Justice reforms fail to live up to expectations

More than three quarters of in-house and public sector legal departments believe there have been no improvements in the civil justice system in the past 12 months despite all the efforts of judges and litigators following Lord Woolf's report.

Antony Gold, head of litigation at Eversheds, which commissioned the survey of 100 legal departments, said: “We were very surprised by these results. Most commercial law firms have made strident efforts in advance of the introduction of Lord Woolf's reforms both to give clients more certainty on costs and to offer alternative means of dispute resolution.”

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, will this week announce how much of Lord Woolf's recommended reforms will be adopted, after receiving a report into the civil justice system by BZW chairman Sir Peter Middleton.

The Eversheds survey reveals how much still has to be done to increase access to justice.

Gold stressed: “This was a survey of perceptions rather than reality. It always takes time for real changes to filter through into perceptions. But these are purchasers of legal services – you would expect them to have a fairly realistic view.”

Some support for his conclusion comes from the detailed survey results. Although 76 per cent of respondents said they had seen no improvements in litigation overall in the past 12 months, when asked specifically about the speed of litigation, 73 per cent said they thought the process had speeded up.

But only 5 per cent detected any improvements in the cost of litigating and just 14 per cent thought that their lawyers were handling disputes differently, dropping still further to 7 per cent for London-based legal departments.

Judges were seen as having changed even less. Only 7 per cent of respondents thought that the quality of judges had improved over the past year.

The government can take some heart from businesses' attitudes to the substantial increases in court fees, introduced under the previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay. Only 2 per cent of respondents said the increased costs would deter them from issuing proceedings.

Gold said that since the Woolf report Eversheds had deliberately started giving clients a much greater degree of cost certainty, either by offering estimates or by quoting fixed prices for particular stages in litigation.

All the firm's lawyers had also been trained in mediation and clients were offered alternative dispute resolution mechanisms much more frequently.

However, Gold added that many clients remained reluctant to take up mediation. “They see it as being too conciliatory,” he said.

Gold concluded: “I think the figures show that perceptions can be more jaundiced than litigators would have bargained for.”