000.There would be a new "fast-track" for cases up to pounds 10,000, including personal injury cases, with strictly limited procedures, fixed costs and a six-month time limit.

Lord Woolf proposes a multi-track system for big cases above pounds 10,000, where timings and costs would be strictly controlled by judges to prevent the kind of protracted civil proceedings currently endured, which can run up costs of millions of pounds and drag on for years.

Last night Lord Mackay announced that he was immediately raising the limit for actions in the small claims court to pounds 3,000 for any actions except personal injury - in line with Lord Woolf's recommendation.

He also hinted that he would bring in Lord Woolf's suggested fast-track courts as soon as possible, saying that he was "particularly in favour", especially in personal injury cases.

He said he would need to consult the judiciary before introducing any changes which would pass control of cases to judges.

Behind his diplomatic language, Lord Woolf's report implicitly attacks judges for failing to manage their cases efficiently, court administrators for failing to introduce new technology and solicitors and barristers for dragging out cases.

He has talked to every interested group in private and public meetings over the past year and his most alarming conclusion is that lawyers themselves, who make their living from litigation, privately agreed with him that what was happening cannot go on. "Many ... accepted at the seminars that they would not be able to afford their own services if they had the misfortune to be caught up in legal proceedings," he said.

Lord Woolf's new system would be headed by a senior judge known as the Head of Civil Justice, who would have the job of making sure the new system ran effectively and efficiently.

Charles Elly, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, welcomed the report and called on the Lord Chancellor "to make the investment necessary to put Lord Woolf's ideas into practice".

HOW WOOLF AIMS TO INCREASE EFFICIENCY

t Small cases taken out of the courts into a less formal small claims system.

t Existing small claims courts would have the claims limit increased from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000.

t "Fast-track" for cases up to pounds 10,000, with fixed costs and a six-month time limit.

t A multi-track system for cases above pounds 10,000 strictly controlled by judges given powers to set timetables and costs.

t Moves to encourage "alternative dispute resolution" with arbitrators taking the place of lawyers.

t Greater emphasis on pre-trial reviews to encourage settlement in advance.

t Lawyers would have to explain how clients charges are calculated and what the final bill might be.

t Judges encouraged to help litigants without lawyers to present their cases in courts.

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