Ready to judge the Woolf reforms

Despite the fears of the legal profession, Judge Paul Collins is sure the judiciary is adequately prepared to take on the new system. Judge Paul Collins is director of studies at the Judicial Studies Board.

It can be sniffed on the breeze – a whiff of unease emanating from lawyers all over the country – what will the judges be doing when they get their hands on litigation in the post 26 April era?

The short answer, of course, is dealing with cases justly. The long answer needs more space than is at my disposal, but would come to the same conclusion. Instead, I propose to say something about the way judges have prepared. As director of studies at the Judicial Studies Board (JSB), I have been course director for judicial training for the civil justice reforms.

In essence, this comprised a series of one-day seminars in 1997 for all full time civil judges, a series of three-day seminars for the same judges in early 1999, and a series of one-day seminars for all part time civil judges, which is now well under way. The timescale in which the rules and practice directions were written prevented the JSB from completing all its training before 26 April. These seminars were supported by written material and, for the part time judges, a video from Legal Network Television of case management scenarios. In addition, the JSB's regular training programme in civil matters has included sessions in anticipation of Woolfday.

What are the features of this training that leave me with the conviction that practitioners are right to be concerned – not that judges will be unfair or out to bash lawyers, but that they will be determined to take the opportunity to reform the system of civil justice so that it works in the best interests of litigants?

A bold innovation was to hold seminars at which Lord Justices, High Court, circuit and district judges studied the rules together, without distinction of judicial hierarchy. The opportunity to appreciate the perspective from different levels proved to be invaluable for many. The atmosphere at the seminars was one in which all judges played a role in an enterprise reaching through the whole judiciary and giving rise to a collegiate approach to implementation of the new rules.

The "designated civil judges" (DCJs) have had an important part to play in training. Syndicate discussions of practical exercises were led by DCJs and by members of the JSB's team of tutor district judges. This meant that syndicate groups were able to discuss problems in a way which led towards consistency of approach and an appreciation of practical realities. All the seminars for part time judges are being chaired by DCJ's.

The contribution of members of the Court of Appeal to the seminars was evidence of commitment to early resolution of differences of judicial approach to the new rules and practice directions. Lord Justice May, a member of the Civil Procedure Rules committee, has a supervising role and the appellate approach to broad questions of discretion in case and trial management is eagerly awaited.

Judges at every level were well aware of the practical difficulties of training and change in working practices which face the legal professions. The emphasis was undoubtedly on making these reforms effective in partnership with all others involved in the process, not despite them.

Concerns continue about the court service's ability to deliver the administrative infrastructure for the reforms. Judges will be hoping for a partnership both with lawyers and the court service. In the end, however, the responsibility for the effectiveness of change has been placed on the judge. If lawyers cannot or will not adapt to what is repeatedly and correctly identified as a fundamental alteration in civil litigation – not just a change in the rules – judges will have no choice but to ensure the means at their disposal are deployed in the interests of litigants. This need not mean wasted costs orders; the sanctions available are intended to encourage compliance, not punish disobedience. Judges may well be more forgiving in relieving against sanctions in the early months. But they are, as a body, determined to ensure that Lord Woolf's aspirations, made law by the new rules, become a reality in practice.