Woolf Reforms

It may come as a surprise that a civil litigator in a major City firm should be so interested in the Woolf reforms. With the exception of pro bono work, our clients are not likely to be in the proposed small claims or fast track categories. But my clients too are regularly incensed at the cost, complexity, uncertainty and delays of the present civil justice system.

Lord Woolf's diagnosis of the present system's ills was not terribly difficult. The real difficulty is going to be making the recommendations work.

There are two main risks to well-meaning law reforms. First, introducing more complexity and second, causing the opposite effect to that intended. Human beings, especially lawyers, have a habit of unintentionally subverting even the most high-minded of reforms. I hope that giving our judges control of the litigation process will not be subverted.

By taking control away from a practitioner, there may be a greater chance that the reforms will work, provided the judiciary supports the reforms and what underlies them, and provided a major investment is made in training and manpower and information technology.

These are all critical. We don't want another Child Support Agency. There has to be a proper understanding of the way individuals involved in the process will really behave. The right to due process is a fundamental freedom for all litigants. If an overbearing judicial system leads to inelegant and unjust results, the reforms will be severely damaged.

Our judiciary fulfils the role of a coercive adjudicator. But when dealing with real people, the report suggests, much more subtlety, flexibility and understanding of human nature will be required.

Lord Woolf believes that the additional resources to achieve this will be only a fraction of the cost of the existing system. My view is that the extra costs will turn out to be considerable.

There will be a completely new rule book for the High Court and the County Court but the two courts are to remain separate. The Chancery Division and the Queen's Bench Division are to remain separate. There will be three new categories of cases. When added to the need to appoint procedural judges and others, significant extra resources will be needed.

The answer lies in careful preparation, detailed training and subtlety in bedding the new systems into place.

It is a shame Lord Woolf has not recommended more constructive use of mediation, other than mini-trials. Many ADR techniques can lead to results which the court system cannot achieve.

The underlying reforms are welcome, but a commitment to providing the necessary resources will be needed to keep up the momentum.