Civil Justice System ‘In Chaos’

The civil justice system is in crisis, according to one of Britain’s top county court judges. Judge Paul Collins, London’s most senior county court judge, has told Radio 4’s Law in Action programme that serious errors are commonplace. He said low pay and staff shortages meant “we run the risk of bringing about a real collapse in the service”.

The Courts Service denied the system was in such a state but admitted staff turnover was high in London. There are 218 county courts in England and Wales, dealing with claims for matters such as personal injury, house repossessions and breaches of contract. All but the most complicated non-criminal cases are dealt with by the county courts.

According to Judge Collins, the lack of resources is causing mistakes. A common problem is when someone who is being sued files a defence, but the papers are not passed on to the judge by court staff. The judge will automatically award damages to the person who brought the claim, assuming that the person being sued does not want to defend it.

Judge Collins said: “This happens on a regular basis, and although these errors can be put right it takes work to put them right, producing more to do for already hard-pressed court staff and judges.”

He blames mistakes on cuts in staff numbers and low pay. “Staff in the court service are among the poorest paid of all government departments,” he said. “We are operating on the margins of effectiveness, and with further cuts looming we run the risk of bringing about a real collapse in the service.” In his own court in central London, the number of people employed has been cut from 125 in 1992 to just 80 today.

County courts are no longer subsidised by the taxpayer. Instead, they are expected to generate all their income from fees charged to court users. This was intended to protect the courts from having to compete with other public services for government funds. However, the courts’ budgets are fixed by the government and although the courts more than covered their costs last year, the surplus raised from fees was spent on other services.

Problems in the administration of the courts have, in Judge Collins’s experience, been further exacerbated by cuts in the availability of legal aid.

“There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this has led to an increase in the number of people representing themselves without the help of a qualified lawyer. These cases inevitably take up more time and as a result court proceedings last longer to the detriment of others using the courts,” he added.