Woolf report sets out future

Small claims. Under Woolf's interim report, the financial limit for small claims was raised to £3,000, except for personal injury cases.

Fast-track. Most cases from £3,000 to £10,000. Woolf says judges will allocate cases to the fast-track procedure under a fixed timetable of 20 to 30 weeks, with set steps to be taken by certain times and automatic sanctions for non-compliance. There will be limited discovery and no oral evidence from experts. Questions will be in writing to one single expert where possible. The court will have discretion to appoint a single expert. There will be strict adherence to fixed trial dates, and normal hearings will last three hours, with a maximum of one day. There will be fixed costs up to a maximum of £2,500, excluding VAT and disbursements.

There will be a standard fee for advocacy during trials, with separate rates for interlocutory hearings, applications for interim injunctions and hearings for the court to approve a settlement. The fast-track will not be applicable for: cases of public importance; test cases; cases in which oral evidence from experts is needed; and lengthy cases. Litigants involved in straightforward cases over £10,000 will be able to opt for the fast-track.

Multi-track. The management of cases will be in the hands of procedural judges. Case management conferences will be held to set a timetable for cases, consider alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and costs, and to set a date for trial. A pre-trial review will take place eight to 10 weeks before the hearing to establish the key issues and set the programme for the trial.

A fixed timetable for conferences, pre-trial review and trial will be changed only with the leave of the court. There will be a streamlined procedure for straightforward cases. Solicitors will be required to estimate their costs at case management conferences and pre-trial hearings.

Lawyers will be obliged to explain their charges to clients. The courts may determine cost even if a settlement is reached before a trial. Benchmark costs will be established for certain multi-track procedures. Judges will be trained to make informed decisions about costs.

Sanctions. Courts will be able to impose sanctions for non-compliance of rules and unreasonable or oppressive case conduct. They will be required to make more use of their powers to tax or assess costs and order them to be paid at once.

Pre-action protocols. Codes of conduct for specific areas of law will be included in relevant practice guides. Codes will encourage the use of ADR and settlement, and economy in the use of experts. Failure to comply with them will be taken into account by the courts.

Offers to settle. Parties will be encouraged to settle. Defendants who refuse to accept an offer which is then matched or exceeded at trial may have to pay interest of up to 25 per cent on the damages.

IT. All judges will be equipped with PCs. An independent IT body should be set up to develop a long-term IT strategy for the entire civil justice system, implemented by the Court Service. A working group should be set up to specify the requirements of electronic case-flow management systems for judges. There should be more extensive piloting of telephone conferencing. A “courtroom of the future” exhibition should be set up.

Special areas of litigation. Woolf makes special recommendations for specific areas of the law, including an alternative to fast-track for small medical negligence claims, a contingency legal aid fund for multi-party actions and the use of standard claim forms for applications for judicial review.