Record court waiting times mean UK has a third-rate justice system
By Law News
ACSO urges ministers to ‘get a grip’ and set clear targets for improvement
The latest government data on court waiting times in England & Wales show continuing long delays and frustrations for consumers seeking access to justice.
The Civil Justice Statistics Quarterly for September to November 2023 (i), published on 7th December, shows little to no improvement in performance, with record highs continuing despite fewer cases entering the system.
The new data reveal that the mean time for small claims and multi/fast track claims to go to trial are 55.6 weeks and 76.4 weeks respectively, well above the 38.1 weeks and 59.4 weeks experienced in 2019 before the pandemic and a month more than 51.9 weeks for small claims and flat against the 79.9 weeks for multi/fast track in the previous quarter of 2023.
For the Employment Tribunal, there have been no new numbers since April 2022, with ministers saying the data is “currently undergoing quality assurance following the implementation of a new case management system and is unavailable for consideration.”
Matthew Maxwell Scott, Executive Director of ACSO, said the numbers reflect poorly on attempts by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to turn the situation around.
“Every quarter brings fresh disappointments, and it’s not as though any of this can be laid at the door of covid as the problems predate the pandemic,” he said, adding: “The government seems largely to have given up on civil justice, and the system now feels third rate.
“Minsters who trumpet the value and importance of justice and the rule of law are getting a hollow laugh from citizens and their representatives who are struggling to access the civil court.”
ACSO’s campaign to highlight civil justice logjams has been boosted after the House of Commons Justice Select Committee’s decided to hold an inquiry into the problems at the county courts, with its call for evidence closing on 15 December.
Maxwell Scott said: “We urge people working on the front line of civil justice to submit their experiences of what is really happening, and how delays, cancellations and added costs are letting down those who depend on our courts. In the New Year, the committee should grill ministers and officials on what they intend to do about this, and by when.
“Currently it feels as though there is no strategy, no targets and no progress being made. We cannot continue like this; irreparable damage is being done to public confidence in our civil justice system.”
Meanwhile weekly data published from the Civil National Business Centre (CNBC) in Northampton – the new national processing centre for civil claims - shows a similarly patchy performance, with the time taken for different processes falling in some areas but still rising in others. This is despite it having had a ‘recovery plan’ in place since August to reduce backlogs.
For example, the average time for the issue of a new claim on paper is down to 11 working days from a high of 40 days in August. However, some waits are starting to tick up again, with the processing of a defence/counterclaim before issuing the directions questionnaire now at 28 days, down from a high of 45 working days in July but well in excess of the 10 working days taken in October.
Meanwhile processing a directions questionnaire now takes an average of 41 working days having fallen to 28 in October, while receipt of court applications to judicial comment or order is at 63 working days, down from 95 working days in July but back up from 54 working days in November.
Maxwell Scott continued: “While the previous excuse that delays were being caused by the transfer of civil administration work from Salford to Northampton was understandable once, it has worn pretty thin.
“There have been welcome improvements against some dire statistics in the summer, but in some areas these are ticking back up. Once again, HMCTS needs to explain why this is the case and what it intends to do about it.
“The numbers represent material delays for consumers and can significantly increase costs, and on top of this we are expecting to see court fees rise by a further 10 per cent in March, subject to the government’s ongoing consultation.
“The data itself only appears sporadically and is often inconsistent, which further undermines public confidence.
“It’s not acceptable to have such a sub-standard service shambling along. Ministers and officials need to grip this and not hide behind excuses that no longer wash.
“As a first step, HMCTS should set out its Service Level Agreements to consumers and publish an action plan to reduce any processing time, for example, to a maximum of 10 working days.”
The Association of Consumer Support Organisations (www.acso.org.uk) was established as a not-for-profit membership body in January 2019 to represent the interests of consumers as claimants in the UK’s civil justice system. Its members are highly reputable and trusted organisations who are united in providing the highest standards of service in support of those consumers.
Our mission is to engage positively with policymakers, regulators, the wider industry and the media to ensure there is a properly functioning, competitive and sustainable civil justice system. By doing this we will ensure there is a greater balance in the public policy debate and therefore better consumer outcomes.