Lawyers told to ring up savings

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Lord Woolf, the Law Lord behind plans for the biggest reform of civil justice this century, said judges and lawyers could save large amounts of time and money if they started to use telephones.

His Access to Justice proposals to the Government, after a year's consultation, include early meetings between judge, prosecution and defence to determine where a case is going. Speaking at the Bar Council's annual conference in London, Lord Woolf suggested technology would make meetings possible through video conferences, even if the judge was in Newcastle and the parties in London. He added: "We must manage the 98 per cent of cases which never come to trial." A case can take years to get to court. Most never make it, and are settled out of court after accruing massive legal bills.

Lord Woolf has also proposed fast-track courts for cases where damages claimed are less than pounds 10,000. In all cases judges, not lawyers, would control progress. Speaking to the audience of barristers, he said the greater control of case-length by judges should mean barristers quoting fixed fees, rather than charging by time. He also accused barristers of being over-paid. "I know of young men of a few years' experience who are earning more than a Law Lord," he said. Lord Woolf's salary is pounds 109,435. A recent survey of QCs in the magazine Legal Business, based on estimates from within the legal profession, found several earning more than pounds 1m a year, including the libel expert George Carmen. The Bar Council president, Peter Goldsmith, was estimated at between pounds 750,000 and pounds 1m. The Bar insists that only a handful of barristers earn big money, and many earn around pounds 20,000 a year.

Mr Goldsmith told the conference he was worried at the implication of giving judges a more managerial role. "Some judges you could give the papers on a Friday night and confidently come back for the judgment on Monday." Others were not so good.

Lord Williams of Mostyn, a prominent labour barrister, estimated that the money spent on training for judges would have to be doubled. Lord Woolf said this was a relatively small expense when set against savings involved. The Government is committed to making the reforms work, according to John Taylor, junior minister in the Lord Chancellor's department. However, he would not say if extra money would be spent on the courts.