Lawyer calls for court reform pilot

A MEMBER of Lord Woolf's “fast-track” working party has warned of chaos in the courts on an unprecedented scale if Woolf's proposals on speeding up justice are not properly piloted.

On 20 June, Woolf told the Association of Women Solicitors that it was “not practicable” to test the whole of the new system in one court before it was implemented nationwide.

But he added that fixed timetables being used in courts around the country were sufficient evidence that the fast track would work (see below).

However, personal injury lawyer Henry Witcomb, of 199 The Strand chambers, who was part of the team which advised Lord Woolf on fast track procedures, told The Lawyer: “At first they said there is no need to pilot this, it will be what they called a 'big bang'. It now appears that they have accepted the need to pilot but are not prepared to do it properly.”

Witcomb said he was worried that if the fast-track proposals were not phased in gradually there might be a repetition, on a larger scale, of the chaos that still surrounds the implementation of the 15-month timetable for county courts.

More than 32,000 claimants had their cases struck out because of confusion over this reform, drafted by the county court rules committee several years ago. These claimants are currently suing their lawyers and clogging up the courts.

“If this is not piloted, there is a real risk that consumers will pay too heavy a price,” said Witcomb. “No matter how much you have thought it out and how well prepared you are, people drafting reforms make mistakes. The scale of this reform is so vast there is a risk the mistakes will be far larger than anything that happened with the 15-month reform.”

He added: “If the reforms are going to work they have got to carry the judiciary and lawyers with them. What's wrong with an 18-month trial in the whole London area?”

Lord Mackay said in March that he thought there would be “some need for piloting and testing” Woolf's proposals. However, it is not clear how thorough the piloting will be.