Woolf heralds new legal landscape

The access to justice reforms will transform the landscape of civil justice, Lord Woolf has claimed, but he has ruled out extra funding, pilot schemes and the appointment of more judges to help implement the changes.

The judge's ambitious reforms to cut the cost of litigation and speed up justice, unveiled on Friday, have been broadly welcomed by the City, professional litigants and the Law Society.

But there was widespread concern from within the legal profession that his plans to fast-track litigation, control costs and give judges a key role in managing cases may fail without extra resources.

And the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (Apil) went further, branding the reforms “a recipe for further chaos and uncertainty” for injured people. They said proposals for fixed costs would hamper claimants in proving complex cases.

In other controversial passages of his final report, Woolf:

Ruled out a pilot study and recommended “theoretical case studies” to determine the range of costs to be fixed.

Ruled out appointing more judges, telling The Lawyer: “There is a danger if you keep on employing more judges that you dilute the quality.”

Said that the bulk of funding for his reforms would come from a “redeployment of existing resources”, but recommended some extra resources to computerise the court system and train judges. “It shouldn't cost much,” he said.

Warned that the proposed legal aid reforms should “recognise the importance of ensuring the survival of efficient small firms of solicitors”, particularly in remote areas.

Also, in a move welcomed with delight by personal injury lawyers, Woolf proposed heavy sanctions for defendants who refused to settle early. They would have to pay up to 25 per cent extra damages if they lost.

Apil insisted the reforms would not work for injured people. “They're fine for all other kinds of cases,” said Apil treasurer Frances McCarthy.

With fixed costs, injured people would not be able to fund a proper defence, she said. Insurance companies would be able to put more money into proving their case.

Woolf hit back, saying clients lost out under the old system. “The way these procedures are being handled, it's taking too long, it's too uncertain – clients don't know where they are,” he said.

The Law Society gave a cautious thumbs-up to the proposals. Suzanne Burn, secretary to the civil litigation committee, said: “We accept the need for fixed costs, but we would have liked to see proper piloting.”

City firms welcomed the proposals. “It is good to see an attempt to cap excesses in litigation,” said Denton Hall's Elizabeth Tout, of its international trade and energy disputes group.

Lord Mackay said he would publish a strategy on the implementation of Woolf's proposals in October.

See page 32 for more details.