Lord Woolf has indicated that his proposed fast track for cases in the county courts will be piloted after all, despite his initial objections.
Despite constant lobbying from the Law Society, the Legal Action Group, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers and other professional bodies, neither Lord Woolf, nor the Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay had so far indicated that they were in favour of piloting the fast-track reforms.
In fact Lord Woolf had told The Lawyer when his reforms were announced that he thought pilots would mean litigators could pick and choose which courts to use, depending on their cases.
But at a Legal Action Group conference on the reforms last week Lord Woolf was asked from the floor what the current position on piloting was.
“LAG seems to have won that one,” he said. “I wasn't attracted by it because I felt it provided an opportunity for those who didn't like it to sabotage it. I prefer to call it a staged implementation, which conveys a different message.
“The fast track is a dramatic change and I didn't find any other jurisdiction that had all the features of my fast track. I think LAG was correct to point out the advantages of phased implementation.”
It is believed the LCD is considering introducing the fast track to a handful of county courts where the judges are known to favour it. Problems will be observed and modified in these courts as they arise before the system is introduced nationally in October 1998.
Vicki Chapman, policy officer of LAG, said she was delighted at the apparent U-turn. “This is what we and others have been pressing the LCD for all along,” she said.
Woolf also pressed publicly for the first time for changes to legal aid to fund lawyers at the early stages before litigation began, and for mediation and alternative dispute resolution, something the LCD has so far made no commitment on.
Sir Richard Scott, head of civil justice, who is charged with overseeing implementation, also indicated at the conference that he was personally in favour of piloting.
Scott also told the 500 solicitors at the conference that he was concerned at the apparent strategy of the court service to move towards charging parties 100 per cent of court fees. He said he had discovered that £55m of the £100m annual rent paid by the court service was a notional figure since many of the courts are already owned by the government.