MPs learn about lost papers and falling down ceilings in the county courts

May 24, 2024 by Rachel Rothwell

MPs learn about lost papers and falling down ceilings in the county courts

The dismal state of the county courts was laid bare before a committee of MPs earlier this month.

In an evidence session as part of the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the work of the county court, MPs were told about the dire impact of poor organisation, lack of judges and a crumbling infrastructure.

Elizabeth Gallagher, barrister at Temple Garden Chambers and a member of the Personal Injury Bar Association, explained the impact of delays. She said: ‘Parties settle because they have been waiting too long for their cases to be resolved. They turn up at court. They are in a block list. They are told by their barristers, “You’re probably not going to get heard today.” They cannot afford to take another day off work, but they also cannot cope with the emotional impact of the uncertainty of that.

‘It is very stressful for lay people to go to court, even on matters that are, objectively, not of great significance. They really do matter to the people involved, and the mental health impact of not getting your case resolved is significant.’

Emily Giles, housing lawyer at The Hyde Group, added: ‘Our geographical area is quite significant. We go as high as Peterborough, and out to Kent, and down as far as Southampton. One of the major issues for us is when trials are vacated literally the day before, because of lack of judiciary. That has happened three times in Plymouth, recently. We also see significant delays within the courts in London and the south-east.’

MPs were surprised to hear that courts often lose the relevant papers. Giles said: ‘It does happen a lot. That is the reality… The worst example I had was a case issued in Chichester. We turned up for the first hearing and were told that no judiciary were available and it would be moved to Worthing. With the logistics of moving everyone to Worthing, it was not going to happen on the same day, so the matter was adjourned.

‘We all turned up at Worthing and were told that no judiciary were available and it was going to be heard at Brighton instead. Our client office was having to deal with some very distressed neighbours who had agreed to come forward and give evidence. That case is still ongoing litigation, 18 months down the line, and we are trying to resolve the matter. That is the impact of the delays on us.’

Giles pointed to the lack of experienced staff in courts as a key part of the problem. She explained that in a previous job, around 13 years ago, she had a lot of dealings with one particular court, and during that time, ‘you got to know the court staff incredibly well – the ushers, the listing clerk and other staff’.

She added: ‘All those people – very skilled, valuable and experienced people – have started to disappear to a significant extent. They are being replaced by agency staff because there is not the remuneration or morale to keep people in place.’

Gallagher, who sits as a deputy district judge as well as being a barrister, said that ‘on a normal sitting day there will be at least one file where papers are missing. It will be more than that; it will be several files. It is a routine occurrence.’

She added: ‘The knock-on consequence of that is that, as the judge may make orders based on the paperwork in front of them, an order may be effectively wrong, because there is not full information. The party on the receiving end of that order then has to make an application to have it set aside, and pay a fee for the privilege of doing so. That requires another hearing slot in front of a judge, so someone can undo what has gone wrong. That is all because the paperwork was not there to begin with.’

Gallagher said a ‘significant factor’ in court delays was the ‘simple fact that there are not enough judges to hear the cases.’

She added: ‘That is why everything is pulled for lack of judicial availability. It is a euphemism for, “We do not have enough judges sitting to hear the number of cases that need to be disposed of.” That is the issue, because there are administrative parts of the system that staff can deal with, but, ultimately, there are matters for the judiciary, and a judge needs to look over the file. If there are not enough judges – which there are not – even when those judges are appointed, they are not given the opportunity to sit, and therefore capacity is lacking.’

Dr Natalie Byrom, senior research fellow at the Faculty of Laws, UCL, expressed frustration that a ‘catastrophically huge’ amount of money – over £1bn – has been spent since the publication of the ‘Transforming our justice system’ vision for the courts. Yet only 24 of the 44 projects that were meant to be in scope as part of the HMCTS digital reform programme have been marked as ‘complete’; and even for these, it is not possible to assess whether, the projects have delivered fully against their original scope because HMCTS has ‘not recorded things fully’.

Byrom added: ‘The county court has borne the brunt of the failure of the reform programme to deliver on its promise. A lot of what you will have seen and what is observed here [at the committee’s evidence session] is because of the fact that we are dealing with systems that are far from being end-to-end digitised. We are dealing with off-ramps and on-ramps, and back into paper, which creates huge inefficiencies for people.’

Turning to the poor state of court buildings, Gallagher described a particularly shocking example. ‘The county courts are falling down, quite literally,’ she said. ‘At Romford county court the ceiling in the waiting room fell down.. the court staff’s answer to this problem was to block off that part of the waiting room, but when you had to walk through it to get to the courtroom, you were told to run.

‘That is just one example of a civil justice system that is literally crumbling. That sets the tone and reflects what is going on in terms of the resourcing and functioning of the system.’

Details of the full evidence session are available here.

May 24, 2024 by Rachel Rothwell