Woolf proposes shake-up of leave to appeal rules

PLANS to extend the requirement for litigants to apply for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal and cut back on the number of oral applications have been announced by Lord Woolf as part of his self-styled “blitz” on court delays.

The judge outlines the proposals, including a pilot under which only one, rather than two judges will hear certain leave applications, in his annual review of the Court of Appeal Civil Division's legal year.

The proposals come hard on the heels of his decision to appoint 12 up-and-coming law-yers as judicial assistants to help judges deal with the appeals backlog – there were 1,384 cases waiting to be heard at the end of 1996, compared with 672 at the end of 1992.

In his report, Lord Woolf argues that the rules governing leave to appeal are too complex and place “a huge administrative burden on court staff”. He adds: “There is an overwhelming case for extending the requirement for leave to all appeals other than limited, easily defined categories of appeals because of the reduced burden this will place on the staff of the court who can then be deployed on more productive tasks.”

Woolf also announces the pilot under which only one judge will hear applications “where that judge does not consider that the application needs to be heard by two judges”. He adds: “Consideration will also be given to dispensing with oral applications where the court is of the view that an oral hearing will not assist.”

The proposals will be submitted to the court's users committee for consultation. Committee member Suzanne Burn, who is secretary of the Law Society's civil litigation committee, said it had not yet considered the proposals. She warned that any extension of the requirement for leave to appeal should be undertaken carefully or it might lead to ever longer delays.