Archive for June 2014
In March 2014, the Government published guidance on the operation of the revised Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme.
This can be seen at https://www.gov.uk/criminal-injuries-compensation-a-guide
Accompanying the creation of the single Family Court and the single County Court, the Government moved swiftly to introduce new court fees, adopting – for the most part – the principles it set out in its consultation document published in late 2013 (see blog March 2014).
The Government has acted to introduce new fees which, broadly, increase as a case proceeds – with court hearings incurring rather higher fees than hitherto. Those interested in the details can see the new fees set out in https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/court-fees-proposals-for-reform.
Interestingly, the announcement of these increases was made on the same day that a research report was published which suggested that on the whole litigants thought the fee levels were reasonable and would not have been deterred from bringing a case simply because of the fees charged. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-role-of-court-fees-in-affecting-users-decisions-to-bring-cases-to-the-civil-and-family-courts.
Time will tell whether the new fees act as a deterrent to access to justice; intuitively it could be anticipated that there would be some effect.
In addition to creating the new Family Court, the Crime and Courts Act 2013 also established the single County Court. This is achieved by making provision for the removal of existing geographical jurisdictional boundaries from the county courts. This should allow greater flexibility in the use of courts and the removal of unnecessary traps for the unwary.
Existing court buildings will remain in use as the new County Court will sit at various locations within England and Wales in a way similar to the High Court. It will have a single seal and a single identity to indicate its national jurisdiction. The court houses in which it will convene will act as hearing centres with court administrative offices attached to them.
The introduction of the single County Court requires consequential amendments throughout the Civil Procedure Rules, for example the renaming of individual county courts as County Court hearing centres.
All claims issued at the County Court Money Claims Centre or at the renamed County Court Business Centre (including those issued online through Money Claim Online) will remain at the business centre of receipt up to the point where a hearing is required, or the claimant wishes to enforce a judgment other than by way of issue of a warrant. Restrictions on where particular types of claim may be issued (e.g. forfeiture claims) are removed. However, if a claim has not been started in the appropriate County Court hearing centre, then, following issue, the claim or application will be sent or transferred to the appropriate hearing centre in accordance with the relevant rules and practice directions relating to those proceedings.
Alongside the creation of the single County Court, the Government has abolished the need for the Lord Chancellor to give his approval for every occasion that a High Court Judge hears a case at a County Court, removing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and making sure judges can sit where they are needed.
The Government has also made a series of changes to the powers that can be exercised by the different levels of the civil court system. For example, the maximum limit for the value of equity cases which can be held at local county courts had remained unchanged since the 1990s at £30,000. Any cases above that level had to go to the High Court instead, creating an ever-greater workload burden there. So reflecting current house prices, the level has been raised to £350,000, so that these cases can once again be settled at local county courts without the delay of going to the High Court.
Similarly, for cases about claims for money, the Government increased the minimum value where cases can be commenced at the High Court, from £25,000 to £100,000. This again reflects long-term inflation and will make sure county courts can deal with smaller cases more quickly and the High Court will not be unnecessarily clogged up. The exception to this is for personal injury cases, for which other reforms have already been put in place over the past few years, including the overhaul of no-win no-fee deals and creation and extension of the Claims Portal which now sees tens of thousands of cases dealt with quickly and efficiently.
The changes have also made it possible for freezing orders to be issued in more circumstances at the County Court, to reflect the higher value of the cases they will be hearing.
The view of the Minister are in https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-quiet-revolution-in-our-civil-courts
The long-awaited Family Court opened for business on 22 April 2014.
Following enactment of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, instead of family cases being divided amongst Family Proceedings Courts (as Magistrates’ Courts dealing with family matters are called), county courts and the Family Division of the High Court, there is now a single point of contact for all family matters that need resolution by courts. In practice, the judges that formerly undertook family work will continue to do so, and the buildings used for family cases will be the same. But questions of how matters are to be divided between the different types of judge will be decided by judicial administration on a practical basis. It is specifically provided that certain types of simple cases may be dealt with by magistrates sitting on their own, rather than in panels. Justices’ clerks and their assistants are also given wider powers to assist the judiciary in straightforward cases.
