Our county courts are not fit for purpose. Solicitors need to speak up.
The 1,200 members of the Property Litigation Association (PLA) spend at least 50% of their time handling property disputes, frequently in the county court.
In response to mounting frustrations and client concerns about the quality of the county court service, the association has launched an initiative to encourage court users to give case-specific feedback on their experiences.
Feedback received so far supports widespread anecdotal evidence of repeated and significant administrative failings, unacceptable delays and clients losing faith in the system. It is hoped that by presenting this, HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) will be better able to target areas for improvement.
According to its latest annual report, HMCTS received 15,272 complaints compared with 13,451 in the previous year – a 13.5% rise. This comes at a time when the service has reduced its annual operating costs by £200m (mainly by axing 3,700 jobs).
While the number of complaints only represents 1% of all claims handled, the majority of actions relate to simple debt cases where judgment is obtained by default and the risk of complaints is low.
The report does not exclude this type of action when assessing the significance of the 1% proportion of complaints, or determine whether people may not be complaining even when they receive a poor service. It fails to reveal the nature of the complaints or amount of compensation paid out, and it does not make clear whether the number of complaints is assessed on a ‘per case’ basis, even when a single case involves a number of operational failures. Feedback to the PLA suggests that multiple failures are often the reality.
It is perhaps surprising that more complaints are not made. The vast majority (93%) are resolved at the first tier. Response times apparently average less than the 10 days laid down in the complaints procedure. If a complaint is upheld, HMCTS may pay compensation to complainants. The highest awards are around £5,000, representing the costs occasioned by cancelled hearings.
But there is evidence of a worrying trend that the first-tier resolution rate is falling. In 2011/12, it was 96%; last year, with a smaller number of complaints, it was 93%.
PLA feedback reveals:
- Unacceptable delays, for example in the production of orders and in arranging hearing dates. Feedback shows it is taking some courts over eight weeks to turn around post and return issued applications.
- Court staff giving incorrect or inconsistent information (including wrong contact numbers), or being unable to say what is happening with a particular matter. Often, the computer system appears at fault.
- Unless a claim needs to be issued within 24 hours, it is no longer possible to get a ‘face-to-face service’ to ensure claims are issued before critical deadlines.
- Appointments to issue proceedings being refused, usually due to administrative failings, including staff refusing to accept claims over the counter when they are physically too large to fit in the drop box.
As a profession we appear reluctant to complain in all but the worst situations. There is a perception that complaints take up more time and money with little reward. Practitioners undoubtedly think twice about complaining to the same institution that caused them so much frustration in the first place.
Sadly, practitioners seem to accept that when dealing with HMCTS administrative failings now go with the territory. Ordinarily, when customers are unhappy with the service they take their business elsewhere. But HMCTS ‘customers’ do not have that luxury.
Michael Gove has described the courts as ‘creaking and dysfunctional’ and compared the speed of justice to that of Victorian times. He may be right.
Practitioners may be able to help by speaking up when things are not as they should be, and giving HMCTS the evidence it needs to counter further financial restraints and implement the structural changes required to make the service fit for the 21st century.
Keith Conway is chair-elect of the PLA and a partner at Clyde & Co