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Small claims taking 51 weeks to go to trial as litigants wait for justice

By John Hyde >>

(2 December 2021)

The crisis in the county court was brought into focus today as the government revealed that even small claims are taking almost a year to come to trial.

Statistics, published by the Ministry of Justice for the July to September quarter, reveal the mean time taken for small claims to go to trial was 50.7 weeks – more than 12 weeks longer than in the same period in 2019.

For multi and fast track cases, litigants can expect to wait 70 weeks to go to trial – a period which is now 11 weeks longer than in 2019.

These delays came at a time when the number of county court claims was down 27% on the same period in 2019 to 404,000. The number of claims being defended has fallen 8%.

The MoJ said small claims have been ‘disproportionately impacted’ by Covid-19 in terms of timeliness and are less suited to remote hearings. The department added: ‘Measures put in place to help with the backlog of small claims include small claims mediation (re-referring cases to mediation) and early neutral evaluation (where a judge will try and engineer agreement without any finding on the fact).

‘These measures, when successful, result in outcomes which are not used within the timeliness calculations.’

Despite these explanations, the latest figures will confirm for many that civil justice is struggling just as badly as the criminal justice system, where the backlog of cases has attracted significant coverage. Recent announcements by the government have concentrated on extra funding for the criminal courts but offered little for county courts, which is still heavily reliant on a paper-based system.

Speaking yesterday at an event jointly hosted by the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), justice committee chair Sir Bob Neill MP said civil justice was ‘nowhere near’ high enough up the government’s priorities. ‘You’ve got a system that’s still paper-based, the technology to do remote hearings is very variable, the court staff frankly are variable and are some of the worst paid in the public services, [and] there’s a shortage of suitable judiciary there.’

Matthew Maxwell Scott, executive director at ACSO said the MoJ should give urgent attention to reducing court delays as too many litigants are currently being denied access to justice.

‘The prospect of waiting well over a year to hear your case in court is a hammer blow for civil justice, and the latest figures, which show delays of just under a year for small claims cases and nearly 18 months for multi/fast track cases, is unacceptable,’ he added. ‘That is around three months longer than the equivalent period in 2019, meaning ministers cannot simply blame the pandemic, as court delays had already reached a tipping point before Covid.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)