Leading Conservative MP outlines worries about state of county court

Neill: Not enough lawyers in Parliament

The Conservative chairman of the justice select committee has spoken out about the problems in the county court, saying civil justice is “nowhere near high enough up the agenda”.

Sir Bob Neill MP also said he was “somewhat reassured” by the comments of Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab earlier this week about the future of the Human Rights Act.

Speaking yesterday at an event in Parliament organised by the Association of Consumer Support Organisations, Sir Bob described a “two-track” civil justice system.

“If you’re taking your claim to the High Court, you get a really Rolls Royce service… [It] has got the kit, it’s got the real quality judges and you’ll get the hearings done generally in a really timely fashion.

“The proof of the pudding in that has been in the pandemic, where the High Court has pretty much carried on very swiftly, almost as normal.”

But the county court was “a very different world”, he went on.

“You’ve got a system that’s still paper-based, the technology to do remote hearings is very variable, the court staff frankly are variable and are some of the worst paid in the public services, [and] there’s a shortage of suitable judiciary there, even down to getting the deputy district judges to do the box work.”

He said the delays in the county court were “almost as bad” as the much more high-profile problems in the Crown Court.

“The county court is the bit we don’t talk about,” he added, describing civil justice as “nowhere near high enough up the agenda” – given that most people’s interactions with the courts will be in civil or family courts, or tribunals – and “taken for granted”.

His comments came ahead of publication today of the latest civil justice statistics, for the three months from July to September, which showed that the mean time taken for small claims and multi/fast track claims to go to trial was 50.7 weeks and 70.6 weeks, 12.6 weeks and 11.3 weeks longer than the same period in 2019 respectively. They were also 1.9 weeks and 8.4 weeks longer for the same quarter in 2020 respectively.

The magistrates’ courts, however, were in a better state, but there was “no convincing evidence” that the Crown Court backlog would go down sufficiently despite a recent commitment in the Budget of some more money. On the government’s own figures, this will not reduce the backlog to pre-Covid levels.He considered the courts’ recovery from the pandemic as “patchy”, with hearings in the county or family courts being taken out of lists at short notice and not relisted for a year.

“It’s not good enough,” Sir Bob said. “If you want a good system, you’ve got to pay for it.”

He indicated that he was encouraged by the first tranche of data to come out of the Official Injury Claim portal for low-value road traffic cases, saying the committee’s overriding concern about the impact on access to justice had not been borne out so far.

However, he agreed that the government missed an opportunity when it removed alternative dispute resolution from the portal.

“The whole future of the way we’ve got to do civil litigation is to move to a situation where a form of mediation is the norm as the starting point,” he said. The ‘Rolls Royce’ machine should be left for the “difficult, intractable cases that need to be heard in front of a High Court judge”.

Sir Bob predicted that future reform of the civil courts would be focused on digitisation – given the heavy emphasis placed on that by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Geoffrey Vos – rather than procedural change.

Answering a range of other questions from the audience, Sir Bob – who practised as a barrister for 30 years – said he did not believe there were enough lawyers in Parliament.

In wake of the Geoffrey Cox controversy, he added that he was not against lawyer MPs continuing to practise “so long as you do so in a way that doesn’t get in the way of your primary responsibility [to your constituents] and you declare it… Keeping people in touch is not a bad thing”.

For five years until 31 January 2021, Sir Bob received £15,000 a year as a consultant to national law firm Weightmans, providing “strategic consultancy advice” for six hours a month.

He is also senior adviser to the Substantia Group, a property and business consultancy, and receives £1,000 a month for six hours.

Sir Bob said he was “very firmly” of the view that the Lord Chancellor should be a lawyer, “not least because unlike any other cabinet minister, they swear an oath under the Constitutional Reform Act to uphold the independence of the judiciary and ensure adequate provision for the legal system – [the latter] something more honoured in the breach, perhaps – and I think that’s really important”.

Dominic Raab gave evidence to the select committee earlier this week and Sir Bob said he was “somewhat reassured” that the Lord Chancellor “made it very clear that it’s not the intention of the government to see to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, which for me would be a red line”.

Rather, he was looking to “reform and update” rather than repeal the Human Rights Act.

“The devil will be in the detail. I think too much change would be a mistake as it’s actually advantageous that people can bring their claims invoking article rights in the British domestic courts to start with rather than go straight to Strasbourg.”

Sir Bob said that, although there was a “strong argument” for reform of the regulation of lawyers as set out by the Legal Services Act 2007, the government’s other priorities meant it was unlikely to happen in this Parliament.

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