Mackay vows to implement shake-up of civil justice

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Legal Correspondent

Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, has pledged to implement in full recommendations for the biggest shake-up of civil justice this century.

Two years ago he asked Lord Woolf, a Law Lord, to find ways to improve a creaking system which benefits few people other than lawyers. Lord Woolf has already said he wants fast-track courts for damages up to pounds 10,000. Cases would be brought to court within months, and limited to half a day's hearing. In all litigation, judges would become case-managers to make sure things move to strict timetables, and not at the pace of the slowest lawyer. Lord Woolf's final report is due this summer.

Sir Richard Scott, the Vice-Chancellor, the second most senior civil judge, has been put in charge of making the Woolf reforms work once he has published his arms-to-Iraq inquiry report. Under the present archaic system, cases usually take years to reach trial, and by the time they reach a court the average legal costs are as high as the sums being argued over. Information technology is decades out of date, with much still done on paper, and teleconferencing unheard of.

Lord Woolf has been working closely with the Lord Chancellor on the final stages of his report which is due to be finalised in June. The implication of Lord Mackay's pledge is that the changes will be set in train before the next election, which is next spring at the latest.

Ultimately the new, streamlined system will save money for clients and taxpayer alike, but Lord Mackay concedes there will be some initial cost to implement the changeover.

Many in the legal profession, including Lord Woolf, have expressed fears that the Government would only pick the cost-free options from a list of proposals, or leave it on the shelf with earlier reviews, reports and recommendations over the years. There have been 60 reports on civil procedure since 1951, the most recent in 1988.

But Lord Mackay said in an interview with the Independent that he was determined to go ahead this time: "I hope the Government will be able to pursue Lord Woolf's report very quickly." He did not intend to pick on the options which cost no money to bring in. "I think it will have to work as a system."

He said he would have to see the final report before guaranteeing to implement every last detail, but he knew broadly what would be in it. "The thrust of his proposals is a fairly radical change in the system. It's very hard to see how you can do that in bits."

Much of the change to court procedures will not need legislation, or involve cost. Lord Mackay has already raised the limit for damages in the informal Small Claims Court from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000 on Lord Woolf's recommendation.

One of the most expensive changes is thought to be the need for extra judges, and for retraining existing judges for a much more demanding role keeping cases moving.

Lord Mackay believes the extra costs in judges' salaries will not be great. "I wouldn't take the thrust of his report to require a great number of additional judges," he said.

Some of the savings, such as the fixed costs from the new fast-track courts dealing with claims up to pounds 10,000 would come on stream quickly, Lord Mackay said.

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