As you will be aware, the Children and Families Act 2014 was given Royal Assent on 13 March and a number of significant family justice reforms will be introduced from 22 April.
The reforms to the family justice system are aimed at improving the way the system functions as a whole. In particular, we want to make sure that the welfare of children is at the centre of decisions, reduce delays in proceedings, and encourage families to use court as a last resort to resolve disputes. We are:
- Placing a requirement on a person to attend a meeting to find out about mediation before they are allowed to make certain applications to the family court, for example, disputes over finances or children arrangements (unless exemptions apply – such as in cases of domestic violence).
- Moving to the use of child arrangements orders (CAOs) in place of ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ orders.
- Streamlining court processes for divorce and dissolution of a civil partnership by removing the requirement for the court to consider the arrangements for children as part of these processes.
- Introducing a 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision cases, to improve the timeliness of finding a permanent placement for children. The court will have the discretion to extend cases by up to eight weeks at a time, should that be necessary to resolve proceedings justly.
- Restricting the use of expert evidence in children (both public and private law) proceedings to that which is necessary to resolve the proceedings justly and requires courts to have regard to the impact of delay on the child when deciding whether to permit expert evidence in children proceedings and whether the court can obtain information from parties already involved;
- Reducing unnecessary administrative work, by removing the need to renew interim care orders and interim supervision orders as frequently, allowing the courts to set interim orders which are in line with the timetable for the case.
The Children and Families Act 2014 is also brought into effect on the same day. This implements the recommendations of the Norgrove Committee on Family Justice. It
- makes attendance at a meeting to find out about mediation a compulsory requirement, before any proceedings before a court can be started (save for exceptional cases, e.g. where there is domestic violence) so separating couples must consider alternatives to court battles when resolving financial matters and arrangements for child contact;
- replaces residence and contact orders with ‘child arrangements orders’ designed to encourage parents to focus on the child’s needs rather than what they see as their own ‘rights’;
- introduces a 26 week time limit for care proceedings to further reduce the excessive delays in these cases and give greater certainty to the children involved (this can be extended by up to 8 weeks if necessary to resolve a case justly);
- streamlines the process of obtaining a divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership;
- restricts the use of expert witnesses in both private and public law children proceedings, requiring the court to consider the impact of delay on the child and whether the information could actually be obtained from parties already before the court.
The impact of cuts to legal aid are that it appears there are many more litigants in person before the courts. It remains to be seen whether, when the changes have bedded down, this remains the case.
An issue which has received a lot of public attention in recent months is the way in which some witnesses in criminal trials are required to give their evidence. In a pilot experiment in three courts, including Kingston Crown Court, the most vulnerable victims and witnesses are able to give their evidence and be cross-examined away from the intense atmosphere of a live courtroom, in an attempt to spare them from what could be aggressive questioning in front of jury, judge and their alleged attacker.
People who may find it difficult to give their best possible evidence in a courtroom environment and all child victims will be considered for pre-trial cross-examination. This allows them to give their evidence and be cross-examined by both prosecution and defence barristers ahead of the trial, in front of a judge. The video recording is then shown to the jury as part of the trial. Previously victims could have been subject to lengthy, stressful questioning by multiple barristers in view of jurors and the public gallery.
This initiative follows the recent review of the Victims’ Charter.
If the pilot works, the new procedure will be rolled out across the country. This will be particularly relevant to cases involving the abuse of children and victims of rape and other assaults.
The 4th Annual Report into the implementation of reports by the Law Commission for England and Wales was published in May 2014. It lists the reports that have been implemented or which are in the process of implementation. It also sets out the 2 reports which the Government has decided should not be legislated, though in one case, dealing with the credibility of experts giving evidence in criminal cases, the Government argues that this has been achieved through amendments to the Criminal Courts Procedure Rules. (The other – a major report on the reform of Partnership law is not going ahead.)
There is a long list of reports on which final decisions of Government are still awaited.
Interestingly the report notes that the Law Commission’s report Renting Homes, which the Government in Westminster decided should not go ahead, is being taken forward by the Government in Wales.