Solicitors are trying to ratchet up the pressure on the government over the timetable for implementing the civil justice reforms, with the Law Society calling for a delay, and nearly 4,000 signing an e-petition.
Further, the Motor Accident Solicitors Society (MASS) has called on the government to formally review the cumulative impact of all the changes coming in next April.
The Law Society also revealed there are strong signs that the new regulations governing conditional fee agreements and damages-based agreements will not be published until the new year.
In a letter to Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling, Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said more time must be given for the civil justice system to adjust, especially as the necessary regulations and changes to the Civil Procedure Rules have yet to be published.
Ms Scott-Moncrieff said: “There is no fiscal urgency to make the reforms quickly and every reason for them to be implemented to a timescale that can be managed by all…
“We are particularly concerned about the timing. The RTA Portal Company has expressed doubts about its ability to meet the deadline of 1 April 2013 to bring in the changes needed to encompass employers’ liability and public liability claims. The protocols for the process are not yet complete. Both must be implemented together and in sufficient time for the profession to adjust and prepare, which seems unlikely by 1 April.
“Furthermore, the rules governing qualified one-way cost shifting have yet to be approved. Understanding these rules will be crucial to the advice that solicitors will give to claimants and defendants on their actions in these claims. It is far from clear that the profession will receive the necessary advice and guidance on the implications of the rules in time.”
Ms Scott-Moncrieff said implementation will require considerable changes to case management systems, work processes and business planning by law firms. “Rushed implementation is likely to lead to regulations that are ambiguous and poorly considered – possibly resulting in significant satellite litigation which will simply add to costs, create further uncertainty and increase the work of an already overburdened civil courts system.”
The Law Society said it has been invited by the Ministry of Justice to engage in further discussions about the rules governing CFAs and DBAs, “which suggests that the regulations will not be available until early in the new year”.
Meanwhile, Rauf Khalilov – a solicitor at north London firm Arlington Crown – has so far attracted more than 3,700 signatories to his e-petition calling on the government to abandon the planned fixed-costs regime for fast-track personal injury cases outside the portal.
“According to this proposal, many solicitors will lose up to 70% of their costs,” he wrote, adding that it will adversely affect the legal profession – which will suffer job losses – the justice system because accident victims “will lose their right of access to justice”, and the economy because lawyers will no longer recover £140 million in Compensation Recovery Unit payments, and small law firms will be badly hit.
Speaking to Litigation Futures, Mr Khalilov used his own situation as an example of the latter, as he is leaving his current firm to set up a new practice, but is having to scale back his plans substantially because of the proposed fees. He said that none of the 100 or so MPs he had contacted to sign the petition, nor justice minister Helen Grant, had responded. “It’s us and nobody else,” he said.
Government e-petitions require 100,000 signatures to be eligible for debate in Parliament. Mr Khalilov’s petition can be found here.
MASS chairman Craig Budsworth said individually each of the changes next April – the extended portal and the proposed fees, and the fees for non-portal fast-track work, and the Jackson reforms – would be a significant challenge to the entire legal sector. “Together they will fundamentally alter civil litigation in the UK and the careful balance between the rights of claimants and defendants. They will shift the likelihood of success firmly in favour of defendants.
“Before the proposals are implemented, we call on the government to conduct an impact assessment on the raft of changes as a single package, and review their impact on the accident victim and the balance in the system. As an industry, we must know the evidence base used to justify these proposals before the close of the consultation [on the new fixed fees].
“It is vital that we enter into a constructive process of discussion and negotiation between the concerned parties to determine the appropriate levels of fees going forward.”