Litigants win in reforms

THE legal profession has welcomed Lord Woolf's plans to introduce a revolutionary three-track system for dealing with civil disputes saying it could, for the first time, swing the pendulum in favour of litigants.

But the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (Apil) says the changes suggested in the report must not be allowed to “significantly shift the advantage to insurers”.

Apil Vice-president Caroline Harmer says: “We welcome simplification of procedures and reduction of costs.

“But if and only if the injured person is still able to fully present his or her case with legal help against defendants backed by well-funded insurance companies.”

The association's sentiments are echoed by the Motor Accident Solicitors Society which is concerned that Woolf's plans to cap costs may enable parties to gain only limited advice “and therefore limited justice”.

But Woolf says he is “deeply concerned” that the present system is weighted toward defendants who have the financial ability to instruct expensive lawyers and delay proceedings and his proposals are designed to ease the burden on litigants.

The tracking system, at the core of his report, has already been implemented in part, with the Lord Chancellor agreeing to immediately lift the limit in the small claims jurisdiction from £1,000 to £3,000.

A second fast-track for cases up to £10,000 has also been mooted, with cases running on a fixed timetable of 20 to 30 weeks to trial, with strictly limited procedures and fixed costs. The third track would handle cases over the £10,000 limit.

The Woolf report also suggests a “fundamental transfer” in responsibility for case management from litigants and their lawyers to the courts, enabling the judiciary to control the progress of cases.

“The court has got to take on responsibility, clearly as part of its duties, to lend help to the litigant who needs it,” says Woolf.