Woolf rules make their mark as courts usher in civil reforms

Landmark rulings in London and Bristol courts have marked the introduction of Lord Woolf's civil justice reforms.

In the Chancery Division of the High Court Mr Justice Neuberger refused, under the new equal footing rules, an application which would have stopped one side instructing a QC, while in Bristol County Court a judge declared a case “disproportionate” and ordered it to go through mediation.

Both rulings were made on Tuesday and are thought to be the first of their kind as the Woolf reforms take effect.

In an action over unauthorised use of film footage, Mr Justice Neuberger rejected an application by a legally aided claimant, who argued his opponents should be banned from instructing a QC.

Mr Justice Neuberger said he did not think the new equal footing rules overrode the fundamental right of every citizen to be represented by the counsel of his or her choice.

He added that if he allowed the request, courts might be bombarded by applicants seeking to remove their opponent's legal advisers. “This would lead to uncertainty, inappropriate costs and a waste of court time,” he said.

Using the new Woolf vocabulary, a judge in Bristol County Court ordered a stay on a case, saying the small amount of money involved was not proportionate to the length of time it would take to proceed through the court.

He ruled the case “disproportionate” and ordered the parties to try to find a settlement through mediation.

At the Royal Courts of Justice, Woolf's reforms were quietly ushered in last Monday. Most cases were mid-trial and still operating under the old rules. One case management conference took place, but the judge chose not to use his new powers, referring the matter to another court instead.

The most significant change noted was the new language, as plaintiffs became claimants and writs became claims.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's department says court service monitoring meetings around the country suggest a smooth transition to the new rules.

She says: “There hasn't been meltdown as some people predicted.”