A review of the growing importance of pre-issue steps in litigation and how the trained Legal Secretary can assist.
The famous line ‘No man is an island’ by the English poet John Donne is never more true than when working in a busy Solicitor’s office. Even the most skillful of Solicitors will rely on their support staff to ensure that they are working at the top of their game. As a trained Legal Secretary you will be in a position to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the fee earners you work for. This article is one in a series focusing on key areas of practice and the specialist skills and knowledge that will help make you indispensible.
In a previous journal article (February 2009), we considered the skills needed to prepare a Court Bundle. This is an important skill, but it applies only to the relatively small number of cases that approach a final hearing. The vast majority of cases either settle before this, or legal proceedings are never actually issued. It could be argued that developing a sound knowledge and key skills that relate to the first steps in any potential claim is more useful in day-to-day practice. This view can be backed up by the way that litigation practice changed when the Civil Procedural Rules (CPR) were first introduced more than 10 years ago. There are a number of aspects to the CPR and the regular updates to the rules (52 and counting) that emphasise the importance of getting litigation right at the beginning. This ‘front-loading’ of cases, as it is sometimes called, rewards the person who can act with speed and efficiency. In my experience, it is the rare Solicitor who is described as quick and efficient, but many Secretaries’ abilities excel in these areas. We will now consider one of the most important changes that have promoted the front-loading of litigation and highlight how you can use this to your advantage.
These are a series of procedural requirements that a party must carry out before proceedings are issued. The idea is to encourage disputes to be resolved without litigation, thereby saving legal costs. If a settlement cannot be reached, then any proceedings that are issued can be dealt with more quickly. To date there are 10 pre-action protocols,1 with the most important being the one that deals with personal injury claims. Even if there is a case that is not covered by a protocol, the 49th CPR update introduced a practice direction dealing with general pre-action behaviour. All these measures either encourage or obligate parties to exchange information early, consider alternative ways to resolve a dispute and set out penalties (usually loss of legal costs) for failure to comply.
Any case rests on the evidence. If you are forced to exchange evidence at the earliest opportunity, then the importance of gathering detailed and accurate information quickly is obvious, but it can be easier said than done. Take your normal personal injury case, for example. Evidence might include police accident reports, witness interviews, accident scene investigations, collection of Health & Safety documentation, instruction from any array of potential experts, to name but a few sources. The Solicitor might be very relieved to have a Legal Secretary who appreciates the speed at which some of this evidence must be gathered. That relief might turn to outright joy if you are able to organise that evidence in an orderly manner so that your Solicitor can always be on top of the facts.
By understanding the rules, you will have a better understanding of the pressures the fee earners you are working with will be experiencing. With that kind of empathy you may find yourself in very high demand. The next article in this series will consider the area of legal cost, which is currently one of the most hotly debated subjects in litigation practice.
If you are interested in advancing your knowledge of Civil Litigation, we provide Single Subject Legal courses at Foundation and Advanced levels. Please contact us for information.