In July 2015, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls commissioned a report into the structure of the civil courts in England and Wales, to coincide with a number of other reforms currently in progress such as Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service Reform Programme.
Lord Justice Briggs published his much awaited final report in July 2016, in which he considers the five key weaknesses in the current court structure, which he describes as:
- Inadequate access to justice (for individuals and small businesses)
- Major hindrance due to the use of paper and obsolete and inadequate IT facilities
- Delays in the Court of Appeal
- Lack of investment outside of London
- Weaknesses in the processes for enforcing Judgments and Orders
Lord Justice Briggs then makes a number of wide-ranging proposals and recommendations which will no doubt have an impact on anyone engaged in litigation in England and Wales. The key recommendations include:
- The Online Court / Online Solutions Court - perhaps the most important recommendation which has been proposed with the intention of improving access to justice - a new three-stage online court designed to be used by people with minimum assistance from lawyers. It is thought that, once fully established, it will eventually become the compulsory forum for resolving straightforward money claims valued at up to £25,000 (with some exceptions), with more complex and important cases being transferred upwards to the higher courts. The proposed timing for the launch of the Online Court is April 2020.
- High Court v County Court - the threshold for any claim to be issued in the High Court be immediately increased to £250,000 and subsequently to £500,000.
- Case Officers - senior body of court lawyers and other officials who, following training (and subsequently, supervision) by Judges, can assist with certain administrative functions such as paperwork and uncontentious matters that would usually take up the time of a Judge.
- Enforcement of Judgments and Orders - there should be a single default court used for the enforcement of all Judgments and Orders of the civil courts (including the new Online Court), with all enforcement procedures being digitised, centralised and rationalised.
- Mediation / ADR - re-establish a court-based out of hours mediation service in County Court hearing centres.
- Deployment of Judges - the principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions and may involve allocating High Court judges to cases outside of London.
- District Registries and Regional High Court Trial Centres - to replace (and subsequently, abolish) the District Registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings with a single Portal for the issue of all civil proceedings.
- Routes of Appeal - in due course there should be a review of whether the recent reforms to the Court of Appeal procedures should be extended to cover appeals to the High Court.
In signing off his final report, Lord Justice Briggs commented:
"It is for others to decide which of the above recommendations should be implemented, and by what means".
It is therefore unclear at this stage whether all, or any, of these recommendations will be implemented and if so, what impact they will have on the court systems in England and Wales.
Importantly, the impact of Brexit has not been considered whilst writing the report and we will have to keep an eye out for any implications this may have.
For now, it is a case of watch this space!