county court sign

Court delays: an ACSO campaign update

Posted on Wed, 15/05/2024

ACSO’s campaign to raise awareness of long delays in the county courts has gained more traction recently, including our presenting oral evidence to the Justice Select Committee as part of its ongoing inquiry we lobbied for. We were also interviewed on this theme for BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme as well as in the trade media. 

The committee’s next step will be to call the relevant Ministry of Justice ministers, Lord Bellamy KC and Mike Freer MP, to have their say. Theirs will not be an easy task, and while officials will no doubt provide plausible lines to take, the facts are stark.

While we await the latest Civil Justice Statistics Quarterly data in early June, the most-recent set showed yet another deterioration, with small claims now taking an average of 55.8 weeks to get from issue to court and multi/fast-track cases 85.7 weeks. This represents an increase of 17.7 weeks and 26.3 weeks respectively since 2019.

The intervening pandemic might seem the explanation, but it is not. In reality, overall civil courts claims numbers peaked at 2.1m in 2006, but were only 1.3m in 2020, 1.6m in 2021 and 1.5m in 2022. In other words Covid saw a sharp drop in volumes and so cannot be the main reason for the problems. There were 1.7m claims in 2023, low by historic standards and certainly when you factor in population growth. 

In contrast, magistrates’ courts receipts were 1.37m in 2023, demonstrating that for all the attention paid by politicians to criminal justice, it is far more likely that you as a consumer will come into contact with the civil justice system.

ACSO has identified the main causes of the delays before, namely long-term budgetary constraints, an unsuccessful courts modernisation programme, low judicial recruitment and morale, failures in the design, build and review of the Official Injury Claim and Damages Claims Portals, problems with the transfer of work to the Civil National Business Centre leading to yet more paperwork and legal aid cuts.  HMCTS, for its part, has neither the data to create proper targets nor a strategy for hitting these, unacceptable in any walk of life but especially when dealing with the legal needs of often very vulnerable people. 

The government ministers will attempt answers on all these points, and also suggest that the introduction of mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution, more use of technology and more court resources will tackle the problem. All certainly have a part to play, but the evidence to date suggests no progress at all, rather the reverse. More could be done in all these areas, as well as on the take-up and use of legal expenses insurance. 

This really matters to people waiting sometimes years for justice. It matters to the small businesses who face extra costs and uncertainty. It matters to those who want their claim settled quickly and fairly so they can get on with their lives.

For these consumers, going to court is always the ‘Plan B’. Unfortunately, compensators know that long waits, cancellations and frustration lead to some people accepting low offers, giving up their claims or never making them at all. The corrosive impact this undersettlement and inequality of arms will have on our justice system, on our economy, on the rule of law and on civil society will only get worse unless we tackle it together.

Too often, successive governments have acted unilaterally to enforce changes, with so-called reforms making matters worse for our fellow citizens.

When changes have been made, ministers have usually done so without tapping into the advice and experience of ACSO’s member companies and others who work at the sharp end of civil justice. Reform works only when stakeholders feel a sense of co-ownership.

ACSO therefore believes a Civil Justice Commission, convened by the next government and including representatives from right across our wider sector, could provide practical measures to tackle the backlogs and make the system fit for purpose once more.

In the meantime, we look forward to the committee’s questions for the ministers and to its final report. We hope that this will set out some of the tangible actions that should be taken straight away, including improving the data available, setting targets on the back of these and providing transparent progress reports towards achieving them. As the record court delays show, people have waited long enough.