The State Of The County Court In England And Wales

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The county court system faces severe delays, prompting an October 2023 Justice Committee inquiry. Recommended reforms include improved IT, e-filing, dedicated phonelines, remote hearings, better facilities, and an online claim status system. Implementation remains uncertain.
UK Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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The county court system is in desperate need of funding and improvement. The significant and increasingly long periods of time that it now takes for cases to reach trial is at an all-time high, causing those involved to very often suffer more heartache while they get access to justice.

In October 2023, the Justice Committee launched a new inquiry into the work of the county court. The inquiry was launched following concerns about the increasing time it was taking for cases to reach trial.

Contributors to the enquiry made a number of recommendations for reforms of the county courts to be considered, including for the re-introduction of a telephone number for each county court, dedicated phonelines for litigants, e-filing and a system for users to check their claim status online, improved IT, greater use of email, remote hearings for short hearings, better court buildings and facilities and a public register of judgments.

It remains to be seen if any of these recommendations will be implemented.

We have reviewed many of the submissions received by the Committee and have sought to summarise them below. These relate to:

Background to the county court inquiry

When the Civil Procedure Rules came into force, it was envisaged that a fast-track case in the county court would take approximately 40 weeks from the issuing of proceedings to trial (on the basis that the claim had been allocated to the fast track 10 weeks after issue).

However, the latest Civil Justice statistics from the Ministry of Justice (for the period October 2023 to December 2023) show that the average time for fast track/multi track cases to go to trial was 85.7 weeks. It is worth pointing out that this figure was 24.7 weeks longer than the figure in 2019.

It's important to note that between 2010 and 2019, 90 out of 240 county courts closed, with even more closing recently due to the RAAC concrete concerns in some buildings. Many court users report that other courts are not fit for purpose.

The inquiry invited written submissions by 14 December 2023. These submissions have recently been published on the Committee's website, and relate to a number of matters, including the following points:

  • What the current level of delay in the county court is; the extent of any regional variations; and the effect of delays on litigants and the administration of justice;
  • The ways in which the county court engages with litigants in person, and how this could be improved;
  • The condition of the court estate, and its effect on the work of the county court;
  • The use of technology in the county court and how it could be used to improve the service provided by the county court;
  • Whether there is sufficient judicial capacity in the county court, and the current steps to improve judicial capacity;
  • Whether there is sufficient staffing of the county court;
  • The causes of action giving rise to claims in the county court;
  • What future reforms to the county court should be considered.

We have reviewed many of the submissions received by the committee and have sought to summarise them below.

The Committee received 43 written submissions which have now been published on the Judicial Committee website. These submissions have been received from various individuals and organisations, including solicitors' firms, the Law Society, the Bar Council, Registry Trust, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, the Federation of Small Businesses, The Association of His Majesty's District Judges and the Ministry of Justice.

Most of the submissions were critical of the current county court system, levels of staffing, delays and the condition of the court buildings.

Delays in the county court

A number of the contributors provided examples of the delays they had encountered in the last few years using the county courts.

The delays cover both the administrative work carried out by the court and also the issues court users face in trying to contact the court, either by email, post, DX or telephone. Contributors were particularly critical of the Central Enquiries Line which is listed as the main contact telephone number for a large number of county courts in England and Wales.

Contributors complain that it can take a long time for calls to be answered (in many cases, at least an hour, in some cases, over two hours) and when they finally get through to the court, calls are disconnected or staff are unable to assist, due to the fact that the centralised system is not up to date or does not provide the level of detail to assist the telephone enquirer.

Many practitioners called for a return to the previous system of contacting the local county court directly by telephone or email to obtain an update on your case.

Matters do not improve on the administrative side of things, with practitioners providing examples of substantial delays for:

  • issuing claims (16 weeks in Barnet County Court in one example and over six months from the County Court Money Claims Centre (CCMCC) in another). In another example, a claim was issued but the solicitors were not provided with papers for service on the Defendant until after four months had expired, meaning that they had to make an application to extend the time for service of the claim, causing further expense to the client;
  • dealing with general correspondence (a 19-week backlog in Central London County Court);
  • dealing with pleadings and urgent correspondence (up to 40 days by the Civil National Business Centre);
  • listing of directions/CCMCs – delays of up to 9 months (in some cases longer) to either allocate a claim to a track or list the first Costs and Case Management Conference ( CCMC);
  • drawing up of orders – many practitioners reported delays in receiving orders back from the court following hearings. In some cases, practitioners were forced to make further applications for extensions of time so as to avoid sanctions for missing deadlines, due to the fact that they had not received back the court's order, despite many attempts to chase.
  • Consent orders – many practitioners seemed to suggest that in cases where parties had agreed a consent order and filed the same with the court, it was taking a very long time for sealed orders to be returned by the court.

