The County Courts (Financial Limits) Order (Northern Ireland) 2013 came into effect on 25 February 2013. This increased the jurisdiction of the District Judges' Court from £5,000 to £10,000, and the jurisdiction of the County Court from £15,000 to £30,000.

The County Court Rules Committee has also made amendments to the County Court Rules to make provision for these increases in terms of scale costs and procedures.

To coincide with these changes the Recorder as Presiding Judge of the County Court has also introduced two new pre-action protocols - one for personal injury litigation and damage only road traffic accident claims and one for clinical negligence litigation.

Background to the changes

The County Courts process the bulk of civil litigation in Northern Ireland and provide an efficient and practical mechanism for solving disagreements. The last major reforms of the Northern Ireland civil jurisdiction were in 1991. An increase in its jurisdiction to hear cases has been long overdue on inflationary grounds, but the change has also been brought forward as part of the commitment by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice to improve access to justice and value for money.

The changes in jurisdiction follow a public consultation "Increasing the Jurisdictional Limit of the County Courts in Northern Ireland" in March 2010. The "Summary of Responses and Proposed Way Forward" to the consultation was published on 20 December 2010 indicating the Department's intention to increase the jurisdiction of the County Court and District judges.

The new regime

Until 25 February 2013, County Court judges could only deal with cases valued up to £15,000. They will now be able to hear cases valued up to £30,000. Cases where more than £30,000 is claimed will continue to be dealt with by the High Court sitting in Belfast. District judges in the county court formerly heard cases valued up to £5,000. They will now be able to hear cases of up to £10,000 in value.

The change is not retrospective and does not apply to cases lodged before 25 February.

Northern Ireland's Minister of Justice, David Ford MLA, said of the changes:

"One of my main objectives as Justice Minister is to continue to identify opportunities to improve access to justice. These increases will ensure cases are dealt with at the right level, a more local and convenient level as cases better suited to a County Court hearing will now be directed away from the High Court."

New procedures and protocols

As well as the jurisdiction change, there are several amendments to the County Court Rules governing procedure, and the introduction of two pre-action protocols. These encourage parties to adopt a "cards on the table" approach in cases involving personal injuries, damage-only RTAs, and clinical negligence. Together these provide for such things as:

  • A formal letter of claim including a clear summary of the facts, an indication of any personal injuries, and identifying any documents that ought to be disclosed
  • The respondent must acknowledge the letter within 21 days and produce a detailed response within three months
  • If the respondent denies liability, he is encouraged to disclose any documents which support his defence with the response letter
  • Most applications to the Court must now be made on paper rather than by attendance at Court, which should save on costs and speed up the process
  • The parties must consider whether some form of alternative dispute resolution would be more suitable than litigation.

To those used to the system in England and Wales, these may not appear to be novel by any means, however by Northern Ireland standards these are radical reforms.

These changes have been introduced on a voluntary basis for a period of 18 months. This means that for now there are no costs' sanctions if parties fail to comply with the protocols.

Implications for defendants and insurers

Procedures in the County Courts are tailored to deal with less complex cases, making it a quicker and cheaper forum for resolving disputes. Over the past number of years cases have come before the High Court in Belfast that did not require to be heard there in terms of either value or complexity. The County Courts also have the advantage of a fixed cost system which allows litigants to know the potential financial risks of bringing a case to court at the outset, a factor which is particularly important at this time of economic stringency.

Costs in the County Court are fixed and are determined with reference to damages awarded. Costs are met by the losing party and the system is beneficial because the potential financial risks of litigation are known at the outset. Costs for cases in the High Court are set differently. They are either subject to agreement between the parties or, if agreement is not reached, to assessment by the Taxing Master (a judicial office-holder) who decides what constitutes fair and reasonable remuneration based on an hourly rate determined by him.

The reforms will bring the Northern Ireland courts closer to the system which has been in operation for some time in England and Wales. The aim is to seek to cut down on unnecessary litigation by, for example, ensuring as far as possible that parties disclose all relevant information at an early stage, and reducing the costs of interlocutory proceedings and enabling parties to gauge, much quicker, whether settlement can be achieved. This, it is hoped, will result in more cases being resolved at an earlier stage.

Going forward, defendants need to maintain a pro-active approach, to ensure that claimants comply with the new procedural reforms. Whilst the Northern Ireland County Courts may not penalise claimants for failing to comply, the task will be to persuade the claimants that a "cards on the table" approach is the most effective method for resolving disputes.