The Master of the Rolls has said he believes the extension of fixed recoverable costs (FRCs) to many cases worth up to £100,000 in October is “a good thing” and “I hope it works”.
Speaking to MPs on the justice committee, Sir Geoffrey Vos was less cautious about other parts of the civil justice system, describing himself as “very optimistic” that county court delays would be cut and digitisation would continue after the court reform programme ended next year.
Sir Geoffrey said he did not think the extension to FRCs would reduce access to justice, “provided it is properly used and there are proper safeguards in place, as I expect there will be”.
He said the increase would “change the landscape a lot” because so many cases were worth no more than £100,000, and described it as a “big change, which I think will take time to bed in”.
His experience was that if lawyers were told a case “has to be done for a certain amount of money, it normally gets done for that amount of money”.
There were always exceptions, but the system was prepared for them and if lawyers believed a case worth £50,000 was of “signal importance to everybody and could not be done within the limit”, then they should go to court and say it was a “special case and there are special reasons”.
When asked by Sir Bob Neill, chair of the committee, about the government’s plans to extend FRCs to medical negligence cases worth up to £25,000 – the responsibility of the Department of Health and Social Care, which is yet to announce a timetable – Sir Geoffrey described this as a “really difficult issue” and said it was “quite difficult to predict exactly how it will pan out”.
However, he was “very optimistic” that, with the appointment of more district judges, and measures to “deal with the competition for judicial time between civil and family”, the county court backlog would come down.
Figures released last week showed that the time between issue and trial for fast-track and multi-track cases hit an average of 79.9 weeks in the first quarter of this year – an all-time high.
Sir Geoffrey said the main reasons for the delays were too few district judges, particularly in London and the South-East, an increase in the number of family cases that were taking longer, and district judges having to deal with urgent family cases as a priority over civil cases.
However, there were “some success stories”, such as possession claims, which were being dealt with as quickly as they were before Covid.
The MR added: “I am confident that we will see an improvement in a fairly short time.”
He was also “very optimistic” that the digitisation of civil justice would continue after the end of the court reform programme, scheduled for March 2024, “and I am absolutely certain that if funding is made available it will be transformational for those people who want their disputes resolved”.
Asked by Sir Bob about the Official Injury Claims portal for low-value personal injury cases, for which he is not responsible, Sir Geoffrey said the process was “very user-friendly” but he regarded the fact 90% of cases were handled by lawyers as “slightly strange”.
He added: “It is early days to draw conclusions, but it should be a good system for people who want to claim for small injuries.”