Court charter falls short on listings issue

FAILURE by the Court Service to improve the complaints handling system for listings and judicial incompetence is the main flaw in its new courts charter, say lawyers.

And the lack of an adequate system for handling such complaints could lead to growing numbers of complaints by civil court users if Lord Woolf's well-received proposals for increasing judicial case management are introduced.

Diane Burleigh, head of the Law Society's court business team, says: “It is the lack of compensation and failure to get it right in the listing area which will be of most concern to practitioners. It is their biggest area of complaint.”

The lack of progress in developing the complaints system became apparent last week when the Court Service launched its new 'Charter for Court Users'.

The charter provides the public with detailed information about who to write to in the event of complaints about the way court staff handle their case, or complaints about their lawyers.

Complaints about judges will be addressed to the services' judicial appointments group, which in turn passes them on to the judiciary.

However, Michael Huebner, chief executive of the service, said at the charter's launch: “We accept that listing is ultimately a judicial process. That is something that we do not

accept administrative responsibility for.”

Burleigh says the “legal fiction of listing as a judicial function is a real problem” and for the Court Service to hide behind this is “appalling”.

She adds: “Unless they can get listing right, people will be suspicious of further judicial case management and this will undermine Lord Woolf's proposals.”

Tony Edwards, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, agrees: “I'm fundamentally at odds with the view that listing is a judicial matter, and therefore a closed book. We need to look at this.”

Other aspects of the charter have been welcomed, in particular its greater commitment to improvements and more information for the public, say Burleigh and Edwards.

These include:

– Introducing plea and directions hearings later this year. This move would aim to cut “cracked” trials from 31 per cent to 18 per cent of the total number of cases over the next three years;

– Working in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service in order to reduce witness waiting times;

– Improvements in standards for processing civil work;

– First-time targets for listing civil cases, with half-day cases heard within 30 days and 40 days for longer cases.