Law reform. Peering over the pond

Lord Woolf has found inspiration for his reforms in the legal innovations on the other side of the Atlantic. The Legal Action Group (LAG) took a leaf out of his book and visited the US and Canada.

US judges have pioneered the ideas of 'managed justice' extolled by Lord Woolf. The message appears to be that fixed litigation timetables are a good idea: any greater intervention takes considerable resources and ingenuity to be effective.

The most obvious area of experimentation in the US is the development of court-annexed alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

There is an amazing range of approaches to ADR. One of the most sophisticated state schemes has been established at the Cambridge Multi Door Courthouse in Massachusetts. Litigants are given a mandatory screening interview and can choose a range of processes – the different 'doors' available to them.

In Cambridge, as elsewhere, the most innovative and potentially helpful form of ADR is mediation. A 'neutral' lawyer encourages agreement on a binding resolution of the dispute. The Cambridge scheme is now relatively well established and has found considerable support among lawyers in and around Boston.

The economics of establishing ADR schemes remain contentious. It seems likely that they save clients' money through lower legal fees because cases settle earlier. However, courts may not save money because most cases are already settled before trial. This may well lessen the system's attractiveness to the UK's court service.

In addition, most US court-based schemes demand legal representation and see ADR as an alternative to the use of courts, but not lawyers. So, there would be fewer legal aid savings if the idea was adopted in the UK.

The most effective aspect of court-annexed ADR may actually be early intervention in the litigation process. There also seems to be support for the notion that the widespread presence of ADR, in the words of a San Francisco lawyer: “Starts you off with the principle that settlement is not a problem.”

One of the most intriguing of the US innovations is the experiment with court-based interactive video kiosks in Arizona, which can print out divorce applications. In the same state, legal advice is being put on the Internet on an experimental basis.

These are examples of the bold approaches to the problem of a lack of legal services, but they illustrate a problem Lord Mackay has yet to recognise. There are certain costs involved in cutting eligibility to legal aid. If litigants of modest means cannot get lawyers then they must be given access to the necessary information in some other format.

The US offers a great deal of inspiration. But how much of its experience is directly transferable to the UK is another matter altogether.