HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has been modernising our courts since 2016. The process became even more urgent in the Covid-19 pandemic; change became essential to prevent a near-complete shutdown of justice. The new emphasis on flexibility, remoteness and connectivity reflected the public's increasing willingness to use technology and a need to bring its benefits to the law.
One of HMCTS's latest endeavours is to digitise the making of a civil claim in the County Court through a Digital Claims Platform (DCP). This system is the very first of its kind for most personal injury claims and has already gone through pilot testing.
There are around 80,000 new personal injury claims in the County Court each year. These have traditionally been made out on forms and posted to the central court office before continuing through a paper-based process. It's a slow, sometimes unreliable system. Each claim goes through a web of accommodating timescales built into statute and regulation.
Recent research, carried out by ACSO and Express Solicitors, has found huge backlogs in the civil judicial systems of England and Wales with significant regional disparities. A more efficient, digital process such as the DCP could substantially reduce these delays for the benefit of both the civil courts and stakeholders locked in delay litigation, improving consumer access to efficient justice.
However, attempts to implement the DCP over the past few months have been controversial. It was made mandatory for the represented claimant to issue their County Court claim via the DCP in April 2022. The significance of this to consumers was equally matched by the impact on law firms, many of whom needed to implement and risk-manage new working processes but were given as little as two weeks' notice to do so.
Similarly, plans are in place to make use of the process mandatory for the representative of a defendant, ensuring that issued claims can also be served on a third party and responded to within the DCP. These changes will also mandate the claimant's use of the DCP for service of proceedings where the defendant is legally represented, and notice has been given of its use in advance. Again, little notice was given of an implementation date of 2 June - a deadline which was then delayed indefinitely on 31 May. The news was published via Twitter.
No reason has yet been given publicly as to why the Civil Procedure Rule Committee and HMCTS made this very late decision. For now, the process will only be mandatory for claimant-focused law firms to issue proceedings, but remains open for use in service and response. If the cause of the delay is rooted in issues that have been identified with the more advanced stages of the platform, consumers and their representatives need to know.
It begs the question, how much notice is reasonable for a law change needing careful through, implementation and the training of thousands of legal staff which will ultimately impact tens of thousands of consumers? And, can it ever be acceptable to deliver the notice of legal change by Twitter?
The DCP will benefit everyone if it reduces court backlogs, lessens the environmental impact of legal proceedings and delivers faster resolution to cases that are currently weighed down by outdated processes. However, it must be implemented with care and with the support of all stakeholders, something noticeable by its absence so far.