Lord Justice Jackson’s report on legal costs today is a remarkable piece of work and his presentation at a press briefing – delivered without notes – left the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls open-mouthed with admiration. Anyone looking for a judge to succeed Lord Neuberger as head of the civil courts around 2014 need look no further.
His task was to recommend ways of reducing the cost of going to court. Jackson correctly identifies the villain of the piece as the Labour government’s Access to Justice Act 1999, an ironically named piece of legislation if ever there was one. It attempted to save taxpayers’ money by abolishing legal aid for personal injury cases. But, as Jackson points out (on page 108) those same taxpayers ended up paying much more in the end.
That’s because they have to support defendants such as the NHS, local authorities, the police and other public bodies that end up paying damages and costs to accident victims.
Legal aid used to be confined to claimants who satisfied both a means test and a merits test. Successful claimants were generally required to make a contribution towards their costs. Those safeguards helped keep costs down.
But they were abolished when legal aid was replaced with “no win, no fee”arrangements. A successful claimant’s lawyer could recover not only his costs but an “uplift” of up to 100% as well as the (sometimes equally huge) cost of insuring against the risk pay the defendant’s fees if the claim failed. Little wonder that Jackson wants to abolish a system that gives claimants’ lawyers every incentive to pile on the costs.
But will this government do anything to put right its own wrongs? There was a courteous and immediate response from Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary:
I would like to thank Sir Rupert for undertaking this review of costs in the civil courts and for producing such a substantial, comprehensive and detailed report. It is a remarkable piece of work which is based on extensive consultation and puts forward a broad range of significant recommendations for reform. I look forward to considering these proposals in detail.
But it is hardly realistic to expect the necessary legislation before the General Election. Instead, we need manifesto commitments from the political parties that they will implement Jackson’s recommendations in the first session of the new Parliament. After all, why would any government want to pay too much public money to the lawyers.