Civil Justice in England & Wales has been branded a ‘postcode lottery’ by James Maxey, the Managing Partner of claimant personal injury firm, Express Solicitors.[i]
His comments come out of research jointly undertaken by Express Solicitors and the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), which sought to calculate the length of time between service of the claim form and conclusion of the first costs and case management conference (CCMC).
Lamentably, they ascertained that this period can last up to 15-months for fast-track and multi-track civil cases, with the worst performing court being Thanet County Court, in Kent. There, claimants wait an average of 456-days to complete their first CCMC.
With many of these affected claimants seeking compensation for work-related personal injuries, Mr. Maxey considers the data collected to be ‘of huge concern’.
Although the Government has largely blamed Covid for ‘chaos’ in the courts, ACSO’s Executive Director, Matthew Maxwell Scott, argues that the justice system has been ‘starved of funding for years before the pandemic’.
As such, he is requesting ‘targets set for what ministers regard as an acceptable delay between application and hearing, backed by sufficient funding to ensure that courts have the means to meet those targets, including making sure there are enough judges to hear cases’.[ii]
That being said, the latest Quarterly Civil Justice statistics released by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) demonstrate the reality that judges are sitting more days than ever before.[iii] In 2021, judges sat a record-breaking 330,000 days in court – 19% (53,000) more than in 2020.
Yet, the average time taken for multi and fast track claims to reach trial in 2021 (72.4 weeks) was the 3rd highest figure on record – surpassed only by times documented in 2001 (73.0 weeks) and 2000 (74.0 weeks). Early signs from 2022 convey a mirror image, with trial wait times in Q1 of this year (73.0 weeks) only 0.5 weeks shorter than in Q1 of last year (73.5 weeks). There are no signs of a return to pre-pandemic (Q1 of 2019) levels (58.5 weeks).[iv]
The assumption would therefore be that County Court claims are increasing and that this is circumventing efforts to shorten time to reach trial, in spite of the fact that judges are spending more time sat in court.
However, the total number of County Court claims was just under 409,500 in Q1 of 2022, which is only 1% up on the same period in 2021 (403,500) and, more noticeably, down 24% on the same period in 2019 (537,500). The annual outlook is generally more positive for the claims market, with last year’s total claims figure (1,582,500) bridging the gap between pre-pandemic (consistently around 2,000,000) and height of the pandemic levels (1,296,000 in 2020).[v]
Personal injury claims, though, are not following the same upward trajectory. Since 2017, claims of this type have been falling year-on-year. In Q1 of 2022, 18,064 claims were issued in the County Court, which represents a 39% decline from Q1 of 2019, but perhaps more surprisingly, an equally stark 32% and 27% decline from the same period in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Grim reading of the market is illustrated clearly in the graph, below.
It is evident that the Civil Justice system is still recovering from the impact of COVID-19, but significant work is required to clear large backlogs and the size of these backlogs will only be exacerbated if the claims issuing market edges closer and closer back to pre-pandemic health during the course of 2022.
[i] Nick Hilborne, ‘“Postcode lottery” with civil cases waiting up to 15 months for CCMCs’ (7 June 2022 Legal Futures) <https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/postcode-lottery-with-civil-cases-waiting-up-to-15-months-for-ccmcs> accessed 7 July 2022.
[ii] ‘Civil cases taking years to come to court; new data shows civil justice postcode lottery’ (26 May 2022 ACSO) <https://acso.org.uk/news/202205/civil-cases-taking-years-come-court-new-data-shows-civil-justice-postcode-lottery> accessed 7 July 2022.
[iii] Ministry of Justice, ‘Civil Justice Statistics Quarterly: January to March 2022’ (1 June 2022 GOV.UK) <https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/civil-justice-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2022/civil-justice-statistics-quarterly-january-to-march-2022> accessed 7 July 2022.