On 27 July 2016 Lord Justice Briggs published his final report on the structure and functioning of the civil courts in England and Wales (the Final Report). The Final Report is the result of a year-long review and makes a number of bold and wide-ranging recommendations to address perceived weaknesses and inefficiencies in the current system. Significant proposals include pressing ahead with the introduction of the Online Court for claims up to £25,000 and an increase in the threshold for issuing claims in the High Court from £50,000 to £250,000.
The Final Report should be considered in the context of the wider ongoing HMCTS Reform Programme, which includes the delivery of the Online Court by April 2020, reforms to the Court of Appeal and its appeals process and the modernisation of the courts’ IT systems.
Perceived weaknesses and proposed solutions
The Final Report identifies a number of perceived weaknesses in the structure of the civil courts in England and Wales. These include views that there is a lack of adequate access to justice for ordinary individuals and small businesses, inefficiencies and delays due to antiquated court processes and IT systems, the courts’ inability to deliver on the promise that no case should be too big to resolve in the regions. The Final Report also identifies certain challenges in the enforcement of judgments and court orders.
Briggs LJ makes a number of recommendations to address these matters and engages with the feedback given by various stakeholders following the publication of his interim report on 12 January 2016. The recommendations include:
- Online Court: the introduction of an Online Court by April 2020 should not be delayed. Its jurisdiction should be compulsory for all money claims and unspecified claims up to the value of £25,000, save for specific exclusions (including claims for possession of homes, intellectual property claims and professional negligence claims). The Online Court should be phased in, with a soft launch for claims up to an initial ceiling of £10,000. Briggs LJ suggests that the proposed Online Court in future be referred to as the “Online Solutions Court” – with a view to it eventually being named the “Solutions Court”.
- Case Officers: legally qualified “Case Lawyers”, trained and supervised by judges, should undertake case review and management work in relation to the Online Court. Parties should have an unfettered right to have any decision by a Case Lawyer reconsidered afresh by a judge.
- Number of courts and future of the Divisions: there should be no general unification of the civil courts, but a decision is required in relation to the future of the Divisions of the High Court (including renaming the Chancery Division to reflect its focus on business disputes and ensuring judges are able to work flexibly across the Divisional boundaries). Any decisions should not affect the success and international reputation of the Commercial Court.
- Deployment of judges: the allocation of judicial and back office resources, including specialist judges, should be addressed to ensure no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. This would include increasing the number of Circuit Judges whose work primarily focuses on civil and County Court work (outside London).
- High Court thresholds: the value of thresholds below which a claim cannot be issued in the High Court should be immediately increased from £50,000 to £250,000, which a view to a further increase in the threshold to £500,000.
- Routes of appeal: there should in due course be a review of the question as to whether 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.
- Enforcement of all judgments and orders in the County Court: the County Court should be the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the proposed Online Court). A mechanism will need to be in place to enable appropriate enforcement issues (for example, cross-border enforcement) to be transferred to the High Court and special provision will need to be made for the enforcement of arbitration awards. If unification is not pursued, then centralisation, harmonisation, rationalisation and digitisation of enforcement should nevertheless be pursued as part of the HMCTS Reform Programme.
Briggs LJ recognises the advisory nature of the Final Report and it remains to be seen to what extent his recommendations will be adopted. However, the Final Report sets out clear recommendations that could, even if adopted in part, lead to substantial changes to the structure of the civil courts in England and Wales. The Final Report also provides greater clarity on how the proposed Online Court is likely to operate in practice and makes its adoption by April 2020 much more likely.