The Impact of Wolf Reforms

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  • Topic: Civil procedure, Law, Common law
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Woolf Reforms
“The Woolf reforms may have reduced cost and delay but they have had a detrimental impact on civil justice overall.” Discuss


In 1995 there was a survey carried out by National Consumer Council[1] which found that 3 out of 4 people who are involved in serious legal disputes were dissatisfied with the civil justice system. It was found that of the 1,019 respondents, 77 percent believed that the system was too slow, 74 per cent stated that the system was too complicated and 73 per cent said that it was unwelcoming and outdated.[2]

A cursory look at history reveals that Pre-Trial process has been the subject matter of reports and inquiries- more than sixty over the past hundred years. Since 1968 there has been the Winn Committee[3], the report of the Cantley Committee[4], the massive Civil Justice review 1985-1988[5] and the Heilbron-Hodge Working party jointly set up by the Bar and the Law Society[6]. These have not been discussed in this Essay as , new system of Civil procedure took effect on the basis of the recommendations made by Lord Woolf in his June 1995 Interim Report[7] and his July Final report both of which are entitled ‘Access to Justice'[8].

For long senior members of judiciary boldly defended the significance of civil justice and were concerned about the degradation and the problems inflicting the civil justice system[9]. Genn further stated that he was aware of the sorry state of the civil courts[10].

It was in this background of the continued criticism of civil justice system that the previous Conservative Government appointed Lord Woolf to carry out a far reaching review and overhaul the civil justice system. His inquiry is the 63rd such review in 100 years[11]. The 3 perennial problems of cost ,delay and complexity have been inflicting the civil justice system for ages and it was these ills that Woolf reforms along with the previous attempts at reform of civil justice wanted to redress[12]. The whole ethos of civil justice is bound to fail if litigation which in itself is a costly affair cannot provide timely, less expensive and simple justice.

Lord Woolf wanted to eliminate the defects in the civil justice system which were identified as being: too expensive, too slow, lacking equality between powerful and wealthy litigants and under-resourced litigants, too uncertain in terms of the length and cost of litigation, too fragmented and too adversarial[13].

Therefore in this light it should be stated over here that in March 1994, the Lord Chancellor set up the Woolf enquiry whereby ways of reducing delay and accessibility of civil proceedings, and of reducing their cost were to be looked[14]. On 26th April 1999 New Civil Procedure Rules and the accompanying Practice Directions came into force. These rules constitute the most fundamental reform of the civil justice system of the 20th century, introducing the main recommendations of Lord Woolf in his final report, Access to Justice. He described his proposals as providing ‘A new landscape for civil justice for the 21st century'[15].

Woolf Reforms- The need for reform

The whole ethos of Woolf reforms was centred around avoiding litigation and promoting settlement between parties at dispute[16]. While it will be analysed in detail whether the much needed reforms fulfilled their purpose or not, it can be stated in the affirmative that the Reforms were very well received by various quarters of the legal profession[17]. However, the reforms have not escaped criticism and one of the major critic is Michael Zander.

The inquiry by Woolf published its final report in 1996 and thereafter the proposals resulted in the Civil Procedure Act 1997 and the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 which are the same[18] for the County court and High Court. It needs to commented over here that the changes sought by Woolf Reforms bear effect through the Civil Procedure Act 1997 and the CPR 1998, although these have been supplemented by...
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