New guidelines aimed at speeding up the creaking system were introduced yesterday with immediate effect by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor. He called for a change of culture among judges and in the civil courts, but conceded that there would be no sanction against judges who failed to speed up administration.
At least two months before a hearing, both sides will have to fill in a short checklist which should guarantee that all court papers are in order. They will have to give a top estimate of the length of the trial.
Delays and costs in civil actions have gradually grown to the extent that cases commonly take years to reach a trial, damages awarded seldom exceed costs, and many litigants have to give up or settle out of court for small sums because they cannot affordto pursue a case.
The new guidelines, recognising that the vast majority of cases are settled out of court after large costs have been run up, ask all lawyers whether they have suggested mediation to their clients.
"We have got to be much more taut and selective over the amount of material allowed in court," Lord Taylor said. Whenever a case was expected to last more than 10 days, pre-trial reviews would be heldl.
Lord Taylor warned at a press conference yesterday that any failure of solicitors and barristers to conduct cases economically would be met by "appropriate orders for costs" - including personal penalties against very wasteful lawyers.
"We have been too ready to allow those who are litigating on both sides in civil actions to dictate the pace at which cases proceed and the number of steps it takes to get them to trial or settlement," he added.
Lord Taylor, head of the Queen's Bench division of the High Court, and Vice-Chancellor Sir Richard Scott, head of the Chancery division, gave details of the new controls in a practice direction on case management after consultation with all other judges.The direction also applies to county courts and similar moves are being introduced in the Family division. Judges should use their discretion to limit documentation, the length of oral submissions, time for examination and cross-examination of witnesses, the issues on which the court wished to be addressed and readings from documents and law books.
Most witnesses should give their main evidence in written statements on which they could be cross-examined. The parties to a case would have to try to agree the main issues in advance and had a duty to reduce or eliminate issues requiring expert evidenceif possible.
Opening speeches should be succinct and in complex cases written submissions could be demanded at the end of hearings.
Lord Woolf's roadshow, page 27