MPs launch probe into growing delays in county court

Neill: Long-standing concerns

MPs are to probe the capacity and resources of the county court amid ever-growing delays in the how long cases are taking.

The inquiry by the House of Commons’ justice select committee follows its report in April 2022 calling on the government to provide the “resources to ensure that the county court has the capacity to deal with cases in a timely fashion”.

But the most recent official statistics show the average time taken for small claims and multi/fast track claims to go to trial was 52.3 weeks and 78.2 weeks respectively – one week longer and 2.8 weeks longer than the same period last year.

Compared to 2019, these measures are 15.7 weeks longer for small claims and 19.1 weeks longer for multi/fast-track claims.

The committee said it would take evidence from both claimant and defendant law firms, a range of representative bodies and other organisations, plus the civil justice minister Lord Bellamy KC.

It also acknowledged the campaign begun last month by the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO) to reduce delays in the civil justice system.

Committee chair Sir Bob Neill said MPs held “long-standing concerns over the resourcing and capacity of the county court”.

Given that the situation continues to worsen more than a year on from its report, “it’s right the committee examines this deterioration and takes evidence from those impacted by delays, staffing levels, access, as well as other issues.

“The work of the county court shouldn’t be the Cinderella of the justice system. It affects a significant proportion of the public, who rely on it to deliver justice. If it doesn’t have the resources it needs to function effectively then it will have a real impact on people’s lives, as well as on the economy.”

ACSO executive director Matthew Maxwell Scott pointed to other research it had carried out that revealed a “postcode lottery” for court users, with average waits at 353 days but the variance from 251 days in the best-performing areas to 462 days in the worst.

“We’ve already urged the committee to ask experienced practitioners at the coalface why this is, and seek their help to set out sensible ideas for tackling the backlogs, be this through targeted extra resources, better use of digital modernisation or more alternative dispute resolution, where appropriate,” he said.

“Looking ahead, this inquiry should be a stepping stone to a full-scale commission on civil justice with the needs of consumers as its heart.”

Interested parties have until 14 December to make a submission to the committee.

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