One of the country’s busiest civil courts will open courtrooms for trials from 15 June to address a growing backlog of hundreds of cases.
HM Courts & Tribunals Service will open seven courts at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, with three dedicated to civil hearings and four to family.
While some urgent work has continued at the multi-storey centre since lockdown began, the vast majority has been transferred remotely. This has largely worked well for procedural matters but has created a major build-up of unresolved cases.
In detailed guidance issued ahead of the re-opening, Greater Manchester designated judge His Honour Judge Bird said that by the middle of May the backlog stood at 511 small claims trials, 200 fast track trials, 25 multi-track trials and 311 possession claims. Between mid-May and 28 August, a further 752 fast-track trials and 50 multi-track trials were listed, with a further 256 claims awaiting allocation to track.
Bird said it was necessary to start to deal with these cases, but there was no sign of a swift return to normal working practices.
‘It is likely that resources will be limited and stretched for some time,’ he added. ‘During this transitional period, as we work towards returning to business-as-usual, it will be important to use court resources as efficiently as possible.’
Users are warned that the civil justice centre is likely to look and feel different if they are able to return there for work, with available courtrooms a ‘shared, scarce resource’. Cases will not be over-listed and it will not be possible to block list and float trials. Cases may be given a reduced time estimate when listed for hearing in open court, and lawyers are warned to expect judges to manage cases ‘robustly’.
Claimants must tell the court how many people will be coming into the court to attend the trial, which may be vacated if more than five are due. To speed up security checks, counsel need not robe during this period, and start times may be staggered to reduce the number of people entering the building at one time.
No food or drinking facilities will be available in the court building, including water fountains, and the café and prayer room will be closed. Conference rooms will be available but limited.
Bird said parties will be expected to ‘make all sensible efforts’ to avoid trial and settlements should be made in advance rather than on the day of trial. A short skeleton argument may be required to save time spent on closing submissions, and written arguments that need to be made should be included in the electronic bundle. Parties are reminded in the guidance of the court’s powers to strike out a statement if there has been a failure to comply with a court order or procedural rule.
For small claims, the default position for trials where both parties are represented is a remote hearing. Where at least one party is unrepresented, the matter will be triaged by a full-time district judge with a view to finding cases that can be heard in open court.