This week I was reminded of the difficulties that the court system presents for lawyers on both sides. A comment on social media was made by a lawyer who had been informed the court had lost the trial bundles (both for the judge and witnesses) despite them being hand-delivered. The trial was therefore adjourned. New bundles had to be prepared but it was likely that the trial date would be delayed 12 months as a result.9
Litigation is a stressful matter for whichever party and at the very least (bearing in mind that many clients pay their own court fees), they should be entitled to an efficient service. Increasingly however we find as lawyers that the court service is so slow and so inefficient that it appears positively harmful to our client’s case. Some courts are notorious for their ability to lose documents and papers even when hand-delivered.
Administration in the courts appears to be grinding slowly to a standstill. Some seem to have almost stopped altogether.
When proceedings are issued and then served on the other side the claimant then waits for a defence or admission. In due course a defence arises if it is to be disputed, and then the matter is listed for what is known as a cost case management conference in which the next steps, the timetable for the case and the budget are considered. Routinely at the High Court this delay can be nine months to a year. In our local county court it can be much longer. There are simply not enough judges to deal with the cases.
It is not the fault of the judges who are in place, but it is the fault of the Ministry of Justice which is not recruiting enough judges. Likewise, anecdotally you will find that trials are being cancelled because there is no judge to hear the matter. When they are cancelled it is not simply a matter of a delay of a few weeks before another judge is found, it seems that they are put to the back of the list and it is another six to nine months before the case can be re-listed.
If the case is a simple dispute about which the claimant cares very little, doesn’t need the money, and is quite happy for things to take as long as they take, then this approach is fine. If like most claimants however there is a need to progress the case and obtain some compensation to make an appreciable difference to their quality of life, then delays of this kind are detrimental and insulting.
By the time most clinical negligence cases are issued perhaps two years or more from the original incident will have passed. Imagine the distress in waiting a further 12 months for a hearing just to arrange the timetable for the rest of the case.
I do not blame the court staff. I have been behind the scenes at some of the courts in London. It is quite clear that what staff are available are over-worked and over-burdened.
Justice delayed is not justice. A 12 month wait for a hearing so that matters can progress is not acceptable. If this was the medical profession, people would not be willing to wait for a year for their GP to refer them to the first consultation. There is no possible justification for claimants (and ultimately some defendants) to be disadvantaged in this way.
The court system is in crisis. As lawyers we have known this for some time but the Ministry of Justice does not seem to be dealing with it. Online courts and introducing technology are cited as the answer but anyone dealing with the existing IT system at the courts knows that at best it is inadequate.
If this was a cut-price system in which the court fees were minimal, perhaps people would be more willing to accept the poor service they receive. This is not however a cut-price service and court fees are astronomical. For most of my clients the fee is £10,000 simply to issue the claim at court. This is not a cheap option considering that for the most part the input of the court, whilst necessary, is fairly minor..
The civil justice system needs to improve significantly. Instead of cutting back courts, restricting judges, designing communication systems with solicitors that are positively impossible to penetrate, they should be providing a service. As a solicitor dealing with these courts I do not feel that the court “service” is well named. People do not take legal action lightly and they are entitled to be treated with respect when they do. Making them wait lengthy times for trials and hearings, losing their documents, failing to have an appropriate number of staff and judges is not respect. The court system is not providing a good service and whilst it deteriorates costs increase. When increasing costs are criticised it might be well for those commenting to consider the unnecessary work required in dealing with a court system which is not funded properly for its purpose.
Justice delayed is not justice whether criminal or civil. Whatever side of an argument you may represent, this needs to be addressed and a proper service reinstated before it is too late.