The plan by HM Courts & Tribunals (HMCTS) to make the new damages claim portal (DCP) compulsory for defendants from 2 June was pulled at the last minute for unknown reasons.
Since 4 April, all legally represented claimants bringing county court damages claims under part 7 – subject to limited exceptions – have had to use the DCP and defendants were gearing up for their turn, having been able to use it on a voluntary basis.
But on 1 June, Master of the Rolls Sir Geoffrey Vos and justice minister Tom Pursglove signed the 148th CPR update, revoking the 145th, signed only three weeks earlier, which had amended practice direction 51ZB to require legally represented defendants to use the DCP for claims that fell within its scope.
An HMCTS spokesman said: “The portal continues to be available to all those who need it and we will announce new date for our changes in due course.
“We apologise for the inconvenience this delay has caused and have written to affected legal professionals.”
The long-term intention is for the DCP to be a complete end-to-end portal from pre-litigation to enforcement, but at present only operates from issue of proceedings to filing of directions questionnaires. Claims are then transferred to the county court centre at Salford and follow the traditional procedure to trial.
The DCP first began operating on a pilot basis last year and with little publicity, even once it became compulsory for claimants.
It is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, meaning a claimant can issue proceedings outside of office hours. But the rules of service have not changed – defences still must be filed by 4pm on the last available day.
The court will not automatically enter judgment where the defendant has not responded; the claimant still has to apply for it and failure to do so within six months means the claim will be dismissed from the DCP.
Defendant representatives have backed the concept of the DCP but expressed concern that it was being implemented too quickly.
Writing recently for the Motor Accident Solicitors Society magazine before the delay was announced, Shirley Denyer, technical consultant to the Forum of Insurance Lawyers (FOIL), said the advantages of the DCP were “very readily understood by defendant representatives”.
She explained: “It can only be advantageous and cost effective to bypass the traditional processes of issue and service and receive claims directly into an inbox, allowing cases to be allocated and handled on screen.”
But the concerns have arisen from the design of the system and the way it operated in practice, she went on, the major problem being the lack of an API to link the DCP directly into law firms’ case management systems.
“Without that, it is much harder to monitor claims and to supervise effectively. FOIL is lobbying for the introduction of an API as soon as possible.”
Further, for much of the pilot to date, FOIL members have had “little opportunity to try out and test the DCP as very few claims have been issued within it: the lack of a test environment has hampered the development of operational strategies to adopt the new process, and the provision of training”. The limited experience to date has highlighted a range of technical problems, Ms Denyer said, such as the lack of information on claims communications.
“The claimant representative’s reference is not included in the claims form and email notifications only give the claim number, not the parties or the solicitor’s reference. This makes life difficult for anyone handling a volume of claims.”
Noting how claimant lawyers were only given a few days’ notice of the DCP becoming compulsory, she urged HMCTS to put longer timescales in place and “greater direct involvement of lawyers through their representative bodies in the development of digital processes”.
In the same magazine, George Clayton, personal injury team manager at Newcastle firm True Solicitors, echoed the call for an API and more notice of changes. But, having taken a few cases through the DCP, he said it had enjoyed “a very strong start”.
He said: “The issuing of a claim form works well, and once multi parties are added, it will be fit for purpose and will be a big improvement on the traditional way of issuing.
“In addition, building the service in step with the processes of litigation is more likely to lead to the finished portal being fit for purpose.
“The uploading of particulars and evidence is robust, and the digital notification of the claim and service will be a big saver of paper and office administration.”