Lord Mackay makes it clear in his strategy document, "The Way Forward", that he intends Lord Woolf's main proposals to reform civil justice to be in place by autumn 1998. But battle rages over the more innovative Civil Procedure Rules ("The devil is in the detail," say the mandarins), neatly diverting attention from a more important question: who will co-ordinate the task of getting the show on the road? How, if at all, will the experience of the judiciary, the consumer and the practitioner be harnessed to ensure that Lord Woolf's great vision is effectively realised?
Lord Woolf's recommendation is a Civil Justice Council. This should comprise representatives of all four interest groups: judges, civil servants (ie, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Court Service), practitioners (barristers and solicitors) and consumers. Sadly, while the need for such a partnership is acknowledged, the Lord Chancellor is "not yet satisfied" that such a body is appropriate. Yet no alternative is proposed. That this creates a worrying vacuum, and one that may yet prove fatal, is apparent from a brief consideration of what is involved in implementing Woolf.
Take the Civil Procedure Rules. They first appeared on 26 July. Drafted by a non-practitioner, they are intended, in perhaps 260 pages, to replace 6,329 pages of the two current Rule Books - one for the High Court, the other for the County Court. "Beautifully written and very clear," a High Court Master recently remarked, adding, with a sigh, "but in many respects wholly impracticable." The rules are of course only for consultation at this stage. Common sense demands that the draftsman take advantage of the judges' and practitioners' experience. But at the moment there is no mechanism to articulate those voices - and the consultation period expired on 29 November. Such a vacuum does not remain unfilled for long. For those in a position to seize the initiative, the absence of any co-ordinating authority is a golden opportunity. "Woolfish" Practice Directions, pilot schemes and even Court of Appeal decisions are appearing. Such enthusiasm for procedural change would gratify any reformer. More's the pity, then, that these sallies do not follow a recognisable plan. Instead, with the R&D stage still incomplete, the product is out in the marketplace. The Lord Chancellor has stopped short of what might have been a terrific "first". Historically, barristers and solicitors have been trained by separate bodies, the Bar Council and the Law Society. For judges, there is the Judicial Studies Board. …