There were also examples given of courts losing files, especially when they were transferred from the Civil National Business Centre to the local county court. Furthermore, hard copy bundles for hearings often went missing or were not provided to judges for hearings.

The delays appear to be worse in the county courts in London and the South-East, not only in relation to the administrative work by the courts in those regions, but also the waiting times for the case to reach trial.

Practitioners report that the delays are unfair to their clients as well as themselves and often clients have to pay extra costs for them to chase the courts, or for them to make additional applications (in order to avoid sanctions), simply due to the delays in the court administration process.

These delays make it difficult to advise clients of the timeframes which the litigation may take, as well as advise them of the cost of the litigation itself.

As the majority of the claims in the county court are debt claims, clients are being forced to wait longer and longer to recover the monies owed to them. Solicitors point out that clever defendants will simply use the delays in the court system to avoid having to pay out on claims, as they know it may take a number of years before a court finally orders them to pay.

Even following judgment, the position is not always clear. Registry Trust, which operates the public Register of Judgments, Orders and Fines report that they have to return to the county courts any records which prevent them from properly recording a judgment on their system. This could be due to missing or incomplete details of the defendant.

Registry Trust report that in the five months from July to November 2023, they had to return nearly 4,000 records to the county court due to missing or incomplete information. At the time of their submission to the inquiry in December 2023, all of those records remained outstanding, meaning those judgments cannot be entered into the public register, which often prevents a claimant from enforcing their judgment.

Litigants in person

The general consensus from contributors was that litigants in person (LIP) could be better served by the county courts. Many LIPs found court correspondence confusing and often resulted in them contacting their opponent's solicitors for an explanation as to what the correspondence meant and what they had to do next. Not only did this lead to increased costs for the legally represented parties, but also meant that these enquiries had to be handled carefully by the solicitors, who cannot provide advice to their opponents.

LIPs often relied on duty solicitors at hearings, without being able to discuss their case with them in advance. Contributors suggested that earlier access to the duty solicitors could save on the time and expense of some hearings.

District judges highlighted the additional time they now spent in dealing with LIPs who would often contact the judge directly via email. Whilst judges receive regular training on how to deal with LIPs, this increased work, including the drawing up of orders (which advocates would have previously done) means that district judges cannot get through as many cases as in previous years.

Judges suggested that basic information leaflets could be provided to LIPs on small claims cases , and a text/email reminder service to the LIP to attend hearings could be easily set up (in the same way a dentist or doctor sends out appointment reminders).

For possession claims, providing access to housing organisations, such as Shelter, would greatly assist LIPs, as well as the ability for bailiffs to serve notices by email rather than in person, especially where the defendant has provided their email address as a means of communication. This would result in more bailiffs being available in courts to deal with enquiries throughout the day and therefore allowing more appointments to take place.

The condition of the court estate/court buildings

Practitioners complained about the lack of adequate facilities in many county courts, including the lack of toilets, air conditioning and meeting rooms as well as broken lifts.

Advocates in particular complained about the lack of copying or scanning services within the county court. Often LIPs would arrive at court with new evidence for a hearing and would only have one copy with them, meaning hearings were delayed or vacated.

Court buildings often lack cafés or places to obtain refreshments, including the provision of a drinking water tap.

District judges' complaints were more focused on the state of repair of many of the court buildings and court rooms, with leaking roofs being commonplace.

The recent closure of some further county courts due to RAAC concrete was also highlighted by contributors.

All this comes against the backdrop of the closure of over 90 county courts since 2010. When court buildings are closed, they are sold, and the money given back to the public purse. Between 2010 and February 2018, the sale of courts raised £224 million for the public purse. Even taking into account maintenance costs for those courts which had not been sold, or the costs of lease dilapidations, the government raised over £215 million from these court closures. The question which should be asked is why has this money not been put back into the legal system to improve the county court system?

