Lord Woolf and his report on Access To Justice
Rarely has a Master of the Rolls had such an impact. Lord Woolf’s report on Access to Justice, several years in the making, recommended reforms to litigation to “create a system appropriate to the 21st century”.
His proposals to fast-track litigation, control costs and give judges a key role in managing cases have changed the legal landscape. But they were not – and indeed, are still not – without their critics.
The interim report, unveiled in July 1996, recommended a series of changes, including the following:
– The financial limit for small claims was raised to £3,000, except for personal injury cases.
– Fast-track cases would cover those from £3,000 to £10,000 and be dealt with under a fixed timetable of up to 30 weeks, with limited discovery and no expert oral evidence.
– Multi-track cases would be managed by procedural judges through case-management conferences. Solicitors would be required to estimate their costs at case-management conferences and pre-trial hearings.
– Pre-action protocols would be laid down and codes of conduct would encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution. Parties would be encouraged to settle. Defendants who refuse to settle early would have to pay up to 25 per cent extra damages if they lost.
– Technology investment would underpin the reforms, with all judges equipped with computers and an investigation into electronic case-flow management systems.
The Law Society gave a cautious thumbs-up to the proposals. It was left to the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (Apil) to be the first to voice its dismay at the report. Apil secretary Roger Goodier said: “It’s a recipe for further chaos and uncertainty.”
Others felt that Woolf did not go far enough. Within weeks of the report, a Commercial Court working party headed by Mr Justice Waller and including Richard Aikens QC and Linklaters partner Mark Humphries, called for the report to be much more radical, particularly over oral evidence. It said: “In most commercial cases the facts will be found from the documents.”
Boldest recruitment of the year
Clifford Chance hired three partners and eight assistants from Frankfurt firm Wessing Berenberg-Gossler to become the first UK firm with a credible German presence. Its joint office with Gleiss Lutz had lasted four years until its breakup in 1993.
Other international firms had found Germany equally hard-going. White & Case and Slaughter and May shut in Germany in 1995 and 1996 respectively, while Linklaters cobbled together a joint venture with Hamburg firm Schoen Nolte in order to open in Frankfurt. Later, in 1996, Freshfields began talks with Cologne firm Deringer Tessin.
Booth & Co sets reporting trend
Leeds-based Booth & Co published its accounts – the first law firm to do so. Turnover was £20m and net profit was £5.02m. Just a few months later, however, it merged with Manchester firm Addleshaw Sons & Latham to create Addleshaw Booth & Co.
The firm dubbed itself ‘The Firm of the North’ in its merger publicity. It is now known as Addleshaw Goddard following its 2003 takeover of City firm Theodore Goddard, and the ‘Firm of the North’ moniker was swiftly dropped.
The ahead-of-his-time story of the year
Law Society president Tony Girling made waves at an American Bar Association conference in August 1996 when he called for measures to allow law firms to list on the stock market.
The proposal was met with horror by international bar leaders. Frederik Heemskerek, secretary general of the Dutch bar, said: “This idea about raising equity capital, it’s simply not credible.”
Short-lived merger of the year
Donn & Co demerges from Philip Conn & Co after a mere 29 days. “Fortunately, the firms were still in separate offices being run as separate entities, so it’s been a clean break,” said Donn & Co senior partner Raymond Donn.
Donn & Co later hit the headlines when it opened an office in a hospital in Salford.
The start of something big
Dibb Lupton Broomhead merged with Alsop Wilkinson to create Dibb Lupton Alsop (later to become DLA Piper).
The merger won the first big deal under the leadership of Nigel Knowles and set the tone for a series of takeovers and mergers that would create a top-tier firm.
The Lawyer Awards 1996
Law Firm of the Year: Leigh Day
Chambers: Doughty Street Chambers
Management Team: Shoosmith & Harrison
European Law Firm: Clifford Chance
In-House Team: Rank Xerox
In-House Lawyer: Victoria Cochrane, Ernst & Young
Public Sector Team: Ipswich Borough Council
Heather Hallett QC
Lady Justice Heather Hallett, as she is now known, made history when she became vice-chair of the bar, thereby guaranteeing her position as the first female chair of the bar (traditionally the vice-chair stands unopposed for the chair of the council).
Hallett LJ, who was appointed to the Court of Appeal in 2005 and is now a commissioner on the Judicial Apppointments Board, took silk in 1989 and was elected leader of the South Eastern Circuit in 1995.
In 1998, when Hallett LJ took over the chair of the Bar Council, she said she was “determined to be a modernising chairman”.
During her tenure as chair of the bar, Hallett pushed for legal aid reforms and was particularly outspoken on Government proposals that she felt would give the public worse access to justice.