Justice secretary Alex Chalk must urgently “get to grips” with increasing civil court delays to help thousands of consumers trapped in “legal limbo”, the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO) has argued.
ACSO is looking to build pressure on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) with a campaign that has made contact with ministers and their Labour shadows, as well as briefing the Association of British Insurers and Forum of Insurance Lawyers among others.
It said the latest MoJ data showed that the average time for small claims, fast-track and multi-track cases to go to trial had increased by over a third from 2019 to 2023.
In particular, ACSO said delays at the Civil National Business Centre (CNBC) in Northampton, which replaced the County Court Money Claims Centre (CCMCC) last month, were having a “substantial impact” on overall county court timescales.
Matthew Maxwell Scott, executive director of ACSO, said: “There is a long history of reduced budgets and a misunderstanding of the sector and the consequences of reforms imposed on it that has led to this parlous state for our civil justice system.
“The new justice secretary needs to get to grips with this issue urgently; if he wants to make the biggest positive difference to the greatest number of people, improving access to justice for the thousands of consumers stuck in legal limbo would go a long way to restoring confidence in our courts.”
According to MoJ data, the average time for small claims to go to trial was 38.1 weeks in 2019, rising to 51.9 in 2023. For multi/fast track claims, it had risen from 59.4 weeks in 2019 to 79.9 in 2023.
Among other things, ACSO called for more government focus on civil justice, including “appropriate levels of new funding”, greater transparency on waiting times, “clear targets” from ministers on reducing delays and a “coordinated, consensual approach” across the sector.
Meanwhile, it claimed that “severe delays” at the government’s new CNBC in Northampton were “contributing to a damaging sclerosis in civil justice”.
ACSO said that as the bulk processing centre “handling in effect the first triage stages of civil claims before they are transferred out to regional county courts around England and Wales”, the CNBC provided “the gateway to civil justice for the majority of county court users”.
According to performance data for both CNBC and its predecessor the CCMCC published by HM Courts & Tribunals Service last month, the number of working days taken to issue a new court claim grew from May to August this year from 37 to 40.
The time from processing a defence or counterclaim to issuing a directions questionnaire on paper increased by over 50% from 22 to 34 working days in the same period.
The time taken to process a directions questionnaire grew from 29 to 50 days, and correspondence received by post or email from 26 days to 50 days.
The period from receipt of an application to an order or comment being typed rose from 61 to 82 working days.
Mr Maxwell Scott commented: “HMCTS needs a clear plan to start reducing processing times.
“We saw how the government managed to get a grip of failures in the Passport Office amid a media outcry and bring about significant improvements in processing times; we urge ministers to adopt a similar no-nonsense approach to our civil justice system.”