Civil litigation rule-makers insist they are considering immediate reforms to ease pressure on lawyers struggling to meet deadlines and court orders.
The Civil Procedure Rule Committee said this week that potential rule amendments are ‘under urgent consideration’ and could be made imminently. Litigators say they cannot keep to prescribed time limits working remotely and are not in a position to meet clients to fulfil procedural obligations.
Insurers and claimant firms have taken matters into their own hands already, agreeing a four-week protocol to freeze limitation dates in all personal injury cases and allow defendant requests for more time to serve a defence.
The truce was conceived between claimant firm Thompsons Solicitors and the Association of British Insurers. More than 40 other claimant firms and several insurance firms have now committed themselves to the agreement.
Speaking to the House of Commons justice committee on Tuesday, lord chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP said that ‘flexibility is the order of the day’ in civil litigation, adding: ‘If a limitation period is missed on a PI claim then circumstances of Covid-19 clearly would be a material factor for a court to consider’.
But there continue to be questions why specific directions are not coming from those in charge of making civil procedure rules.
In an open letter to the CPRC, barrister and blogger Gordon Exall said it was ‘ridiculous’ that parties are operating against a background where they are prohibited, by the rules, from agreeing more than a 28-day extension for meeting deadlines.
‘It is ludicrous that parties who cannot meet time limits because of extraordinary circumstances face sanctions,’ he added.
Exall, whose letter has received widespread support, said the rule committee should immediately allow general extensions of time and suspend the requirement that a party sign their own witness statement and disclosure statement. He suggests that a statement that the document has been seen by, or read to, the party in question should suffice.
If rule-makers hesitate, he warned that the courts will be ‘swamped’ with applications to extend time and ‘plagued’ with applications for relief from sanctions for years to come.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.