Law Society slams Woolf's 'cost fixing regime' plan

PROPOSALS from Lord Woolf for reforming civil justice could lead to further public disillusion in the legal system, as well as encourage shoddier work from law yers, the Law Society warned this week.

The society broadly supports Lord Woolf's objective to make the civil law more accessible to litigants and less expensive. But it is concerned about suggestions designed to quantify costs ahead of cases.

Secretary of the society's civil litigation committee, Suzanne Burn, said: “If costs are initially pegged too low, lawyers might be persuaded to cut corners to keep within the cost parameters.

“On the other hand, if actual costs have to be met from the claims won by a litigant, it might dissuade people from taking legal action in the first place,” she said.

But she pointed out that if cost projections were pitched fairly, a more transparent system should encourage the public to seek redress from courts. If this happened, lawyers could expect more business.

The Law Society was responding to Lord Woolf's recently-published civil justice papers which cover fast track procedure proposals, medical negligence, housing cases and multiparty actions.

Lord Woolf proposed a fast- track system for cases up to £10,000 with limited procedures and fixed costs.

The society cautions Lord Woolf against doing too much too soon, arguing that: “Rough justice, on costs as much as anything else could lead people to be even more disillusioned with the civil justice system than at present.”

Michael Napier, vice-chair of the society's civil litigation committee, said: “We agree with many of Lord Woolf's ideas to speed up and simplify litigation. But the fair procedural rules he is aiming for will fail at the first hurdle if his cost-fixing regime creates an uneconomic straitjacket for lawyers and their clients.”

The society is worried that Lord Woolf's reforms may be introduced on a shoe-string budget.

Napier added: “We urge the government to put more resources into civil justice now. Lord Woolf's reforms will need more judges, more technology and more training, particularly in the county courts, where the essential piloting of the new procedures and rules must start.”