'Our system no longer serves in the way it should'

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The Independent Online
Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, is calling for a complete change of culture and attitude on the part of lawyers and judges.

The reason he gave was simply that "our system no longer serves any section of the public in the way it should".

Coming from one of the system's most senior figures, that is strong criticism. The key remedy will be case management by judges, at all levels of the new system, to be headed by Sir Richard Scott, Vice-Chancellor of the High Court Chancery Division.

Cases will be allocated to one of three tracks according to their value and complexity.

Medical negligence cases are singled out for special attention in the report because the "disproportion" between costs and damages is so great that only big cases are worth litigating. "A key requirement ... is designing procedures for handling these cases, both at the pre-litigation stage and by the courts, so that a more co-operative and conciliatory approach to dispute resolution is achieved."

People will be encouraged to use alternative dispute resolution wherever possible in all cases, and there will be an expectation of openness and co-operation between parties from the outset.

Where a trial is inevitable judges will decide how long it is to be and what it is to involve, while estimates of costs for multi-track cases will be published by the court or agreed by the parties and approved by the court. Lord Woolf believes that the streamlined procedure and timetables on the fast-track, and case management of the more complex cases, will make it more difficult for wealthier parties to gain a tactical advantage over their opponents by additional expenditure on, say, more expensive experts, or by refusing to make a reasonable settlement.

A claimant who makes an offer of settlement which is not accepted by a defendant but which is matched or exceeded at trial will be entitled to additional interest on his damages. The rates will be 25 per cent for damages up to pounds 10,000; 15 per cent for damages between pounds 10,000 and pounds 50,000; and five per cent for damages above pounds 50,000.

In the most stringent criticism yesterday, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers questioned the extent to which unreasonable "deep-pocket" defendants would be checked by the proposals. But Lord Woolf insisted: "The court is going to be in control. You cannot spend money unless it is to some purpose. I just cannot see any way these defendant insurers, who are after all hard-headed businessmen, are going to spend money to grind down a client when cases can be disposed of reasonably and sensibly."

Lord Woolf makes a number of additional recommendations in relation to specialist areas, including the plight of tenants suffering anti-social behaviour and harassment from neighbours. His investigations have prompted him to propose that specialist "housing" judges should make visits to council estates part of their job, and set a new target date of 10 to 13 weeks for possession actions.

The changes

An extended small claims jurisdiction (already in force) for all cases up to pounds 3,000 except personal injury;

A new "fast-track" with limited procedures, tight timetables and fixed costs, for all personal injury cases up to pounds 10,000 and other cases between pounds 3,000 and pounds 10,0000; trials would take place after 20 to 30 weeks and normally last just three hours;

A new "multi-track" with appropriate judicial case management and timetables set and monitored by the court, for cases worth over pounds 10,000 and cases below that value which are complex, such as medical negligence.