The House of Commons Justice Committee has launched a new inquiry amid the growing concerns over the resourcing and capacity of the County Courts.
The inquiry follows the publication of recent statistics from the Civil Justice Statistics Quarterly for April to June 2023 which demonstrate that court delays are at a record high. The mean time taken for small claims and multi/fast track claims to go to trial was 52.3 weeks and 78.2 weeks. This is 1 week longer and 2.8 weeks longer than the same period in 2022 respectively.
The HM Courts & Tribunals Service admits that while the COVID-19 has had an impact on the functioning of the County Courts, the problems pre-date the pandemic. In 2019, wait times for small claims were 37.2 weeks and 59.4 weeks for multi/fast track claims. The transfer of civil administration work to the new Civil National Business Centre has contributed further to delays.
This is not the first time that the Justice Committee has highlighted that there are significant problems with the functioning of the County Courts. In 2022, the committee produced a report calling on the Government to ensure the County Court has the capacity to deal with cases in a timely manner and included strong recommendations by the committee on how to improve the situation. The report also urged the government to set out what steps it was taking to reduce delays in the County Court and to improve the judicial, physical, digital and staff capacity of the County Court.
In their response to the report, the Government stated that a further £342 million over the next 3 years was being invested to improve timeliness in civil and family courts and tribunals. Yet leading think tank ‘Institute for Government’ reports the real-term spending on courts in England and Wales have fallen by 10% in 2022/23 and higher than expected inflation means that spending on courts is expected to fall by a further 2% between 2022 and 2023.
It is clear that these monetary efforts from the government have not yet been effective and will decrease over time. The director of the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO) has recognised that more proactive measure are necessary and has “urged the committee to ask experienced practitioners…seek their help to set out sensible ideas for tackling the backlogs, be this through targeted extra resources, better use of digital modernisation or more alternative dispute resolution, where appropriate.”
Since the publication of the data of court delays Sir Bob Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee said it “shows the situation is worsening, not improving, and it’s right the committee examines this deterioration and takes evidence from those impacted by delays, staffing levels, access, as well as other issues.” The Committee invites written evidence submissions on the work of the County Court until Thursday, 14th December on a broad range of areas extending from the use of technology in the County Court, whether there is sufficient staffing and what future reforms to the County Court should be considered.