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Published in 1996, Lord Woolf's report Access to Justice set out a number of problems with the existing civil justice system, and made several hundred recommendations for its improvement. The report was adopted by the Government and implemented in a number of measures, notably the Civil procedure act (1997). This Act established the Civil Procedure Rules Committee with authority to define rules for all civil litigation (except family proceedings). The first official Civil procedure rules were published in January 1999, and substantially modify the way that civil actions are processed.
Among the various problems identified by the report were the following.
- Civil litigation is too slow and too expensive
- Wealthy litigants enjoy a disproportionate advantage over those of more modest means
- It is difficult to predict in advance how long litigation will take and, therefore, what it will cost
- The language used in the description of the litigation procedure is difficult to understant, especially for non-lawyers
- No single body has overall responsibility for the whole system, so different procedures apply to different courts
- The process of litigation is run by the litigants, not by the courts. Rules of Court are often flouted without penalty.
The most important significant reforms include the following.
- The division of claims into three 'tracks': a 'Small claims track' for claims of up to 3000, a 'Fast-track' for claims of 5000 to 15000, and a 'Multi-track' for more expensive or complex claims (small claims are limited to 1000 in personal injury cases)
- Unification of claims procedures in the High Court and the county courts (the Civil procedure rules)
- Encouragement of Alternative dispute resolution
- Strict timetabling of litigation
- Cases to be managed by judges rather than litigants; the use of 'case management conference' to decide preliminary issues
- Increased use of information technology
- Claimants to be allowed to offer to settle cases, as well as defendants