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Friday, April 23, 1999 Published at 06:23 GMT 07:23 UK


Civil courts to modernise

By Legal Affairs Correspondent Joshua Rozenberg

New rules aimed at making the civil courts of England and Wales fairer, cheaper and quicker will be put into action on 26 April in the biggest change in court procedures this century.

Joshua Rozenberg: There will be a fast track for straightforward cases
The changes were initiated by leading judge Lord Woolf. He said in 1993 that reforms were needed to make justice more widely available in civil courts.

The Conservative government took up his suggestion, and asked him to come with a set of improvements. These recommendations are now being put into effect by the current government.

Lord Woolf said a more mundane system of justice was needed for straightforward cases, and that judges had to take a more active role in the proceedings. This would save time and money, and make the system more accessible for everyone.

Historical call for change

Suggestions for changes to the civil court system are not new; during the 19th century the government's Judicature Commission said the High Court and the county courts could be more efficient if they were combined into a single system. Both deal with non-criminal cases.

Although the two courts are still separate, they have been take a step closer to combining by now sharing the same Civil Procedure Rules. But plain English, rather than the old-fashioned legal expressions, will be used:

  • "Plaintiff" changes to "claimant"
  • "Writ" changes to "claim form"
  • "Summons" or "motion" changes to "application"
  • "Minor" or "infant" changes to "child"
  • "Subpoena" changes to "witness summons"
  • "Inter partes" changes to "with notice"
  • "Ex parte" changes to "without notice"
  • "Taxing master" changes to "costs judge"

Cases will be divided into three main areas: small claims worth less than £5,000; straightforward cases worth between £5,000 and £15,000 and big commercial cases.

The small claims will involve arbitration before a district judge, without the possibility of recovering lawyers' costs.

The second area will be dealt with under a fast-track procedure, covering consumer and personal injuries. The amount of costs recoverable will be strictly limited, as will the length of the trial.

The amount of time devoted to the commercial cases, under the multi-track system, will be decided by judges, rather than the lawyers.

Fresh approach

The main objective of these new procedures is to deal with cases more justly. The changes should be seen in the following ways:

  • Ensuring the parties are on an equal footing (for example preventing rich litigants from overwhelming poorer litigants because they have greater resources)

  • Saving expense by making litigation cheaper

  • Dealing with cases in a way which is proportionate to the amount involved, the importance of the case and the complexity of the issues

  • Allocating an appropriate share of the court's resources to each case

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