The senior judiciary has acted to remind the profession that implementation of Lord Justice Briggs’ Civil Courts Structure Review will cover much more than just the introduction of the Online Court.
Almost all of the focus of the coverage of the report, which was issued in July, has been on the Online Court, to which the profession has reacted with great caution.
In an unprompted joint statement issued today, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, and Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, “confirmed” the senior judiciary’s endorsement of the Briggs report.
This could reflect nervousness that other, less controversial, reforms could get caught up in the debate over the Online Court.
The statement said: “The review covers important ground, and while the Online Court caught the headlines, there are 62 recommendations in the report which merit equal attention. The judiciary will continue to work with the government and HMCTS to develop further the conclusions Lord Justice Briggs reached, and bring them to fruition alongside wider court modernisation.”
“The justice system is undergoing a long overdue improvement programme. The judiciary is involved and informing every aspect of this. Lord Justice Briggs’ major review will ensure that the overall system for civil justice is improved for its users in a coherent as well as comprehensive manner. A team of civil judges has been established to lead on this work within the judiciary”.
In addition to the online court, Briggs LJ’s other key recommendations were:
Case officers – creating a senior body of court lawyers and other officials, with at least a law degree and some experience of legal practice, who could assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. They would be trained and supervised by judges, and their decisions subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party.
Enforcement – there should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the Online Court). This should be the county court, but there would need to be a “permeable membrane” allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the High Court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure. All enforcement procedures would be digitised, centralised and rationalised.
Mediation/ADR – a court-based out-of-hours private mediation service should be re-established in county court hearing centres prepared to participate, “along the lines of the service which existed prior to the establishment and then termination of the National Mediation Helpline”.
Deployment of judges – the principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. The current acute shortage of circuit judges specialising in civil work in the county court needs an urgent remedy.
Number of courts and future of the divisions – “The creation of a single online portal for the issue of all civil proceedings can relatively easily be designed so as to give the courts, rather than the parties (and in practice the claimants) control of the geographical location of the handling, management and determination of a claim, without having to erect a unified civil court for the purpose.” The time has come for a decision about the future of the High Court’s divisions, but that was beyond the scope of the review.
District registries and regional High Court trial centres – the concept of the district registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings will eventually be replaced by a single portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, and should then be abolished.
To enable the handling of regional category A civil cases in regional courts, such cases should be treated “as a burden on the London lists of the relevant High Court judges but on the basis that, when the case reaches its hearing date, a London judge is allocated to hear it in the relevant regional centre, not as part of a circuit visit, but as an allocation to a specific case”.
Routes of appeal – there should in due course be a review of the question whether the recent reforms to the procedure of the Court of Appeal should be extended to cover appeals to the High Court and to circuit judges in the county court, based upon better time and motion evidence than is currently available, and in the light of experience of the reforms in the Court of Appeal.
Boundaries between jurisdictions – the Family Court should be given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the County Court) for dealing with Inheritance Act and disputes about co-ownership of homes. There continues to be a case for convergence between the employment tribunal (and Employment Appeal Tribunal) and the civil courts, but the detail is a matter beyond the scope of the review.
The threshold between the county court and High Court should be raised to either £250,000 or £500,000 across the board, with Briggs LJ preferring the latter.