Woolf starts to bite

The High Court trial date for the £600m Maxwell creditor’s case brought against auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers has been put on a legal fast track as the Woolf reforms start to bite on the accountancy profession.

High Court judge Justice Rattee last week ruled that the case, which was not expected to be heard until 2002, will now take place on the first available date after 2 October next year.

Insolvency experts warned accountants that, like PwC, they could now have substantially less time to prepare legal defences to litigation.

Scott Barnes of Grant Thornton, administrator of the Maxwell Communication Corporation, welcomed the new trial date. ‘This is a welcome example of the Woolf reforms under which judges are encouraged to set tight deadlines and take greater control over litigation,’ he said.

Nigel Barnett, head of insolvency litigation at Wilde Sapte, said firms involved in lawsuits would find themselves under increased pressure to produce their strongest evidence ahead of concrete trial dates. ‘It sorts out the wheat from the chaff,’ he said.

But he added: ‘There’s a nervousness in the profession about the severity and nature of the change. We’re grappling to understand it.’

The new civil procedures drawn up by Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls, came into force last month.

As well as bringing forward court cases, they look set to cut into the profession’s revenues by reducing the number of experts, often accountants, who can appear in court cases. Courts will also be able to limit fees paid to expert witnesses.

The ghost of Robert Maxwell has haunted Coopers & Lybrand, which merged with Price Waterhouse to form PwC last year, since his corrupt empire collapsed in 1991. In February the Joint Disciplinary Scheme imposed a £3.5m fine, its heaviest ever, on PwC for Coopers’ audit of the corrupt Maxwell business empire.

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