lady justice

Justice delayed is justice denied: ACSO launches campaign to reduce civil justice logjams

Posted on Wed, 06/09/2023


The Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), which represents the interests of consumers in the civil justice system, has launched a campaign urging ministers to tackle ongoing delays in the civil courts.

Official statistics show that before the pandemic, in 2019, the mean time for small claims and multi/fast track claims to go to trial was 38.1 weeks and 59.4 weeks respectively.[1] The latest data found that the average time is now 51.9 and 79.9 respectively.[2] For tribunals, the position has deteriorated from an average of 30 weeks in 2019 to 45 weeks in 2021.[3]

Matthew Maxwell Scott, ACSO’s executive director, said that its own research conducted with Express Solicitors found that on average it takes 353 days to wait for the court to hear a case, while the performance of some individual courts is far worse, with Dartford running at 829 days. The best performer, with delays of 79 days, is Blackpool. The South East is the worst performing region with an average wait of 462 days, while the North East is the best with an average wait of 251 days.

What is causing the delays?

Maxwell Scott said: “There is a long history of reduced budgets and a misunderstanding of the sector and the consequences of reforms imposed on it that has led to this parlous state for our civil justice system. As a result, the UK has fallen from 13th to 20th in the World Justice Project’s ranking of countries with the most accessible and affordable civil justice.”

  • Budget cuts. Real-terms funding for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) fell by 40 per cent between 2010/11 and 2017/18.[4] While increases in 2020 and 2021 went some way to address this, there remains a £4.81bn black hole compared to previous spending levels.[5]
  • Delays in the HMCTS modernisation programme/limited scope of same. The pandemic has demonstrated the value of technology in bringing legal and other processes closer to consumers and should be encouraged, albeit not made compulsory. However, technology will not make a material difference to the delays experienced as things stand.
  • HMCTS has underestimated the complexity of its reform programme, leading to premature rollouts, delayed projects and increased costs. HMCTS now predicts the reform programme is running a year behind schedule,[6] with costs rising to £1.3bn, 10 per cent higher than originally expected.[7]
  • The government’s focus and the attention of much of the media is on criminal justice – yet most cases (ignoring the high number of criminal cases every year which relate to non-payment of the BBC licence fee, something which is responsible for around one in three convictions for women) are civil.
  • There is little political engagement on civil justice across all major political parties, which  has contributed to its decline. In election manifestos over the last decade there has been little attention paid to civil justice.
  • The court estate. Leaky courtrooms and crumbling buildings have caused delays to hearings[8]
  • Legal Aid Cuts. More litigants in person, for example in family cases, have led to more procedural errors as well as more cases filed which could have been resolved out of court.[9]
  • Admin delays at the CNBC (Civil National Business Centre), which replaced the County Court Money Claims Centre (CCMCC) in August, are having a substantial impact on the overall county court timelines. The longest period for the start of a processing time is from receipt of an application to an order or comment being typed, which has now reached 82 working days, or around four months.

Maxwell Scott said the ACSO campaign will urge ministers to make the delays a priority. “Most people want the civil courts to hear their cases quickly and effectively; philosophising about the merits or otherwise of the Human Rights Act doesn’t help anyone caught up in a sclerotic justice system.”

ACSO instead urges:

  • More government focus on civil justice, including appropriate levels of new funding where necessary and new impetus behind the courts-reform programme;
  • The adoption of a range of models of dispute resolution, including new technologies where appropriate, working with the MoJ, Master of the Rolls, service providers and others to build public awareness of and trust in new methods;
  • More transparency on waiting times, court and tribunal processes and the implications of delays, cancellations and arcane processes;
  • Ministers to set clear targets for getting delays down; and
  • Working with stakeholders across the legal and claims sector to achieve a coordinated, consensual approach.

Maxwell Scott said: “We often feel that ministers and officials somehow sees us as the opposition, but we all want the same thing: a better deal for taxpayers.

“The new Justice Secretary needs to get to grips with this issue urgently; if he wants to make the biggest positive difference to the greatest number of people, improving access to justice for the thousands of consumers stuck in legal limbo would go a long way to restoring confidence in our courts.”

[3] HM Courts & Tribunals Service, HMCTS management information, January 2022. Note: HMCTS are updated methodology for 2023 Tribunal Delays so these figures are not currently available.

[4] Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Autumn 2017 Budget: options for easing the squeeze, November 2017.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The Law Society, Five steps to help fix chaos in our courts, 19th December 2022.

[9] Ibid, 16.