Mackay aims to cut the cost of litigation

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WIDE-RANGING reforms aimed at cutting the cost of civil and criminal justice, including the extension of arbitration schemes to replace litigation, were canvassed last night by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

Lord Mackay said that his legal aid budget was already stretched, making it unrealistic 'that we can afford to devote even more resources' and forcing him to 'compete very strongly' to maintain funding at existing levels.

New policies were needed to provide swifter and cheaper access to justice. Speaking at the Royal Society of Arts in London, he suggested that more use should be made of schemes that bypassed the courts.

Tribunals, arbitration schemes and 'miscellaneous therapeutic approaches' should all be considered, possibly as targets for state funding.

'There may well be a case for a tiered system of advice, depending on the nature of the problem,' he said. This already existed in an informal way but 'one of the benefits of the more structured scheme would be a greater level of certainty as to which tier of advice was most appropriate to the particular problem faced'.

An idea worth considering was 'greater availability of basic legal advice by telephone'. Britain should also look to the United States, where some large firms provide the legal equivalent of a 'fast-food' service, turning over large numbers of cases at knock- down rates.

Lord Mackay's speech is certain to raise criticisms that his primary aim is to find ways of capping the escalating cost of justice, even if that means restricting access to the courts. In the field of legal aid, his comments will be taken as a signal that neither lawyers nor their clients can expect better rates from the Government next year, probably marking further battles between the Lord Chancellor and solicitors.

However, he insisted that money was not the only motivating factor behind his suggestions. By extending the range of forums for settling disputes, courts and lawyers might be forced to compete with laymen for custom. Aggrieved parties could then chose whichever forum they thought best suited their needs.

Some of Lord Mackay's ideas were taken up in a report produced by Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, which also called for more arbitration and less litigation. However, Justice went on to call for an extension of legal aid for some civil litigation and tribunals.