Reforms 'need early judge input'

THE LORD Chief Justice's plans to cut time and costs in civil trials are good in principle but will fail if they cannot ensure that busy judges are involved earlier in cases, say London litigators.

Lord Taylor's practice direction includes greater judicial control of cases. But for this to work, the trial judges must be available earlier in order to get to know the case, particularly when the trials involve complex City matters, they say.

This can be achieved only by ensuring that trial judges, rather than Masters, handle the increased use of pre-trial reviews advocated by Lord Taylor.

Michael Seymour, president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association, says this also presents a new area of work for judges. He says: “Currently with almost all cases it's impossible to get the trial judge to do the pre-trial review, so the value of the pre-trial review proposal is lessened.

“The LSLA is generally in favour, but we are looking for detailed consideration of a procedural mechanism to get the judges involved earlier.”

He says this applies equally to the intention for limiting discovery.

The practice direction, which is supported by the Lord Chancellor and anticipates more structured and statutory changes likely from Lord Woolf's review, is broadly welcomed by the Law Society and Bar Council.

Greater judicial power over preparation and conduct of trials is a key element, as is the power to charge costs against lawyers for poor performance.

Other main features are time-limiting barristers' speeches, streamlining evidence by replacing oral examination in court with written witness statements, pre-trial reviews in bigger cases, and timely production of papers.

The court will exercise discretion to limit discovery, the length of oral submissions, the time allowed for examination and cross-examination of witnesses, the issues addressed, and reading aloud from documents.

The practice direction applies in High Court, civil Court of Appeal, county court, and shortly in the Family Division.