Weak are given the strength to fight wealthy

Civil justice: Recommendations for a cheaper, simpler and fairer legal system could help the public instead of lawyers
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The Independent Online
The most radical attempt yet to rid the civil justice system of its excessive costs, lengthy delays and unfairness, was finally unveiled yesterday by Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, after a two-year inquiry.

If his 300 recommendations get the necessary backing from the Treasury and from judges, who will be responsible for enforcing a strict set of sanctions against unreasonable litigants, the exercise could see British civil justice last fitting the interests and pockets of the public, instead of those of lawyers.

The aim, Lord Woolf said, was to usher in a "new landscape" of simpler, quicker and cheaper justice by insisting on co-operation between opponents, while curbing the advantages of wealthy parties over weaker ones.

But a large question mark remains over whether the resources will be forthcoming to enable the reforms to be carried through effectively. The thoroughness and detail of yesterday's report, Access to Justice, was not matched by accompanying research on likely costs and savings, nor, despite the likelihood of legislation in this autumn's Queen's Speech, specific targets for implementation.

At the heart of the shake-up is a new fast-track for cases involving sums up to pounds 10,000, with a simplified procedure, fixed costs of not more than pounds 2,500 on either side and a maximum timetable of 30 weeks. There will also be "pre-action protocols" designed to encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution or early settlement. Financial incentives, for claimants as well as defendants, will back offers to settle before proceedings start.

A crucial factor in the ability of the system to work will be the enthusiasm with which judges use their new powers to discipline parties who force their opponents to overspend their fixed costs, or who fail to stick to court timetables.

Notwithstanding its title, nothing in the report relates to much-needed compensation for the progressive cutbacks that have occurred in eligibility for legal aid - although aid will be available to those qualifying for out-of-court resolution.

And also missing from this report are the suggestions made by Lord Woolf in his interim report, a year ago, that more district judges would be needed and that the fast-track should be tested out in pilot schemes. Pressed on the costs of the package, Lord Woolf yesterday insisted that although additional funds would be neededfor new information technology and the training of judges, many of the other measures would be financed from savings flowing from the changes - the bulk of which would be evident within two years.

Consumer and legal groups all gave the blueprint a broad welcome yesterday, though the National Consumer Council warned that consumers would have to make the sacrifice of less "Rolls-Royce" treatment. And there were widespread concerns that the system would be starved of necessary resources, and calls for the changes to be piloted. The Law Society said: "Increased access to justice will not be achieved if cases cannot be run for the amount of costs available or if winning litigants are out-of-pocket because they have to dip into their damages to pay part of their own costs."

Vicki Chapman, policy officer for the Legal Action Group, told the Independent: "At present, judges are not trained in case management. If Lord Woolf's proposals are to make a real difference to the speed with which cases are handled in the civil courts, the government must provide the money to make the new system work."