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'Too much focus on process' in radical court restructuring

Huge rises in limit for county court claims, small claims and RTA portal

13 February 2012

Justice secretary Ken Clarke has announced huge rises in the financial limits on county court claims.

The limit for small claims will rise from £5,000 to £10,000, and for county court cases from £25,000 to £100,000, apart from personal injury.

The limit on cases going through the RTA portal will go up from £10,000 to £25,000 and include employer and public liability personal injury cases.

Karl Tonks, vice president of APIL and partner at Fentons in Manchester, said extending the limit for RTA portal claims from £10,000 to £25,000 would include victims of quite serious injuries, such as broken bones and longer-term problems, as well as psychological injuries.

“There is too much focus on the process,” Tonks said. “Providing a high standard of service means a personal approach, looking at individuals.

“The danger is that if you have a very rigid, fixed process, this will not be properly considered.”

Tonks said that if the portal limit went up, so should the fixed fees.

“It should be the proper rate for the job. Otherwise there must be a risk that service standards will suffer.

“The government is not looking at the bigger picture. There is potentially huge change going on, with the advent of ABS and Jackson.”

Iain Stark, chairman of the Association of Costs Lawyers, said the portal scheme was designed for low-value RTA claims.

“There appears to be nothing in the government’s response about the potential increased costs relating to this,” he said.

“It is effectively asking solicitors to undertake the same work at £25,000 as they would have for £10,000 – quite simply, it can’t be done by true professionals.

“Policymakers need to be aware that extending the current system for road traffic accident cases, when that system still has serious technical and administrative flaws, will inevitably mean a further tilting of the playing field away from genuinely injured individuals in favour of big businesses and insurance companies, who are, actually, quite capable of looking after themselves.”

Stark said the government must avoid “over-focusing on needlework and forgetting the full tapestry”.

In a consultation paper published this time last year the MoJ suggested that the small claims limit should rise directly to £15,000 and RTA portal claims go up to £50,000 (see solicitorsjournal.com, 29 March 2011).

“Without effective civil justice, businesses couldn’t trade, individuals couldn’t enforce their rights and government couldn’t fulfil its duties,” Clarke said.

“But individuals and businesses tell me that the civil justice system at the moment can sometimes be intimidating and that they don’t know if using the system will be worth the time, expense and hassle of going to court.

“I want to make the system as easy and transparent as possible. I want people to be able to resolve their disputes cheaply and simply through the courts’ very successful mediation service and I want judges freed up to make quick and effective judgments based on the facts of a case, without unnecessary legal complication.”

A spokesman for the Law Society said the emphasis on mediation meant it was “all the more important” that business and consumers have confidence in the accreditation of mediators.

“We look forward to discussing how this can be achieved with the Civil Mediation Council and the MoJ.”

In its response to the consultation paper Solving Disputes in the County Courts, the government also said a single county court for all civil and family claims would be introduced. Restrictions on High Court judges sitting in the county courts would be lifted.

Categorised in:

Procedures Road traffic