Civil court system faces ‘meltdown’
The civil and family court system is facing the prospect of chaos as the government prepares to cut face-to-face counter services and problems persist at the Salford civil claims centre, lawyers have warned.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) wrote to civil and family court users earlier this year to say that it was to replace face-to-face services with online, telephone, post and drop-box facilities and to cut counter hours by two-thirds to 11am–1pm. Keith Etherington, Law Society council member for civil litigation, said court users have been unanimous in their opposition to the changes.
Responding to the letter, Kent Law Society told HMCTS that opening court counters for just two hours a day, coupled with cuts to legal aid, ‘would have a huge impact on access to justice’. An expected surge in the number of litigants in person, including people with learning difficulties and no access to computers, made the society ‘question whether HMCTS has carried out its public sector equality duties’.
Oldham Law Association wrote that the counter’s role was to guide people who cannot afford legal representation. Removing this facility would have the ‘knock-on effect’ of simple problems being dealt with by district judges, ‘creating costs, wasted hearing dates and delays’.
The Law Society’s civil justice committee said that cutting counter hours would be in breach of the Court Charter 1994, which states that 10am-4pm is the ‘national minimum standard’. Reductions in face-to-face services would also cause ‘delay, confusion and frustration for users and court staff’, the committee said.
Etherington added: ‘The civil court system is fast approaching meltdown. This HMCTS letter is a declaration of intent, not a consultation, and we fear that the proposals are going to be pushed through without a thought for access to justice.’ An HMCTS spokesman said that it will consider court users’ responses before implementing any changes.
Meanwhile, the Gazette has learned that solicitors are still experiencing problems with the centralised civil claims centre in Salford (pictured). Commercial litigator Lucy Holland, of Manchester firm Lopian Wagner, said that dealing with Salford was ‘hugely frustrating and a constant struggle against a system that simply doesn’t work’.
Personal injury solicitor Mark Parsons, of West Midlands firm Higgs & Sons, said: ‘We had a claim form returned, unissued, because Salford said that limitation had expired. It is not up to the issuing civil servant to make such a decision - limitation is a matter for the defence. I will be complaining formally.’
No one from Salford was available for comment as the Gazette went to press.