Government officials attending the Bar Council's conference were left in no doubt about lawyers' fears over government commitment to funding Lord Woolf's civil justice reforms.
And barristers were told in clear terms they must develop their relationship with solicitors and face calls for dropping the refresher fee system in favour of more fixed fees.
Top QCs, academics, rank and file barristers, and guest solicitors had differing views on the efficacy of Lord Woolf's proposals. Some thought he had got it just right, while some felt he had not gone far enough.
However, all suspected the government of short-changing Woolf on anything involving initial expense.
NatWest chair Lord Alexander, panel member in the morning forum and a former Bar Council chair, said: “Even if we implemented all the Woolf reforms, there would still be substantial expense. Is the Government going to be prepared to shoulder this cost? Otherwise, the Woolf proposals will remain an imaginative, elegant blueprint whose aims will not be achieved.”
Bar Council chair Peter Goldsmith QC, also on the panel, added: “Is the Government going to provide the resources? The only positive move from the Lord Chancellor has been to move the small claims limit to £3,000, thereby making these cases ineligible for legal aid.”
Christopher Clarke QC, Bar Council professional services committee chair, summed up the view of many delegates, that without more resources, “Woolf may disappear down the tubes of history”.
Labour peer Lord Williams of Mostyn, another Bar Council ex-chair on the panel, stressed the need for greater judicial training and monitoring if judges were to be able to exert more control of cases, as Woolf proposes. He refused to be drawn on Labour's likely spending policy, however.
Lord Woolf said properly-trained judges were “essential” to his report, a matter he is discussing with the Judicial Studies Board. Overall, said Woolf: “It does require additional resources. If they are not going to provide these, then it is essential we use existing resources.”
Earlier, he warned barristers that his proposals would lead to a move away from the “big bang” trial and that greater emphasis would be placed on costs. The Bar “must surely be prepared to offer fixed fees” for different stages of litigation, he said. “Brief fees and daily refreshers must surely have a limited life.”
Later, Lovell White Durrant partner Michael Seymour, chair of the London Solicitors Litigation Association, told workshop delegates that brief fees were too high. He added that large law firms would continue to regularly instruct barristers, but solicitor advocates were likely to press for a more “level playing field” with barrister advocates in training and qualification exemptions.
Robert Owen QC, chair of the Bar Council's professional standards committee, said counsel should try to improve their relationship with instructing solicitors. He said conditional fee arrangements would make counsel and solicitors “equity partners in the litigation”, while counsel may soon be involved in “beauty parades” with solicitors to win substantial litigation.