A pilot scheme under which legal advisers will take over certain duties from judges in civil claims has sparked unease among solicitors concerned about potential implications for justice.
The Civil Procedure Rules were updated earlier this year to allow for judges to be removed from tasks, such as amending particulars of claim, after a vote by the Civil Procedure Rule Committee.
HM Courts and Tribunals Service says safeguards will be in place and there will be strict limits on what legal advisers, who must be solicitors or barristers, will be expected to do.
The list of duties includes: rectifying procedural errors; applications to extend time for service of claims; applications to amend particulars or the amount of the claim; and applications to add or substitute a party to proceedings. Applications to make a counterclaim may also be handled by a legal adviser rather than a judge.
The pilot comes into force on 1 October and covers claims issued at Northampton Bulk Centre, Money Claim Online and the County Court Money Claims Centre in Salford.
It has emerged from published minutes that the Law Society’s civil justice committee heard concerns about the scheme when it met in February, with members raising issues over the training advisers would receive and the fact that judicial decisions would be taken by unqualified people. There was also a belief that the CPR committee had been ‘under pressure’ to introduce the system without consultation.
Master of the rolls Lord Dyson was questioned about the pilot during a meeting at the Society last week. He stressed that the scheme will go ahead only once staff are properly trained and they will work closely with at least one deputy district judge.
Keith Etherington (pictured), Society council member for civil justice, told the Gazette: ‘In the year when court fees rise by over 600%, a fundamental principle of our justice system, the right to be heard by a judge, is being removed.
‘Litigants often get one chance at bringing a claim, they deserve for it to be dealt with by qualified judges who understand, from their experience, the competing issues and the justice of any given situation.’
The practice direction for the pilot allows parties to request that any decision of a legal adviser be reconsidered by a district judge within 14 days.
A spokesman for HMCTS said: ‘The CPR committee has approved the pilot which has been developed with the judiciary to ensure it is clear which work will be delegated and that there will be judicial oversight of it.’