Small claims are taking almost three months longer to come to trial than a year ago as the pandemic puts pressure on the county courts, official figures have revealed.
Quarterly statistics released by the Ministry of Justice show that from July to September it took an average of 48.8 weeks between a small claim being issued and the claim going to trial. This was 10.7 weeks longer than in the same period in 2019.
Multi/fast track claims took on average 62 weeks to reach a trial – 2.6 weeks longer than in July to September 2019.
The figures give a sense of the impact of the pandemic on a civil justice jurisdiction already facing increasing delays. While backlogs in the criminal courts have drawn most of the attention, the civil justice system, with outdated IT and dozens of permanent court closures since 2010, has its own problems.
In total, 11,000 trials were held from July to September 2020, down 37% from the same period in 2019. Of the claims that went to trial, 8,100 (74%) were small claims (down 35%) and 2,800 (26%) were fast and multi-track trials (down 42%).
The MoJ says Covid-related delays are likely to be observed sooner in the small claims process because these claims are more likely to have reached a hearing. To deal with the backlog, the courts have encouraged re-referring existing cases for mediation and early neutral evaluation, where a judge will try and engineer agreement without any finding on fact. The delay figures will look worse, officials say, because the outcomes of these cases are not used within timeliness calculations. This year’s drop in cases - county court claims were down 47% on the same period in 2019 – is also expected to filter through into less pressure on court services in the coming months.
The MoJ said: ‘To help the system cope with demand, additional venues – referred to as Nightingale courts – have been provided to add temporary capacity to hear cases and help the court and tribunal system to run as effectively and safely as possible during the coronavirus outbreak.
‘We are working with representative bodies to understand the expected demand and will continue to monitor future trends in both volumes and timeliness.’