The financial crisis faced by the civil courts has been compounded by figures showing that the number of High Court claims has dropped by 66 per cent over the last five years.

According to figures sourced by media litigation firm Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, there were 54,543 High Court claim forms issued in 2002, compared with 159,806 in 1997.

The dwindling use of the civil courts and the resulting loss in court fees is a pressing issue for the Court Service and the Lord Chancellor’s Department.

The Supreme Court suffered a £55m deficit in 2002 and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine has launched a review of court fees designed to turn the civil courts into profit-making entities (The Lawyer, 2 June).

Peter Carter-Ruck managing partner Nigel Tait put the drop down to the widespread use of the pre-action protocol that was introduced as part of the Woolf reforms.

“The pre-action protocol must be working. In the old days we’d send a letter with a writ attached. Now, of course, we have to wait for a response, and often that response is an offer of amends, which means there’s no claim form released,” Tait explained.

Notwithstanding the Woolf reforms, the number of High Court claims has dwindled by a massive 77 per cent over the last 10 years.

Peter Carter-Ruck also found that the number of libel claims issued in 2002 was 72 per cent lower than the figure for 1997, dropping from 452 to 128.

“Libel actions have become much more expensive and much more work for lawyers due to the reforms of recent years,” Tait said.