Civil court claims tumble amid Woolf reforms chaos

The number of claims filed in civil courts around the country has fallen dramatically since the Woolf reforms, amid accusations that the courts are a mess.

While there are no figures being collated, the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) has confirmed anecdotal reports of the drop since the 26 April reforms.

A spokesman says: “The indications are that there's been a significant falling off. It's largely felt to be down to this period of transition.”

While the trend to fewer claims is not disputed, its implications are. The Government maintains the reforms are having the desired effect of forcing lawyers to resolve claims without clogging up the courts, while critics say lawyers are simply avoiding a court system that is “a mess”.

“The relatively low number probably reflects the fact that people are still adjusting to the new system and the impact of the protocols that steer people towards alternative methods of dispute resolution,” the LCD spokesman says.

Leading mediator David Shapiro confirms mediators are busier than ever, but adds “it's not a flood”.

One prominent clinical negligence lawyer, who does not want to be named, says there is widespread concern among regular court users that the Woolf reforms are “a complete disaster”.

“It's making things worse and more expensive. With every rule, we only find out what it means when it gets before the judge,” he says.

Ian Walker, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, says there is a “fear factor” among some lawyers who are avoiding the reformed courts. But he believes the drop is largely due to lawyers taking longer to issue proceedings, making absolutely certain they have complied with the pre-action protocols.

Numbers will be back up within four or five months and it will be next year before anyone can really say whether the reforms have meant fewer cases are going to court, he says.