The time between issue and trial for fast- and multi-track claims has now exceeded 75 weeks, the longest this century, according to the latest government figures.
This is despite volumes for all civil actions remaining below pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest civil justice statistics published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), for the third quarter of 2022.
These showed that between 2002 and 2019, the average time for fast- and multi-track actions to reach trial was between 52 and 61 weeks, before spiralling up over the past two years of the pandemic.
Multi- and fast-track claims took on average 75.5 weeks to reach a trial, 4.8 weeks longer than the same period in 2021 and half a week longer than the second quarter of this year, the previous record.
At 51.2 weeks, the time from issue to trial in small claims was near the all-time high of 51.6 reached in the first quarter of this year.
As in previous data releases, the MoJ said small claims were impacted sooner by Covid-19 than bigger claims in terms of timeliness, while measures introduced to help with small claims – such as mediation and early neutral evaluation – were not reflected in the timeliness figures when successful.
“This means the final cases used in timeliness measures include a disproportionate number of more complex cases which take longer to dispose of.”
But the MoJ also acknowledged that, before Covid, “a sustained period of increasing receipts had increased the time taken to hear civil cases and caused delays to case progress”.
County court claims in July to September 2022 were 389,000 – mostly money claims – down 4% on the same quarter last year but up 4% of the last quarter. Overall, claims have fallen by a third since the peak in 2017.
“Personal injury claims are showing early signs of stabilising following general decreases since Q2 2021,” the MoJ said. However, though the figure of 20,807 was similar to the third quarter of 2021, it was 4,400 lower than the second quarter of this year.
There were 61,000 claims defended (down 14%) and 13,000 claims that went to trial in July to September 2022 (down 5%) compared to the same quarter in 2021. Compared to the pre-Covid baseline, the figures were 22% and 24% respectively.
There were 640 applications for judicial reviews in the quarter, 16% more than the same period in 2021. Of the 130 cases that reached the permission stage, eight were found to be totally without merit.
Matthew Maxwell Scott, executive director of the Association of Consumer Support Organisations (ACSO), said: “There is something seriously wrong with our civil justice system when a significant downwards trend in the number of claims coming to court is somehow combined with ever-increasing backlogs.
“Although the report cites the number of cases stayed during the pandemic as the reason for the delays, this cannot be the only reason for such a broken system. We should be seeing improvements in access to justice for citizens now that we are nearly three years on from the start of the pandemic.”
He added that a Freedom of Information Act request made by ACSO has established that the number of judicial sitting days increased nearly 50 per cent between 2020 and 2021, from 2,071 to 3,082. “So there are more court days, but still the backlogs increase.”
There was, he said, “little evidence from these latest statistics that ministers and officials are really gripping the issue”.