Tories back court overhaul to bring down cost of justice

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is backing plans to make the legal system more accessible to people who cannot afford lawyers' fees and do not qualify for legal aid.

The process of judicial review, which enables people to challenge decisions taken by the authorities, and the handling of medical negligence cases are targeted to be simplified as part of a new "justice-on-a-budget" package. The range of cases handled in small claims courts is to be widened.

Cabinet ministers want to see the changes because they believe the justice system has become the preserve of the very wealthy, those payrolled by companies, and people on legal aid.

The first part of this package will emerge on 8 January, when the Lord Chancellor will raise from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000 the ceiling on settlements in the small claims court. As a result, many cases which now go to expensive county court hearings should be dealt with more cheaply.

Lord Woolf, who is conducting a wide-ranging review of the legal system, will then begin an inquiry into new areas, including judicial review, medical negligence and patent cases, reporting next summer.

Ministers, who were shaken by the six-figure costs incurred in David Ashby's unsuccessful libel case last week, believe the spiralling rise in legal bills has deterred the middle classes from litigation. One Cabinet source admitted last week that the people of Middle England "go nowhere near the courts" if they can avoid them.

Lord Woolf has already issued a preliminary report which envisaged judges becoming trial managers who would dictate the pace of cases, and a fast- track system for disputes involving less than pounds 10,000, with lawyers' fees fixed in advance. One senior source described this as a strategy to secure a "budget-type" form of justice.

In the new year, Lord Woolf will look at setting up a special working group to examine ways of dealing more swiftly and fairly with lower-value claims of medical negligence. These cases present special problems because of the difficulties in getting access to medical evidence.

Another working group, under Mr Justice Brooke, chairman of the Law Commission, will examine judicial review procedures - often used to challenge government decisions.The complexity of the present system will be the focus of his investigation. Senior legal figures believe the rules could be made simpler.