“Wait and see' approach to fixed costs welcomed

THE Legal Action Group (LAG) and the Law Society has welcomed government proposals to delay the introduction of fixed costs – a key element of Lord Woolf's reforms – until after the reforms “bed down”.

The Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) last week released a consultation paper, Justice at the Right Price, on civil court costs and lawyer's fees under the new fast-tracking regime, due to be introduced in April.

Under Lord Woolf's proposals, claims of between £5,000 and £15,000 will be fast-tracked through the courts within 30 weeks, and the plaintiff's costs during preparations for the trial will be set at a fixed amount, which is yet to be determined.

But in the LCD paper the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine acknowledges calls from the profession that “before fixed costs are introduced time should be given for the reforms to bed down” and proposes a delay of a “few years”.

LAG head of policy Vicki Chapman agreed fast-tracking “ought to be carefully tested out” before fixed costs were introduced so the costs could be set at the right level.

Law Society head of solicitors remuneration David Hartley said: “The LCD has clearly found more difficulties in the new procedures than anticipated and therefore it is better for it to wait to see how the fast-track progresses before fixed costs are introduced.”

Hartley was concerned about whether judges would apply the rules in practice and whether the courts would be able to process fast-track cases in the time envisaged.

News that the IT required for fast-tracking will not fully be in place by the start-date of next April, which was revealed by The Lawyer last week, has caused further concern about fast-tracking.

In the paper the LCD proposes daily rates for legal costs during fast track trials of £350 for claims of less than £3,000, £500 for claims of less than £10,000, £750 for claims of more than £10,000, and £500 where the trial is on liability only. The paper also says Lord Irvine is ready to consider exempting personal injury cases from fixed costs.