Geoff Hoon told lawyers to “stop whingeing” after they cornered him at a conference on conditional fees to warn him that the Woolf Reforms could lead to chaos.
Delegates at the London seminar on conditional fees, organised by Neil Stewart Associates, warned the Parliamentary Secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), that slow administration, “maverick judges” and lack of funds within county courts, where about 90 per cent of cases will be fast-tracked, could scupper the reforms.
Hoon responded by making a “bet” with the profession, declaring: “Let's have every firm ready to take on conditional fee cases and fast-track cases, and not have the kind of whingeing responses we have had, and I guarantee the court and administration will be in order.”
Hoon also said he would “not rule out” the possibility of extending the hours judges sit in court, which could mean including evenings and Saturday mornings. He said: “I am very keen on using these expensive assets we call court buildings more efficiently and if there is a possibility of ensuring those courts are used then we would do so.”
Earlier, solicitors had lined up to warn Hoon about the dangers posed by the reforms.
Simpson Millar partner Adrian Fawden said he was “sceptical” about whether the county court judiciary and support staff could cope with Woolf's strict timetable.
He called for the appointment of more specially trained district judges to take charge of handling fast-tracked cases.
Batchelors solicitor Mike Turner predicted: “We are going to be let down by the court system in a major way.”
Hoon conceded that “the odd maverick judge” existed but invited lawyers to alert the LCD of any problems, and said 28 new judicial appointments would be made.