The regional bar is adopting the practice of round table discussions in response to an 86 per cent drop in civil High Court claims, reflected in new figures from the Lord Chancellor’s Department.
The practice of sitting down with the other side weeks before the case is due to start quickens the turnover of cases, which under the Woolf reforms are unlikely to end up in court.
The Civil Procedure Rules have resulted in a huge drop in claims to the High Court’s Queen’s Bench Division (QBD) and the county courts.
The number of civil claims since the introduction of the Woolf reforms in the High Court and district registries has plummeted by 86 per cent and in the county courts by 26 per cent.
The drop in the number of county court claims is particularly surprising, as most High Court cases costing up to £15,000 are being sent to county courts under Woolf’s fast-track system. The statistics, the first of their kind, have been collated by the Lord Chancellor’s information management unit.
The advantage of round tables, currently being used by personal injury (PI) and clinical negligence barristers, is that lawyers can decide a month before court that the case can be settled by mediation. Law firms in the main are saturated with PI work and are happy to go to round table discussions.
However, one leading judge told The Lawyer that regions have been badly affected by the Woolf reforms as more work goes to arbitration and mediation. Most specialists in these areas are based in London.
The figures, which relate to March 1999-November 2000, in fact represent a slight recovery in the volume of county court cases, which reached its lowest ebb in May 1999, straight after the introduction of the Woolf reforms.
The number of claims in the QBD, the civil wing of the High Court, has dropped from a peak of 18,000 in June 1998, to a low of less than 2,000 in November 2000. Contract and tort claims in the county courts have dropped from about 85,000 just before the reforms to 60,000 in November 2000.
However, despite Woolf’s efforts to reduce litigation, it is reported that the Chancery Division is extremely busy and that claims are taking a lot longer to be heard. Colin Passmore, litigation partner at Simmons & Simmons, says: “When we try to get appointments at the High Court, it’s still blocked up for months ahead. I’d hazard a guess that this is related to the need for one or two-day case conferences, while before there were contract summonses for direction which took between 15 and 30 minutes.”
Bob Musgrove, secretary to the Master of the Rolls, says the success of the pre-action protocol accounts for the drop in the QBD, in which parties in PI and clinical negligence disputes have to disclose information to each other, increasing the chance of an out of court settlement.