This article first appeared in the Law Society Gazette on 31 March 2014.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that as a former solicitor, and now Courts Minister, I am immensely proud of the UK’s court system. Our legal services are the best in the world, and it is no wonder to me that their reputation stretches around the globe. I am proud, just like others in the legal profession, of the achievements that have followed the regular long hours of hard work we have put in.
But our civil courts, where much of our legal business takes place and where most of this glowing reputation has been forged, rarely get to spend time in the limelight.
The media prefers to focus on the drama of the criminal courts, and eagerly debates every high-profile case and sentence, especially when a celebrity is involved.
Which is perhaps why there has, up to now, not been much interest in the quiet revolution that is happening in our civil court system. Changes which I believe will help us to sustain and build on our outstanding global image.
This month, the new single County Court for England and Wales became operational, bringing with it a series of common sense changes which will complete several years of work and make the civil courts more modern, more efficient and, most importantly, better for all users.
The changes represent the end result of recommendations first made by the retired Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Henry Brooke who was commissioned to carry out a review in 2008, and which had been taken forward by the Government as proposals in the Solving Disputes in the County Courts Consultation in 2011.
For users of the courts, it will be important to be aware of the changes, which will mean differences in the day-to-day business of the courts.
The biggest change has been the establishment of the single County Court itself. The title could be, perhaps, confusing to the uninitiated so let me make clear what it does and doesn’t mean. It does not mean there will be one single physical building where all civil cases will be heard. We will continue to have county court hearing centres across the country which will correspond to the existing locations.
What it does mean, however, is that jurisdictional barriers will be removed which have, in the past, prevented some cases from being issued at, or moved to, the most suitable venues and, more importantly, prevented the best and most efficient use of judges’ time as well as the other resources needed to hear cases at different levels. It will also allow us to make improvements behind the scenes so our courts can run more efficiently and flexibly.
For users the most notable effect of all the changes will be that they can submit claims more easily and they will find that the whole system runs more smoothly.
Alongside the creation of the single County Court, we have abolished the need for the Lord Chancellor to give his approval for every occasion that a High Court Judge hears a case at a County Court, removing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and making sure judges can sit where they are needed.
We have also made a series of changes to the powers that can be exercised by the different levels of the civil court system.
We all know that house prices in the UK have soared over the past two decades. But the maximum limit for the value of equity cases which can be held at local county courts had, until now, remained unchanged since the 1990s at £30,000. Any cases above that level have had to go to the High Court instead, creating an ever-greater workload burden there. So we have raised that limit to reflect current house prices, to £350,000, so that these cases can once again be settled at local county courts without the delay of going to the High Court.
Similarly, for cases about claims for money, we have increased the minimum value where cases can be commenced at the High Court, from £25,000 to £100,000. This again reflects long-term inflation and will make sure county courts can deal with smaller cases more quickly and the High Court will not be unnecessarily clogged up. The exception to this will be for personal injury cases, for which other reforms have already been put in place over the past few years, including the overhaul of no-win no-fee deals and creation and extension of the Claims Portal which now sees tens of thousands of cases dealt with quickly and efficiently.
The changes have also made it possible for freezing orders to be issued in more circumstances at the County Court, to reflect the higher value of the cases they will be hearing.
Reducing the caseload burdens from the High Court has also enabled us to make changes so their expertise can be used to hear some specialist proceedings, including applications to vary trusts and reduction in capital cases, which will no longer be heard at county courts.
Of course it isn’t just the Single County Court which came into effect this month. On 6 April the enforcement process was overhauled too when our substantial bailiff reforms were implemented, signalling the end of bad behaviour from rogue enforcement agents, with new conduct rules, a formal fee structure and a certification regime to ensure bailiffs are properly trained.
All of this means that our civil courts will work quicker and better for those who look to them to resolve disputes, which has got to be good news. These changes are the result of a lot of work over several years from many in the judiciary, legal profession and elsewhere and I would like to express my gratitude to them. They may not have attracted the attention drawn to dramatic criminal cases, or even other reforms being made by the Ministry of Justice, but they will make a notable and positive change to our courts and allow us to keep on building on the formidable reputation of our legal services.