How the Civil Liability Act could make the courts backlog crisis a disaster

Qamar Anwar, Managing Director, First4Lawyers

By Legal Futures’ Associates First4Lawyers

The creaking and antiquated court system is reaching breaking point as a result of the pandemic, but there is another cloud on the horizon in the form of the Civil Liability Act that could make things even worse.

Unfortunately, the courts system has been in a mess for a while meaning obtaining justice has been a slow and arduous process for many. The civil courts were in a pretty dire state pre-Covid with recent figures for the first quarter of this year showing that multi-track and fast-track personal injury cases took an average 59.6 weeks to reach trial – 1.1 weeks longer than in January to March 2019. It was the second longest wait time on record. It doesn’t take a fortune teller to predict that wait time will only have got worse because of the devastating impact Coronavirus has had on the courts. While they have tried to drag themselves into the 21st century with remote hearings, delays and backlogs have inevitably ensued.

The Government has announced that the courts’ extended operating hours will continue until April as they say the court system is bracing itself for ‘greater pressure’ in the coming months. The civil courts are expected to be a lot busier in the next six months as ‘there is already a significant volume of cases waiting to be listed’.

This extension of longer opening hours is welcome, but they clearly haven’t factored in that the Civil Liability Act is being brought in in April. With a system that was already struggling pre-pandemic, a backlog of cases and the court hours extension due to end that month, the introduction of the Act is the final factor in a perfect storm. When the Act is implemented, we predict it will almost immediately add an increased burden to the courts. Small claims hearings will have to be held for cases covered by the Act, with at least two separate hearings for most cases on liability. Then you may have another hearing on quantum. In the best of times the court system would have struggled to have coped. When the courts were already stretched and then had to deal with backlogs due to a pandemic it will surely only end in disaster.

With the implementation of the Civil Liability Act it is not just a case of the rules and the portal being ready, there surely has to be consideration into the impact its introduction has on the courts?

One area of the court system that should act as a warning for those of us using the civil courts is the Employment Tribunal. Some tribunals across the UK are not listing discrimination cases until December next year. That is an unacceptable amount of time for individuals to have to wait to get justice. The reason? A lack of resources. No surprise there for those of us versed with the court system in the UK, but they are only expecting for things to get worse with an influx of pandemic-related claims.

This should serve as a word of warning for the Government and could be what lies ahead for personal injury claimants when the Civil Liability Act is introduced. If the court system is not capable of handling the inevitable wave of small claims – and on the current evidence that is pretty much a given – then individuals will be left waiting not just months but well in excess of a year for any semblance of justice. Some serious thinking needs to go into how to help the court system cope, as otherwise it is the wronged individuals who have suffered an injury through no fault of their own who will be the ones who suffer.


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