Lawyers predict chaos without back-up for Woolf's reforms

LAWYERS are warning of chaos in county courts if judges don't get the technical back-up to make Lord Woolf's reforms work.

The burden of the reforms, to be announced on Friday, will fall most heavily on district judges in the county courts who will have to hold case management conferences, read papers in advance, set time-tables, time-limits and costs.

“They'll need training,” warned secretary of the Law Society's Civil Litigation Committee Suzanne Burns.

“Most judges have no experience of case management. They will need in order to be able to tap into paperwork using computers and that's being held up by the Private Finance Initiative.”

The Government is farming out the provision and management of computer systems in the county courts to one of three foreign multinational companies to be announced at the end of August.

But the Lord Chancellor's Department has already provided 300 laptop computers, at between £2,000 and £3,000 each, to district judges.

The computers are used for email and as word processors to prepare judgments and summing up.

Dick Greenslade, the president of the Association of District Judges, said he was concerned that there is no provision in the proposed PFI contracts to link the court record-card computer system (called Caseman), that the private company will run, with the successful judges' laptop computer system, Judith.

Ian Walker, chair of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers' IT group, warned: “Experience shows in any business the one thing you want to avoid is having lots of systems that don't talk to each other.”

Alex Carlisle MP, Liberal Democrat spokesman on justice and home affairs, said: “It would be a stupid waste of money to abandon the Judith system when it appears to be working so well.”

The Law Society is worried that the fixed costs for Lord Woolf's fast track procedure will be set before pilot tests decide an acceptable level. “We're in favour of the principle of fixed costs,” explained Suzanne Burns,”but if they are set too low, lawyers won't take up cases in the first place.”