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October 2, 2015

The “human cost” of our outdated court system

The new(ish) Chief Executive of the Courts Service, Natalie Ceeney, is worried about the human cost of business as usual in the courts: “In our criminal courts, witness, victims and defendants can wait years for a case to come to trial, causing chaos to lives as people wait for a decision before they can work out how to move on. In our civil courts and tribunals, people in debt attend court in person – often losing a day’s wages – worsening their situation”.  The courts service are working hard to improve the situation and have a radical plan, a system which is “accessible – easy to use, but digital in design”.  The idea is to move many court processes online so few people actually have to go to court, for example, to “limit what happens in the criminal court room to just trials and complex sentencing”.

The court system definitely needs radical reform.  Only this week the Property Litigation Association (PLA) said that our county courts are not fit for purpose.  They asked members to feedback on their experience.  This revealed:

  • Unacceptable delays, for example in the production of orders and in arranging hearing dates. Feedback shows it is taking some courts over eight weeks to turn around post and return issued applications.
  • Court staff giving incorrect or inconsistent information (including wrong contact numbers), or being unable to say what is happening with a particular matter. Often, the computer system appears at fault.
  • Unless a claim needs to be issued within 24 hours, it is no longer possible to get a ‘face-to-face service’ to ensure claims are issued before critical deadlines.
  • Appointments to issue proceedings being refused, usually due to administrative failings, including staff refusing to accept claims over the counter when they are physically too large to fit in the drop box.

As the PLA points out, people can formally complain about failures in the courts but “there is a perception that complaints take up more time and money with little reward”.

My own recent experience of the courts system has been bad, though not worth making a complaint.  Our curtains were shrunk by a dry cleaner in November 2013, who then refused to recompense us for the full cost.   My daughter had taken the curtains to the shop and my husband took a claim to the small claims court on her behalf.  The initial claim was done online, but the system then reverted to using snail mail, and was really slow.  We put in the claim in January 2014. the hearing was in September 2014 but the owner of the dry cleaner did not turn up.  So we paid to use the court, won our case, but have had no redress.  I wanted to take over the job of chasing the debt from my husband.  I wrote to the court in July 2015 and have only just got a snail mail response – no, they cannot deal with anyone else.  I doubt we will ever get our money back and there is no concrete advice on the web as to how to do so.

I agree that part of the answer is to put legal processes online.  But some thoughts on this.

1) Part of the answer must also be to divert more cases from the formal legal process, whether online or not

2) The reform plan is so radical it will take at least three years to implement.  How can the courts service stop the existing system collapsing in the meantime?

3) As the property lawyers point out, feedback is crucial for system improvement.  PLA has sought feedback itself, but the Courts Service shouldn’t rely on its clients to do surveys.  It needs to do its own research on what court users think of the system and how it could be improved.

I wish the new Chief Executive of HMCTS all the best in trying to modernise our courts.  But I do hope they don’t get worse before they get better.