Woolf seizes the chance to answer back

LORD Woolf was beaming as he brandished his glossy green report for the Press.

For two years he had been closeted with academics, IT experts, consumer interest groups, lawyers and judges pondering what it should contain. Now it was all over and this was his chance to defend himself against the critics.

His glowing introductory “changing the landscape” speech over, the questions began. “What about Apil's objections?” someone wanted to know, a reference to a pre-emptive strike by the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, which claimed fixed costs on the fast-track would impair the defence of individual plaintiffs.

Lord Woolf's smile turned frosty. “I know Apil have been campaigning this morning and for the past couple of days because they are convinced that my proposals will hurt them. I don't think they will. Apil have made their comments without seeing my final report,” he said.

“Personal injury lawyers were enthusiastic about reform when they had trouble finding litigants,” he added.

“When conditional fees encouraged more litigation, Apil became less enthusiastic.

“It's in nobody's interest that litigation should cost a disproportionate amount. Somebody pays for it all in the end.”

Later, Lord Woolf agreed to be quizzed by The Lawyer, when he had a chance to defend other aspects of his proposals, such as his failure to recommend any extra judges.

“Judges won't have a higher workload, they will have a different workload,” he said.

“We do not want to keep on appointing more judges. We must ensure they are of the right quality.”

He wanted more law clerks to qualify as legal executives – “they are cheaper than judges” – and he wanted litigation lawyers who had retired relatively young to be employed part-time to assist judges.

What of his refusal to recommend full piloting of his fast-track procedure? “We are bringing it in by stages, but you cannot allow one form of judgment on fixed costs in one part of the country and allow costs to let rip in other parts of the country.”

Lord Woolf said judges could initially “pilot” the procedures themselves by being flexible about which track they put cases into. “As you see how the system is working and which cases are capable of being disposed of on the fast-track you can be more strict about keeping cases there.”

It was a robust defence but it may not silence the critics. Over the past week another flurry of public criticism from lawyers and law firms has been issued. Not just Apil, claiming to represent personal injury claimants, but insurance law firm Kennedys which attacked Lord Woolf for “curtailing the rights” of defendants.

So now he is being attacked from both sides. But he can take heart from this. It may be a sign that he's not only getting the balance right, but also moving towards obtaining cheaper access to justice for clients.