Lord Justice Briggs's interim report in his review of the future of the civil courts structure was published yesterday, 12 January 2016. Key aspects include:
- Urgent measures are needed to address the current overload in the Court of Appeal, where a 54% increase in work coming in to the court (principally, applications for permission to appeal) has led to massive delays in listing appeal hearings. Proposals are already due to be presented to the Court of Appeal in March 2016, with options including the greater use of two judge courts, increased deployment of deputies, transfer of classes of appeal to the High Court, raising the thresholds for permission to appeal, and reducing or removing the right to an oral renewal of a permission application. The interim report notes that the urgency of the problem means decisions in principle are likely to have been taken before the review is complete, but views are welcome as part of the consultation nonetheless.
- An Online Court should be created for claims up to £25,000, to give effective access to justice without the need for lawyers. Cases would progress through three stages: (i) a largely automated, inter-active online process to identify the issues and provide documentary evidence; (ii) conciliation and case management by case officers; (iii) resolution by judges.
- Some of the more routine and non-contentious work currently carried out by judges should be transferred to case officers supervised by judges. This is likely to include matters which are not actively disputed, and some routine case management of less complex cases, but not decisions affecting substantive rights and duties. A case officer’s decision could be re-considered by a judge.
- There should not be a move to a unified civil court (ie combining the High Court and County Court) ahead of the implementation of the Reform Programme. The review will however explore possible changes to the boundaries between the High Court and the County Court, including potentially raising the lower limits for the issue of claims in the High Court, as well as looking at the current divisional structure of the High Court and in particular the "sensitive subject" of whether there should be a merger of the Rolls Building courts (ie Chancery, the Commercial Court and the Technology and Construction Court).
- There would be real advantages in unifying procedures for enforcement of civil judgments in the High Court and County Court.
The review was commissioned by the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls in July 2015. It is intimately linked with the HMCTS (Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service) Reform Programme, which was launched in March 2015 and focuses on three main areas: using IT to improve the issue, handling, management and resolution of cases; reducing reliance on buildings, and rationalising the court estate; and allocating aspects of the work currently done by judges to court officials under judicial supervision.
A key assumption underlying both the Reform Programme and the Civil Courts Structure Review is that it will be possible to move to a completely digital (ie as far as possible paperless) court structure. The interim report recognises that this is unlikely to be accomplished earlier than four years from now, and that it will involve a "substantial, difficult and probably painful" transitional period.
Written responses to the interim report are invited by the end of February, following which there will be a programme of consultation meetings up to the end of May. The review is due to be completed by the end of July.