Ten Years of Civil Justice

Civil JusticeA review of the success and failings of Lord Woolf’s reforms

This year we mark the tenth anniversary of the Civil Procedural Rules (CPR). Before the new rules were introduced, civil litigation was seen as too slow, expensive, uncertain and adversarial. The implementation of the CPR was the result of Woolf’s famous “Access to Justice” report, commissioned in 1994. The name of the report speaks volumes and supports the view that the old rules of civil litigation were not delivering justice. So ten years on, have things changed for the better?

The rise and rise of litigation?

You will probably be familiar with the accusation that Britain has developed a compensation culture. This is the opposite of what Lord Woolf hoped for. Litigation was supposed to be a last resort. So what has actually happened?

Between 1998 and 2005, the number of claims issued in the County Court fell from 2,245,324 to 1,870,374. Over a similar period of time High Court (Queen’s Bench Division) claims fell a staggering amount, just short of 900%. So where have these claims gone? It is not that we have become a more forgiving society, because there is some truth to the accusation that we are more willing to seek compensation. What seems to have happened is that many more claims are settled before getting anywhere near a trial. The CPR provides a range of pre-action protocols which have proved very successful in encouraging parties to settle claims rather than resort to legal proceedings. So on this point you could regard the CPR as being effective.

Still a slow and costly exercise?

By pushing parties to reach settlements without resorting to the courts, another of Woolf’s aims was achieved, namely reducing the time proceedings took. In 1998 it took, on average, 79 weeks to reach trial from the date of issue. In 2005 this fell to 58 weeks. By “front-loading” litigation, settlements are being reached faster and without resorting to full-blown litigation: another success.

Unfortunately there has been a trade-off for these successes. It is widely accepted that the CPR has not made legal costs more affordable or predictable. In relation to personal injury claims paid out by the UK motor insurers, legal costs have risen by 840% over a 20-year period. It would be unfair to blame this rise entirely on the CPR, but the rules have had an effect. The problem of excessive costs in litigation is so serious that Lord Justice Rupert Jackson has been conducting a year-long review into legal costs. His preliminary report runs to 663 pages, so no one will be able to accuse him of not being thorough!

The Civil Justice Council has also started a three-year programme entitled “A Vision for Civil Justice” which will try to continue the work that Lord Woolf began. The conclusion of all this study of and research into the CPR will hopefully be a fairer system of justice that allows both the rich and poor to enforce their rights.