Reforming the Civil Justice system
The Government has recently announced plans to change the ways in which the civil justice system works. These are the outcome of the Consultation exercise launched in 2011. The principal changes are:
1. Expanding mediation by building on the mediation service for those who have small claims. This service has received very high levels of customer satisfaction, and has been used to resolve almost 15,000 disputes over the past two years. And, since it is primarily a telephone-based service, that means up to 30,000 parties that have been able to resolve their disputes without ever having to travel to court. With the introduction of automatic referral to the small claims mediation service, the Government wants to see this service expand to offer mediation to all 80,000 disputes that are currently allocated to the small claims track (i.e. those under £5,000).
2. Expanding the small claims track, initially to £10,000. Many of the cases that fell into the small claims track back in 1999, when Lord Woolf’s reforms were introduced, are now routinely treated as fast track cases with associated costs. The Government may consider a further increase to £15,000 in due course. The current lower limits for housing and personal injury cases will be unchanged. In addition, judges will have power to transfer suitable business to business cases with a dispute value over £10,000 to the small claims track without requiring the consent of the parties. The judiciary will also have the option of referring more complex cases with a case value below £10,000 to the fast track if that is considered appropriate.
3 Introducing a fixed-cost simplified claims procedure for more types of personal injury claims, similar to that which was introduced in 2010 for road traffic accidents under £10,000.
4. Going ahead, as soon as is feasible with proposals for streamlining enforcement processes, implementing some of the Courts, Tribunals and Enforcement Act provisions and to introduce a minimum threshold for Orders for Sale.
5. Making structural reforms This will include introducing a single county court jurisdiction for England and Wales, which will facilitate greater flexibility in the use of courts around the country and enable more proceedings to be issues from centralised processing centres. A number of specialist areas of work will be removed from the county court and transferred to the High Court. The Government will increase the financial limit below which equity claims may be commenced in the county courts from £30,000 to £350,000. And the financial limit below which non-PI claims may not be commenced in the High Court will be increased from £25,000 to £100,000.
Many of the more potentially interesting changes floated in the original consultation paper, e.g. greater use of telephone hearings, more cases determined on the papers alone, have been left on the back-burner at least for the time being.
The Response paper does not set out a timetable for the implementation of these changes; but since none of them seems to require legislation, it is presumed that they will come about by administrative decision in the coming months.
It is notable that, with the honourable exception of the Guardian, none of these important reforms appear to have been thought worth a mention in the mass news media; but these are exactly the sort of changes that are relevant to the wider public, not just to lawyers.
The press release is at http://www.justice.gov.uk/news/press-releases/moj/pressrelease090212a.htm
The full response is at http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/consultations/solving-disputes-in-cc-response.pdf