lady justice


Court reforms are coming, but
we're not there yet!

Posted: 14 August 2023

Insight from Sian Stanton

Patience is a virtue (and essential when it comes to civil court cases). Reports of delays might not be new, but they continue to get longer and longer. Last May, it was newsworthy that Thanet County Court had a wait time of over 456 days (15 months) 1.

But these figures are shadowed by the latest statistics from Dartford in June 2023, who’re running at 829 days 2. These examples are of course on the higher end of the scale, but a 2+ year wait time for fast and multi-track claims evidences an issue.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), claimed: “our courts were already stretched thin before the pandemic, and the backlogs now faced pose a real threat to timely access to justice.” 3

The impact of continued delays

Although only a small percentage of claims require proceedings to be issued, they tend to be the more contentious and complicated cases. For law firms, that means the amount of work in progress (WIP) tied up in these cases is likely to be substantial. This can make managing and planning cash flow increasingly challenging.

Lubbock Fine Chartered Accountants found that even the most prudent of firms are feeling the pinch of increased salary bills, energy and Professional Indemnity Insurance renewals 4. Combine this with a rise in corporation tax to 25% and the perfect storm could be looming on the horizon. Could this lead to an increase in law firm insolvencies in late 2023?   

It’s also important not to forget that extended court delays can have a significant impact on claimants. The prolonged wait for a trial can be extremely stressful, with potential negative impacts to both claimants mental and physical health. Getting a claim settled is often an essential step in the road to recovery.

What's next?

The problems leading to delays are multi-faceted – from a basic issue like having buildings that aren’t fit for purpose, to technological solutions being implemented before they’re properly tested and stable. These failings didn’t suddenly appear overnight but were further compounded in 2020 by the devastating impacts of the pandemic. Solving these problems in a meaningful way is complicated and expensive.

Is the heavy investment helping?

In 2018, more than £1b was allocated to HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) over a seven-year period with the intention of modernising the courts and tribunals system. The PAC report published in June 2023 noted that there’s approximately £120m of that budget left, with little more than half the planned projects completed. The report also expressed its concerns at the delays in delivering the reforms, accrediting them to the “HMCTS’ consistent underestimation of the scale and complexity of these reforms” 5. Although this is most applicable to the much-maligned ‘Common Platform’ for criminal cases, it also applies to those civil court workstreams. 

Law Society President Lubna Shuja highlights “reform is long overdue but mustn’t be done in a way that adds to the burden on judges, court staff, solicitors and barristers who are already overstretched. Neither should it make the long delays faced by court users worse” 6.  But with timescales for completed work often reset, there’s no doubt this is not only costly, but also a source of frustration for court staff and users alike. It’s clear that a significant sum of money is required to overhaul the way our courts work, but it’s evident a proper plan and realistic timescales are also critical for success. 

Success also means that the system works for everyone. There are real concerns that vulnerable users are being left behind. Vulnerable users may require additional support to navigate the justice system as it gets more and more digital. Approximately around 7% of households in the UK don’t have access to the internet, with the elderly and financially vulnerable most likely to be affected. 7 HMCTS has recognised that some user groups are at risk of digital exclusion from accessing justice, but we’re yet to see how they resolve this issue.  

Stakeholders must be a key part of the reform process to ensure sustainability and suitability of any new way of working. It’s important HMCTS engage with those using new systems, and ironically, perhaps look to slow down the pace at which they’re launched. This will help to ensure they get it right first time. Solicitors are too familiar with portals which have been rushed, which just result in more delays and frustrations than before. Given how often court staff are intervening with manual overrides or inputting to take account of the inadequacies of systems, it’s clear delays aren’t being mitigated. 

England and Wales have long held a reputation for providing outstanding levels of fairness and justice, with highly qualified staff and a keen sense of doing the right thing.  Adapting to more modern ways of working shouldn’t derail all the great work the legal profession does for individuals.