Woolf 'grasps nettle' of civil reforms

LORD Woolf has called on the Government to hand pick a top judge to overhaul the civil justice system in England and Wales.

The proposed appointment of a head of civil justice is among a raft of reforms suggested by the Law Lord in his interim report on access to justice.

Woolf, who has ruled himself out of the role, says the office-holder, a senior judge, would be subject to the direction of the Lord Chief Justice. The judge would work in consultation with the heads of division, the senior presiding judge and others to ensure a “single, co-ordinated, efficient and flexible” system.

The head would also be responsible for securing an “appropriate” share of judicial and other resources and for the training of judiciary and staff.

In the report, which includes suggestions on extending court hours, disclosure, IT and expert witnesses and the establishment of permanent advice centres, Woolf condemns the present system as unequal, expensive and slow and says management of cases should be handed over to courts to encourage settlement at the “earliest appropriate stage”.

He outlines plans for a new three-track system for case management and trial, including an expanded small claims jurisdiction up to £3,000.

Fixed timetables of 20 to 30 weeks to trial will be attached to the second track for dealing with straightforward cases up to £10,000, and a new multi-track system for cases over that limit would also be introduced.

The Lord Chancellor says he will implement some of the changes. He says: “I am particularly in favour of establishing fast tracking which should ensure that cases assigned to it are dealt with in a way that is appropriate and proportionate to the matter at issue.”

Produced following lengthy consultation with both sides of the profession, Woolf's report aims to cut costs and increase access to the law.

He expresses concern at the high price of legal services, saying “if 'time and money are no object' was the right approach in the past, then it certainly is not today”.

“A system which pays more in lawyers' fees than in compensation to accident victims is indefensible,” he says.

“The procedures need to be simplified, but that will not be enough if parties can still dictate the pace of proceedings and drive up their opponents' costs. The solution is to give the courts responsibility for enforcing the rules and ensuring speedy progress, with the emphasis on settling disputes as early as possible.”

Woolf's report has been praised by the Bar, which says he has “grasped the nettle” of civil justice reform. The Bar Council is now calling on the Lord Chancellor to give the proposals legislative priority.

“We will be calling on the legal profession, the judiciary and the Government to back Lord Woolf in his drive to improve the civil justice system,” says a Bar spokesman.

The report has also been well-received in the City. However, although he welcomes its release, Clifford Chance's head of litigation Tony Willis says he is unsure whether the momentum created by the report can be maintained. He says more money will be needed to fulfil Woolf's desire for additional procedural judges, but he questions the “political will” to make the funds available.

The Law Society has applauded Woolf's decision to keep the needs of citizens at “centre stage”. “A more hands-on role for the judges and more technology in the courts will be expensive,” says society president Charles Elly. “Investment is needed to improve the civil justice system.”

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, which represents an important proportion of civil court users, backs the simplification of procedures, but “only if the injured person is still able fully to present their case, with legal help, against defendants backed by well-funded insurance companies”.

Nicole Maley