Lawyers: Mock trials provoke fears about the cost of justice

The Government is staging mock trials to show how to limit court costs. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, looks at the arguments, and difficulties, in making the legal system less expensive.
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The image is slightly surreal. Around the country, groups of lawyers, judges and "defendants" are play-acting a series legal actions, paid for by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

During each six-hour session, solicitors and judges simulate the build- up of a legal action, to see what the typical level of costs should be. For cynics, the surreality is heightened by the fact that none of the lawyers themselves is being paid - just the organisers, who get between pounds 125 and pounds 400 a day.

The aim, if not the methodology, is simple. The Government wants most personal injury cases to follow a so-called fast-track procedure to encourage settlements and cut the hours of court time. As part of this, ministers plan to fix the level of costs at which a successful litigant can claim from the other side. The role-playing - or "hypotheticals" as they are called - should show civil servants just at what level to fix the costs in these cases.

Unfortunately for ministers, lawyers taking part believe that the experiments are reaching another conclusion; that the proposed fast-track system and fixed costs will not work. One lawyer who took part in a session said: "Afterwards we put our hands up and said, `How can we do this? It can't happen'."

Many lawyers fear the proposals will save no time and no initial costs at all. Some even believe that it will provide such an obstacle to victims and lawyers it could mean the "death" of personal injury litigation - neither party being willing to take the financial risk of suing.

Ian Walker, vice-president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, said one problem is that under the fast track system cases are "front- loaded"; that is, lawyers have to do 90 per cent of the case work early in the action. Yet if the case is settled early, the lawyers may get just back just 25 per cent of the fixed cost limit. Mr Walker, who was present at one session, said this was "manifest nonsense".

Doug Christie, of personal injury specialists Thompsons, said fixing costs would benefit insurances companies at the expense of victims. "Lifting the burden of the costs of accidents from those who cause injury is dangerous nonsense."

Unsurprisingly, the Government disputes claims that the proposed system will not work. Geoff Hoon, a minister speaking on Thursday, accused lawyers of reacting negatively.

He said: "There are few areas of profitable business activity where some money is not put at risk in order to realise an overall and positive return. Why should lawyers be different?"