The Ministry of Justice reports that the condition of the court estate is a priority area for the Lord Chancellor, and they recognise that work is required to bring some parts of the court estate up to standard. They confirm that £220 million is to be invested in the two years up to March 2025 to improve the overall quality of the courts in all jurisdictions.

Use of technology in the county courts

Practitioners, advocates and judges all welcome the increased use of technology in the county courts. Many contributors highlighted the fact that the county court system continued to run throughout the national lockdowns during Covid-19, when people could not attend court in person.

The use of remote video hearings was welcomed and indeed encouraged to be used more often. However, people were critical of the court's current Cloud Video Platform (CVP) and many suggested swapping this for Teams or Zoom, which provide users with the opportunity to share their screens which can be useful if someone wishes to refer to a document when making a submission.

Judges highlighted the fact that low levels of staffing affected the digital support which is supposed to be provided to the judiciary. Courts are supposed to have a Digital Services Officer, a member of staff who combines their normal role with that of a local contact for IT issues. A number of county courts have no such Digital Services Officer in place. The lack of a single helpline for judicial IT issues also means that when judges have IT problems, they often have to try to resolve these issues themselves, often leading to delays in hearings or cancellations.

Some practitioners highlighted that some judges are still reluctant to hold hearings remotely, and believe that they should be actively encouraged to do so for all hearings that are less than say 1-2 hours in length. This would save on travel costs of both counsel and clients having to attend hearings.

A number of practitioners also suggested that the county court should have an e-filing system similar to the one used in the High Court. This would allow them to track the progress of cases more easily and free up valuable time spent on the telephone to courts for updates. If such a system is implemented, it needs to be user friendly to both legal professionals and also litigants in person.

Judicial capacity in the county courts

Most contributors agreed that there was an issue with lack of available judges. There were many examples of hearings being cancelled at the last moment, including on the day of the hearing itself, leading to wasted time and costs for all the parties involved.

The failure of the court to process consent orders (highlighted above) also means that people are having to instruct counsel to attend hearings, which should have in fact been vacated. Again, this leads to additional, unnecessary costs for clients.

Furthermore, some practitioners pointed out that when hearings are re-listed, no consideration or consultation with the appointed representatives is given, often meaning witnesses or counsel are not available for the re-listed hearings. This then leads to further applications having to be made and yet further delays.

Other people pointed to the fact that it is now taking longer to get hearings in the first place. Possession hearings for example are taking much longer to list the first hearing than in previous years, leading to landlords missing out on rental income as tenants remain in properties longer without paying rent.

The Association of HM District Judges pointed to the fact that recruitment of district judges is the main issue. People are not applying for the roles of district judge (or deputy district judge) as they see the position as being underpaid and administratively chaotic. Meanwhile, judges ' lists are getting longer and longer, whilst court rooms remain empty.

Staffing issues in the county courts

As with judges, most contributors agreed that staffing levels in the county courts were too low. Contributors complained about the amount of time it took staff to deal with routine correspondence, as well as to answer the telephone or respond to emails, including urgent correspondence.

Many courts have lost staff who have not been replaced, due to budget cuts or low staff morale.

Many courts no longer operate a public counter where people can address their enquiries, rather than having to wait over an hour on the telephone.

Contributors also complained that staff were not adequately trained and that when telephone calls were eventually answered, the member of staff was often unable to assist or had to refer it to another employee with more experience. Judges complained that some experienced members of staff were now looking for jobs and were not being replaced. Training of new staff takes up time and leads to further delays and staff are often employed on short term contracts, meaning there is no continuity of staff in the county courts.

Other examples provided showed that staff did not necessarily have a basic grasp of the Civil Procedure Rules, not knowing when to send out papers after claims had been issued, or only sending hearing notices to one of the parties.

The lack of staff leads to problems with hearings. Papers and correspondence are not filed on time (or at all) and judges are not being provided with all the papers they need for a hearing. Judges will often have to carry out their own searches of the court inbox to check if papers have been sent, leading to further delays and administrative work which the judges should not have to carry out.

The Ministry of Justice report that there were 2712 full time employees in the county courts as at the end of October 2023, compared to 2825 in November 2022. They admit that recruitment of staff can be challenging, particularly in some areas, such as London and the South East where other similar type jobs are paid better.

HMCTS are working towards improving the recruitment of staff and in particular, bailiffs, whose number have reduced, leading to longer waiting times for landlords to evict their tenants following possession orders.

