Time for small claims to reach trial hits all-time high

Personal injury: Claims numbers have fallen in last year

The average time from issue to trial on the small claims track hit an all-time high in the last quarter, with litigants having to wait an average of 55.6 weeks.

This is three weeks longer than the previous quarter, which itself was a record figure, and 3.5 weeks longer than the same quarter in 2022, according to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

A decade ago, it took 30.4 weeks and reached 39.6 weeks in the first quarter of 2020 – the last pre-pandemic.

For the fast and multi-track, the period between issue and trial actually fell for the second quarter running to 76.4 weeks – it peaked at 80.2 weeks in the first quarter of this year. But it is still a long way above the time pre-Covid (59.5 weeks) and the same quarter a decade ago (57.1 weeks).

The MoJ’s latest release of civil justice statistics said: “HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has introduced efficiencies including digitising court processes through the reform programme, increasing capacity through judicial recruitment drives and reducing demand through the increased use of mediation.

“These actions, which are being monitored closely, are expected to improve timeliness measures over the longer term.”

The delays are against a picture of increasing claims – at 448,122, it is the highest since Covid struck – but the number is still only 80% of the pre-pandemic baseline.

The MoJ said the increase was “mainly driven by increases in money claims and other damages claims”, but was offset by a 17% fall in personal injury claims (17,827 issued) compared to the same time last year.

“Other damages claims – which made up the remaining damages claims more than doubled from 5,700 to 12,000. The number of claims is at its highest since the pandemic, but this has not translated into an increased number of claims gone to trial.

There were 670 judicial review applications received in Q3 2023, up 5% on Q3 2022 (640) and down 21% on Q3 2019 (840) as a pre-Covid baseline.

Matthew Maxwell Scott, executive director of the Association of Consumer Support Organisations, said the numbers reflect poorly on attempts by HMCTS to turn the situation around.

“Every quarter brings fresh disappointments, and it’s not as though any of this can be laid at the door of Covid as the problems predate the pandemic,” he said. “The government seems largely to have given up on civil justice, and the system now feels third rate.

“Minsters who trumpet the value and importance of justice and the rule of law are getting a hollow laugh from citizens and their representatives who are struggling to access the civil court.”

The House of Commons’ justice select committee recently announced an inquiry into the problems at the county courts, with its call for evidence closing on 15 December.

Meanwhile, weekly data from the Civil National Business Centre (CNBC) in Northampton – the new national processing centre for civil claims – showed a similarly patchy performance, with the time taken for different processes falling in some areas but still rising in others.

This is despite it having had a ‘recovery plan’ in place since August to reduce backlogs.

For example, the average time for the issue of a new claim on paper is down to 11 working days from a high of 40 days in August.

However, some waits are increasing again, with the processing of a defence/counterclaim before issuing the directions questionnaire now at 28 days, down from a high of 45 in July but well in excess of the 10 working days taken in October.

Mr Maxwell Scott said: “While the previous excuse that delays were being caused by the transfer of civil administration work from Salford to Northampton was understandable once, it has worn pretty thin.

“There have been welcome improvements against some dire statistics in the summer, but in some areas these are ticking back up. Once again, HMCTS needs to explain why this is the case and what it intends to do about it.”

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