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Jonathan Wheeler

Managing Partner, Bolt Burdon Kemp

Quotation Marks
The appalling state of the court estate is nothing short of a national scandal

Something rotten in the court estate

Practice Notes
Something rotten in the court estate


Lengthy court delays are the biggest challenge to personal injury practices, says Jonathan Wheeler

Imagine you’re running a personal injury practice. You only get paid when you win a case and the court has dealt with the paperwork. In the meantime, you need to pay your staff, pay for your premises and shell out all manner of other costs to keep the practice going.

To stay afloat, you need to work efficiently and ensure delays are kept to a minimum. In particular, you need to keep your work in progress days (the time taken from doing the work to billing it) under control because, unless the cash comes in to pay all your regular expenses, you will never succeed – however large your turnover or profits. Turnover may be vanity and profit sanity; but cash is king! A STORY Against that background, let me tell you a true story. We settled a case for a 12-year-old client in February. The settlement required court approval and we sent the application (by consent) to our client’s local court later that month. We didn’t hear anything and emails were being ignored, so we started chasing the court – often waiting an inordinate amount of time for phones to be answered. Eventually, we were told that the court had a six-week backlog of applications to list. We advised our client we could only wait. We then received notification that the court had closed and the paperwork been sent to an alternative court. It took some time to get someone to talk to us at that court. When we eventually spoke they could not confirm they had the paperwork. We were advised to send it in again, which we did. We heard nothing. We chased again. Then we were advised that (yes, you guessed it!) the court has a six-week backlog. Since we had lodged the application four months had passed and, at the time of writing, it appears we are no nearer to receiving confirmation that the court has our application – let alone a hearing date. Infant approval hearings require the presence of the client and the litigation friend. The local court where the application was originally issued is 15 miles from our client’s home; a half-hour drive. The new court is 43 miles away; more than an hour’s drive. Our client is waiting inordinately for his settlement to be approved. Some of the damages will be invested for him until he is 18, but some money is required to repay his parents for expenses they have incurred; and for ongoing treatment. Meanwhile, my firm waits patiently to get paid. We can neither secure a payment on account of costs, nor kickstart the detailed assessment procedure until the court makes the order to approve the settlement.


I’m sure everyone would agree that the service provided by the court system in this instance has been, and continues to be atrocious. The problem is, this is not a one-off. Many cases are being similarly delayed by our court system. Yet despite the eye-watering fees we must pay to issue claims, we cannot see any improvement in the way that we and our clients are treated. To call this a court ‘service’ is a contradiction in terms: there is no service in the true sense of the word. This situation raises further questions. If the original court had a six-week backlog of work before it closed, how can it be said that it was surplus to requirements? How do Some solicitors will need deep pockets to counter the court’s delays and exorbitant court fees