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The Woolf reforms to civil justice Malleson and Moules: The Legal System
Introduction In 1994, Lord Woolf was asked to conduct an inquiry into the civil justice system and make proposals for its modernisation. The request was promoted by growing criticism from lawyers, the judiciary and litigants that the system had become unacceptably inefficient and ineffective, to the point where it was in a state of crisis. Lord Woolf undertook consultations with those who worked in the civil justice system as well as reviewing the systems in other countries. Access to Justice - 1996 (with interim report in 1995). The main problems with the civil justice system which he identified were: cost, delay, complexity and uncertainty of outcome. He argued that these were interrelated and stemmed from the fact that the litigation process was controlled by lawyers. Since they set the pace, it was in their interests to draw out the process and so increase costs. Because there was very little judicial management the process often degenerated into an excessively adversarial contest. Access to Justice stated that the overriding objective of the civil justice system was to deal with cases fairly. To achieve this, the report determined that it was necessary to ensure that, as far as possible, the parties to the litigation are on an equal footing and that the amount of time and money spent on each case was proportionate to the amount of the claim and the complexity of the issues. Lord Woolf's proposals Recommended that the following key changes should be made:Cases should be dealt with through different procedures according to the amount of money involved and their complexity Stricter timetables by which different stages of the litigation should e completed should be imposed by the court The judge should actively manage cases from the point at which a claim is made Unified and simpler procedural rules should be drawn up for the county court and the High Court There should be a reduction in adversarial techniques e.g. there should be full disclosure of evidence by both sides and use of agreed expert witnesses where possible Information technology should be developed to manage and track cases One senior judge should be appointed to head the civil justice system.
Not all these changes were completely new to the civil justice system e.g. rules to encourage a more co-operative approach between the parties and the more active involvement of judges in managing cases had been used in the family courts for some years. In relation to the
problem of increasing delays and growing costs, a number of earlier reforms had paved the way for more active judicial intervention in the court process. In 1995 a practice direction to judges issued by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor and the Vice Chancellor, Sir Richard Scott, encouraged judges to limit the time taken by lawyers in court when presenting their case or cross-examining witnesses. To some extent, therefore, the Woolf reforms built on existing reforms. Nevertheless, the range and ambition of the changes went far further than any previous developments. They were intended to represent a complete change of litigation culture which would operate throughout the system. Almost all Lord Woolf's recommendations were accepted by the Government and implemented. Because the changes amounted to such a root and branch reform of the system, it was recognised that their success was largely dependent on comprehensive training for judges and lawyers to prepare them for the new system. The Judicial Studies Board was therefore provided with an extra budget so as to ensure that all judges would be trained, while the Law Society and the Bar Council offered equivalent training sessions for solicitors and barristers. The civil procedure rules The key to the changes was the creation of a new set of written rules governing the civil justice process. These were implemented through the Civil Procedure Act 1999 which gave authority for the creation of the CPR drawn up by the Civil Procedure Rules Committee, which is headed by the Master of the Rolls as head of civil justice. The rules are supplemented by detailed practice directions which are guidance notes drawn up by senior judges to help lawyers and judges interpret and apply the rules. In addition, pre-action protocols have been drawn up for different areas of civil justice which guide practioners on how they should be conducting litigation in a particular field. These have been created by specialist practioner groups. The rules explicitly confirm Lord Woolf's view that the overriding objective of the system is to enable the court to deal with cases justly e.g. by ensuring that the parties are on an equal footing and that costs are kept down. The purpose of the overriding objective is to ensure that all discussion and disagreement about the interpretation and application of the rules are informed by this principle so that the ultimate goal of the civil justice system is not lost sight of in the detail of the litigation process. An important feature of the rules is that they apply equally to both the county court and High court. By creating a set of unified rules, Lord Woolf intended that the question of whether a case began in the county court or High Court would matter less than it had in the past. Costs Lord Woolf identified high costs as the most serious problem besetting the litigation system. He argued that it deterred litigants and led to unacceptably low levels of settlement even when a party had a sound case to pursue. In this way richer litigants could take unfair advantage of poorer opponents. He emphasised that costs were often out of all proportion to the amount in dispute. Quite apart from the unfair distribution of costs, he stressed that the economy suffered from excessive costs. The uncertainty of costs also prevented litigants from
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