Next year will mark the passing of 160 years since the founding of the county court system in this country. It is clear that much has changed, not least the sheer volume of work. Last year, for instance, more than 880,000 cases were issued in county courts.
The original intention behind the County Courts Act 1846 was to provide a cheap and simple system for the recovery of small debts. Today county courts also deal with a variety of small-track claims. In 2004-2005 over 73,000 such cases came before the county courts, and over 80 per cent of these were heard within 15 weeks.
However, the number of high-value claims, often complex, which are now heard in county courts where previously they might have been heard in the High Court is striking. Before the introduction of the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR), there was a working presumption that operated in the Business List of the Central London County Court that claims up to £200,000 were suitable for county courts.
However, the CPR introduced new terminology: all claims worth £50,000 and above can be allocated to the ‘multi-track’, which can be heard before county courts or the High Court. Ever increasing numbers of such cases, many of which are far in excess of £200,000, are now being heard before the county courts. In 2004-2005, over 28,000 cases were allocated to the multi-track in county courts.
Can county courts address the challenge of this increased volume of complex multi-track cases? There is no doubt that the quality of the judiciary remains high and is capable of meeting the demands of difficult cases. But there are important and pressing concerns raised by the judiciary itself about certain aspects of the management of the county courts.
In this year’s Annual Reports for Her Majesty’s Court Service, a number of the recurring points made will sound familiar to those who have experience litigating in the county court.
The first and most fundamental problem is the retention of experienced court managers and staff. One county court reported a 55 per cent staff turnover. The lack of knowledgeable staff has direct consequences for litigants. It can be expensive and hugely inconvenient if a mistake is made in the listing of a case, or if too many cases are listed on a particular day and some of them cannot be heard. There is also a need for the timely drawing up and despatch of orders. The benefit in retaining long-serving staff is all the greater today.
Secondly, there are often inadequate facilities for the efficient hearing of larger cases. For example, the CPR permits the provision of live witness evidence via video link from overseas or within the jurisdiction. This method, however, cannot be exploited in the majority of county courts because there simply is not the technology in place to receive and then transmit the testimonies.
Thirdly, aesthetic concerns proliferate, with many courts in desperate need of refurbishment. The recent annual report 2004-2005 for London Group 1 County Courts succinctly described the problem and its effect thus: “Too many other courts are tired, shabby and dingy; depressing for court users, staff and judges alike”.
In the recent case of CDCD2020 Plc v Ferreira (2005), Lord Justice Brooke referred to the high staff turnover and shortage of resources in relation to the Central London County Court and described the situation as “intolerable” for litigants who pay court fees.
It would certainly be intolerable for civil justice if the sentiments expressed by the Court of Appeal and the judiciary who work in the county court were ignored.