The Single County Court – coming to you on 22 April 2014 - arises out of work carried out by Sir Henry Brooke (previously Brooke LJ) commissioned in 2008. The work was apparently needed to reduce the bureaucracy that the County Courts were subjected to and to make the courts “more modern, simple and better” (Shailesh Vera, Courts Minister). The principle changes are as follows:
- abolition of the 173 County Courts;
- creation of the single County Court;
- an increase in the limit of the equitable jurisdiction of the County Court from the present £30,000 to £350,000;
- an increase in money claim jurisdictional limits from £25,000 to £100,000;
- an increased jurisdiction for the County Courts to make freezing orders.
As Shailesh Vera was at pains helpfully to point out, the creation of a Single County Court “does not mean there will be one single physical building where all civil cases will be heard”, though many County Courts already sometimes feel as if that is what is meant. Instead, there will be 173 County Court hearing Centres. You may at this stage be asking yourselves; “then what difference does it make?” The principal difference that may affect family practitioners is in relation to TLATA proceedings, or in respect of enforcement – no longer will we need to worry about territorial boundaries when issuing TLATA claims or seeking charging orders over properties to enforce unpaid lump sums.
The other major change is that the Lord Chancellor will no longer need individually to authorise High Court Judges to sit at County Courts; so we may be seeing more of their Lordships nestling into the hearing rooms at Croydon County Court.
Notably for family practitioners, however, the Single County Court will not have family jurisdiction. This will be the sole purview of the Single Family Court. So, whilst it is likely that the Single Family Court and the Single County Court will be sitting in the same buildings, staffed by the same Judges, it will likely be important to be clear which a particular application is made to. It appears that jurisdictional issues will arise if a claim is attempted to be issued at the County Court Hearing Centre desk, as opposed to the Family Court Hearing Centre desk. In practice these are likely to be the same poorly staffed window. It may be worth suggesting that the staff have reversible hats, in order that we know which jurisdiction they are dealing with at any given time.
It also appears that whilst the jurisdictional boundaries will no longer apply cases will still be transferred to the “correct” County Court hearing centre. What difference this therefore makes in practice is as yet unclear.
There are also new cost budgeting rules coming into force on 22 April 2014, and it appears that TLATA may routinely be excluded from the scope of the costs budgeting regime. This is a significant and welcome reform.