County court has “borne brunt” of court reform failure

Byrom: Reform programme has not delivered on its promise

The county court has “borne the brunt” of the failure of the court modernisation programme to deliver, a former adviser to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has said.

Dr Natalie Byrom, senior research fellow at UCL, told MPs on the justice select committee that eight years after the launch of the programme, with over £1bn spent in that time, only 24 out of 44 projects had been marked as complete.

“We don’t even have enough information from the courts service to know what complete means. We don’t know if projects have delivered fully, because HMCTS [HM Courts and Tribunal Service] hasn’t recorded things fully.”

Speaking at the first evidence session of the justice committee inquiry into the work of the county court, Dr Byrom described £1bn as a “catastrophically huge amount of money”, given the resourcing challenges facing the justice system.

Seconded to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) between 2018 and 2020 as expert adviser on data relating to the court reform programme, she said the county court had “borne the brunt of the failure of the reform programme to deliver on its promise”.

When first talked about, it was directed very much at the county court, but many of the initiatives relating to it, such as on enforcement, were abandoned.

“It was such a significant investment, and a huge opportunity, that the fact it hasn’t materialised in this way is quite devastating.”

Dr Byrom said there was still £120m left in the original court reform budget, but it was “not enough to do what is still needed”.

She found it “incredibly frustrating” that the lack of effective governance and management was flagged up from an early stage. “It is very difficult to think about what happened and say that radical reform is not needed.”

Dr Byrom described the partnership between the judiciary and the government in running the courts as a “fudge described as a partnership”, where “greater weight” was given by HMCTS to what the government wanted and “administrative decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a few judges who are not equipped to deal with it”.

She added that “we need to pick” either a government-run or judge-run system.

Matthew Maxwell Scott, executive director of the Association of Consumer Support Organisations, said the new government should set up a civil justice commission to end the “chaos”.

He went on: “Far fewer cases are taking far longer to go through the system – it’s an administrative failure.”

He accused HMCTS of having “no strategy” for the county court – while you could issue in the county court in five minutes, getting a letter to confirm it could take five months.

“Judges may be experts in the law, but are not the best at managing courts and staff,” he added.

Elizabeth Gallagher, a barrister at Temple Garden Chambers and a member of the Personal Injuries Bar Association, said some of the county courts were “falling down”.

Ms Gallagher, who is also a deputy district judge, said a ceiling had recently collapsed at Romford County Court, which resulted in the court “blocking off access” and staff telling people who had to go through the area “to run”.

She described the fact that 10 county courts still had no disabled access as “scandalous”. Barristers had worked “very hard” to make their buildings accessible for disabled trainees, who then “go to court and can’t get in”.

She added that solicitors had told her that there was no point in complaining about the county court. “There is no accountability. No-one takes responsibility for the fact the system doesn’t work.”

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