Judges to penalise slapdash lawyers

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The Independent Online
JUDGES WILL be given powers to clamp down on lazy and late lawyers under the Lord Chancellor's controversial blueprint for making the criminal courts system run more efficiently.

The new powers include sanctions against solicitors who turn up late for hearings or do not bother to read their cases until after they reach the doors of the court.

Lord Irvine of Lairg says in a report published today: "Today's perception of a fragmented and incoherent system with frustration, wasted time and cancelled hearings will, I intend, soon be as out of date as the quill pen." The penalties will include costs orders made against lawyers who have trouble arriving on time or are not properly prepared before reaching court.

The report, the most fundamental review of the crown courts since they were set up more than 30 years ago, recommends "a major shift" from the current practice where every issue is brought to the court room for resolution. The report argues in favour of a new and more effective case-management system, focusing on "rigorous case preparation" so that preliminary issues are settled between the defence lawyers and the Crown Prosecution Service.

Lord Irvine says of the judges' new role: "They will be asked to manage cases with the highest degree of personal and professional attention so that all the players are ready on the appointed day, delays are minimised and results are achieved." He adds: "Victims of crime, witnesses and jurors, and all court users will get a better deal from these changes."

Judges too will be expected to pull their weight. Lord Irvine says: "Lawyers and judges are sometimes seen as out of touch with ordinary life, bastions of conservatism, clinging to outmoded institutions and practice." He urges the best judges to set the standards for the rest.

Further proposals include the appointment of a customer service manager in each court to meet the needs of all court users. Court catering is also to be improved, as are conditions in the general waiting areas.

The report follows growing pressure on the crown courts caused by changes intended to reduce delays. The Human Rights Act and the Crime and Disorder Act are also likely to increase the workload. The report acknowledges that there are now inconsistencies in crown court performance around the country.

Lord Irvine admits that some of the proposals "may be controversial" and a challenge for all those working in the crown courts. But the Lord Chancellor goes on to say: "It is now time to bring the performance of all courts up to what the best have already achieved, and to introduce modern technology."