The pre-action protocol aims to make litigation less nasty by giving litigants the chance to be civil to one another. To the surprise of its opponents, it does so
"It almost used to be part of a solicitor's job to be as rude as possible." These are not my words. They came from a much better source: Lord Phillips, the chief judge and head of civil justice. He was commenting on three years' experience of what is known as the Woolf reforms. They apply to litigation in places like the Technology and Construction Court when builders and architects and customers fall out. Apparently, it is becoming more and more difficult to find an awfully rude solicitor. That's because these Woolf rules require those involved in a dispute to come to a sort of party before they start hurling High Court actions at each other. And their lawyers come too. It is called a pre-action protocol, whereby both sides explain their gripe to the other, give supporting evidence and allow each other time to form a realistic appraisal of the case before it begins in court. The idea is to negotiate a settlement. These Woolf rules swept into force in April 1999. The rule about being nice to each other in building disputes came into effect on 2 October 2000 – and I was one of the awkward squad who didn't like the idea one bit.

But I have changed my mind. I am a nice person, deep down, and it only took these litigation reforms of Lord Woolf to bring out my niceness. This pre-action protocol really does work. True, it is not all that cheap to carry through but it does cause potential litigants to get together and once you do that, there is a real chance that you will understand what the other bloke is fed up about.

The idea is to unravel the dispute without a third party. And according to a new report, Civil Justice Reform Evaluation, there is much to crow about. Overall, there is a significant drop in the number of court actions begun, the pre-action get-togethers are promoting settlements, the use of single-joint experts in those disputes that do fight is said to be working well and the use of mediation is a well-settled alternative practice. There is not so much joy in the actual cost of litigating. The report sidesteps the issue by saying: "It is too early to provide a definite view on costs." Seemingly there is conflicting anecdotal evidence on costs. Where there is evidence of an increase, the causes are difficult to isolate.

Let me make a confession: I am a convert to this mediation malarkey. I thought it was all tosh, a sham – but silly me, it really does work

The whole idea of the Woolf reforms was to avoid litigation altogether. Truthfully, nobody in building went as far as saying we could avoid disputes – too ambitious. But the idea was to put a stop to being adversarial and make a start in being more co-operative. In other words, manage the dispute between parties. That bit of the reforms has surely worked. Don't dig in. When in a hole, the idea is to stop digging. And if some people insist on having a piece of litigation, the Woolf reforms do present a real chance, once the "writs fly", for the parties to still reach their own solution. The report tells us that settlements at the door of the court are now fewer and fewer. The reason is that the management role of the judges includes focusing the minds of litigants on the wisdom of continuing to seek a solution of their own. About 30% of mediator appointments via The Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution are disputes referred by the courts. And let me make another confession. I am a convert to this mediation malarkey. I thought it was all tosh, a sham – but silly me, it really does work. Although I haven't changed my mind about carrying through a piece of litigation all the way to court using a single-joint expert.