'Frivolous' legal cases frozen in bid to clear dusty shelves

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of frivolous and lazy litigants risk losing their right to keep their cases in court under new rules which come into force today.

Sweeping reforms to civil justice, championed by Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, will "freeze" all cases which have been inactive for a year. The rules are designed to stop the courts being clogged up with frivolous or hopeless claims. It will also encouragepeople to think carefully before they take a claim to court or deliberately attempt to drag out the litigation.

Any case which has been activated but has not come before a judge since 26 April last year will be automatically "stayed." The claimant and their lawyers then face the uphill task of persuading the court that the "stay" should be lifted so they can continue with their action.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said yesterday: "People have had a year to take steps before the rule is applied, so they should have enough warning." She said it was not possible to give an exact figure for the number of cases affected but she said the courts were not expecting a "flood". Solicitors who have failed to warn their clients about the risk of having their case frozen may be liable for negligence claims.

A spokesman for the Law Society said that any claim for negligence would depend on the "circumstances of the case".Since Lord Woolf's reforms were introduced last year, litigation has been cut by as much as a third. Lawyers have been set demanding deadlines and judges given more power to manage cases which come before them. Solicitors who indulge in "trial by combat" and try to drag out litigation now face tough financial penalties.

Lord Woolf has warned that in the new "landscape for civil justice", anyone who acts unreasonably and refuses a settlement offer can be forced to pay damages with punitive rates of interest on top in thebiggest shake-up in civil justice for a century.

And under the new framework, which creates a single set of rules and procedures for county courts and the High Court, there are three tracks for disputes. Claims of up to £5,000 can be heard in the small claims court, claims of up to £15,000 in a new fast-track court where trial costs are capped, and a third track for longer, more complex cases.