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Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report


Lord Justice Briggs has published the long-awaited 299 page final report on the Civil Courts Structure Review.

View a copy here http://bit.ly/2ayk0qL.

The final report follows an extensive series of meetings with judges, practitioners, stakeholders and users of the civil courts, and a series of detailed written and oral submissions after the publication of the review’s interim report in January 2016. The review makes a series of recommendations intended to inform the current programme of wider court modernisation being undertaken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

It also makes a number of recommendations on different aspects of the civil justice system, such as enforcement of court rulings, the structure of the courts and deployment of judges. A summary of the main point follows.

Briggs LJ identified five main weaknesses of the civil courts structure:

Weaknesses

a. Lack of adequate access to justice due to excessive costs expenditure / risk and the "lawyerish culture and procedure of the civil courts"

b. Inefficiencies from the "continuing tyranny of paper" and inadequate IT facilities

c. Court of Appeal delays

d. Under investment in civil justice in the regions

e. Weaknesses in the processes of enforcement

Final Recommendations

1. The “Online Solutions Court”

To resolve a perceived access to justice defecit, Briggs LJ recommends introducing an Online Court and the extension of fixed costs. The new court is to have its own set of “user-friendly rules” created by a new cross-jurisdictional rules committee in place of the current Civil Procedure Rules, which will still apply to other cases.

Briggs LJ also sets out the appropriate appeals procedure, where permission would apply. Stage 3, the final adjudication, will be made by judges on paper, via a video/telephone hearing or by way of a traditional trial.

When implemented it should be dealing with “straightforward” money claims valued at up to £25,000. Despite this initial ceiling of £25,000, he suggests it may "pave the way" for change over "much wider ground" and will eventually become compulsory. It is not envisaged that the Online Court will apply to fast and multi-track personal injury cases, but, as Briggs LJ has previously indicated, it may apply to small claims track cases.

Recommendations are made on helping people who need assistance with online systems. Complex and important cases are to be transferred upwards to higher courts. Open justice and transparency issues are to be addressed.

Legal advice and expertise would be by way of unbundled solicitors' services and direct access to barristers.

A target date of 2020 has been suggested.

2. Digitisation

The Online Court proposed is to be accessible via smart phones and tablets.To avoid duplication and "a parallel paper path", Briggs LJ has endorsed the development of Assisted Digital resources and proposes the "digitisation of all the processes" of the civil courts, which will eventually be paperless.

Reforms have already been implemented to overcome the chronic workload and backlog of the Court of Appeal.

3. Case Officers

A senior body of court lawyers and other officials who can assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. To be trained and supervised by judges, and decisions subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party. To operate independently of government when exercising their functions, transferring some of judges' more routine and non-contentious work to case officers, under judicial training and supervision.

4. Increase in High Court threshold

A substantial increase in the minimum claim value threshold for commencing claims in the High Court – initially to £250,000 and subsequently to £500,000.

5. Enforcement of Judgments and Orders

There should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the new Online Court). This should be the County Court, but there would need to be a “permeable membrane” allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the High Court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure. All enforcement procedures to be digitised, centralised and rationalised.

6. Mediation/ADR

Re-establish a court-based out of hours private mediation service in County Court hearing centres prepared to participate, along the lines of the service which existed prior to the establishment and then termination of the National Mediation Helpline.

7. Deployment of Judges

The principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. The current acute shortage of Circuit judges specialising in civil work in the County Court needs an urgent remedy.

8. Number of Courts and Future of the Divisions

There should be no general unification of the civil courts (ie combining the High Court and County Court). The time has come for a decision about the future of the High Court’s Divisions, but that is beyond the scope of the current review.

9. District Registries and Regional High Court Trial Centres

The concept of the District Registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings will eventually be replaced by a single Portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, and should then be abolished.

10. Routes of Appeal

There should in due course be a review of the question whether the recent reforms to the procedure of the Court of Appeal should be extended to cover appeals to the High Court and to Circuit Judges in the County Court, based upon better time and motion evidence than is currently available, and in the light of experience of the reforms in the Court of Appeal.

11. Boundaries between jurisdictions – the Family Court should be given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the County Court) for dealing with Inheritance Act and disputes about co-ownership of homes. There continues to be a case for convergence between the Employment Tribunal (and Employment Appeal Tribunal) and the civil courts, but the detail is a matter beyond the scope of this review.

Lord Justice Briggs said:

“It is for others to decide which of the above recommendations should be implemented, and by what means. In my view, if they are all substantially implemented, then the essentially high quality of the civil justice service provided by the courts of England and Wales will be greatly extended to a silent community to whom it is currently largely inaccessible, and both restored and protected against the weaknesses and threats which currently affect it.”

Comment

The stated aim of the reforms is laudable; to ensure our civil justice system is fit for purpose and open to all. However, this needs to be viewed in the context of enormous court fee increases e.g. last year’s issue fee increases of up to 600% in some cases, and last month’s application fee increases as follows:

  • contested applications made on notice — £255 (from £155)
  • applications without notice or by consent — £100 (from £50)

In Briggs LJ's view, the new court, if successful, "may pave the way for fundamental changes in the conduct of civil litigation over much wider ground than is currently contemplated by its first stage ambition".

The proposed timing for the launch of the system is April 2020, although Briggs LJ acknowledges that this will represent "a real challenge".

The civil courts have come under increasing strain due to budget cuts and the phenomena of a large rise of litigants in person, the latter unpredicted and itself due to previous reforms and cost cutting exercises. This, combined with the lack of any significant positive track record in computerisation of government services represent significant further challenges, as do the requirement for such changes to be adequately funded and given sufficient Parliamentary and Ministry of Justice attention.

The ongoing hikes in court fees and previous termination of funding for Mediation initiatives contrast with the aspiration of increased access to justice and suggested allocation of funds from the Treasury for such a wide-ranging programme of reform.The challenge now lies in effective implementation of Lord Justice Briggs’ recommendations, and avoiding further reductions in access to justice.

  • Paul Sykes is a Director in our Disputes Management department. For further information contact Paul.Sykes@lf-dt.com

Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.


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