Causes of action giving rise to claims in the county court

The number of claims being issued in the county courts is rising and has been increasing steadily over the last 3 years. In 2023, there were 1,714,000 claims issued, up 11% from the previous year (1,539,000).

The majority of the claims issued in the county court are money and damages claims. They made up around 1.5 million of the issued claims in 2023. 94% of these money and damages claims are money claims, with the rest being personal injury and other damages claims.

In the last quarter of 2023 (October to December 2023), there were 335,000 issued money claims. Of these:

  • Approximately 152,000 were for claims of up to £500;
  • Approximately 53,000 were for claims of between £500 and £1,000;
  • Approximately 75,000 were for claims of between £1,000 and £3,000;
  • Approximately 24,000 were for claims of between £3,000 and £5,000;
  • Approximately 20,000 were for claims of between £5,000 and £10,000; and
  • Approximately 11,000 were for claims above £10,000.

Non-money claims amounted to 46,000 claims out of the total of 402,000 claims lodged at county courts in the last quarter of 2023. The majority of these (28,000) were for mortgage and landlord possession claims.

A couple of anonymous contributors to the inquiry have stated that the increase in the number of low value issued claims in the last few years is due to the increase in private parking claims. One contributor suggested that private parking companies (and their solicitors) are issuing between 400,000 and 500,000 county court claims each year.

The Ministry of Justice does not provide a sufficient breakdown of their statistics to check if this is an accurate figure. However, they do provide data on the top 30 bulk small claim issuers for each year. The Government have identified that within the top 10 bulk small claim issuers, there are two private parking companies and three law firms who specialise or exclusively deal with parking claims on behalf of private parking companies. For the year 2022/23, these five organisations issued over 264,000 claims between them.

As such, it is clear that these types of claims are substantial in number and make up a significant percentage of all issued money claims in the county court each year. The contributors suggest that these types of claims should be removed from the county court process to a specialised tribunal with its own set of rules about the work that needs to be carried out before such claims are issued, in the same way that statutory parking cases were removed from the magistrates court to a specialised tribunal. This would then free up valuable time for the courts to deal with other matters.

It is however apparent from these figures that a very large percentage of all claims issued annually by the county courts are for relatively low sums of money – 84% of money claims issued in the last quarter of 2023 were for sums of less than £3,000.

Whilst everyone should have access to justice, it appears that this is where the backlog of cases lies within the county court system. These smaller claims take up a large amount of both administrative and judicial time. Parties are often litigants in person who need further explanation of the rules and procedures of court.

Small claims such as the above will now have compulsory mediation and it is hoped that this may free up some much needed time for hearings in other matters. However, there is still a great deal of court administrative work that needs to be carried out to get to the mediation stage.

What reforms should there be?

Many of the contributors to the inquiry have put forward suggestions as to how the present county court system can be improved and the backlogs reduced. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Removal of the Central Enquiries Telephone line and the re-introduction of a telephone number for each county court;
  • Dedicated phonelines for litigants in person;
  • Introduction of e-filing for all county courts and a system which allows users to check on the status of their claim online;
  • Better IT for judges and training for both judges and court staff on IT systems;
  • A better video hearing facility, such as Teams, which is more user friendly;
  • Remote hearings for any hearing of under 1-2 hours in length;
  • Better resourced court buildings, with improved training given to court staff;
  • The addition of claimant data to the public register of judgments to reduce the calls defendants make to courts to enquire about judgments;
  • The use of email on a more regular basis, including by bailiffs, especially in situations where parties have provided an email address for communication purposes;
  • Better facilities within court buildings.

Clearly any of these reforms are going to require substantial investment from the government to improve the current county court system.

The inquiry is no longer accepting any written evidence, but has recently heard oral evidence (on 7 May 2024) from some contributors. The inquiry has not provided any timeframes of when they will report on the evidence from contributors, but we understand they will also consider evidence from the Civil Justice Minister, Lord Bellamy KC.

Following the dissolution of Parliament on 30 May 2024, all select committees have ceased to exist and committees will be reappointed in the new Parliament. The chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, is also standing down as an MP at the forthcoming election, so a new chair will need to be found for the Justice Committee and will need to review the previous findings.

Whilst any new government will consider the inquiry's findings, it is unclear as to what budget may be available for any reforms.

For now, the county court system remains in desperate need of funding and improvement to prevent the already existing delays getting longer and causing parties to suffer more heartache from the time it is taking for them to get access to justice.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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