The Ministry of Justice announced reforms to the County Court system in what it hopes will be “cheaper, quicker and less daunting justice”. This will include raising the small claims limits and looking at ways to increase the small claims mediation process.
The Ministry of Justice announcement suggested that up to 80,000 more cases each year will be diverted to a simple Small Claims mediation process which avoids the stress, expense and legal preparation of a formal court hearing. This offers the option of a quick telephone-based mediation service – a method which has already proved successful with 98 per cent of users saying they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the service.
The plans outlined looked to simplify the majority of cases. These included:
- increasing the limit of ‘small claims’ from £5,000 to £10,000 with a view to increasing it again to £15,000 subject to evaluation.
- automatically referring all small claims to the Small Claims Mediation Service, though mediation will not be mandatory.
- and ensuring that cases proceeding to court will not need comprehensive legal preparation.
The Small Claims Mediation service is entirely voluntary. Parties are invited to use the service by ticking a box on the court form and if both parties and/or the court consider it to be appropriate, the parties are invited to contact the mediator to set up a mediation appointment at a convenient time. This can be a face-to-face mediation at the court, but more than 95 per cent of mediations are conducted by telephone – either as a conference call or with the mediator speaking separately to each party in turn. Mediation usually takes 5-6 weeks to arrange, compared to 13-14 weeks for a court hearing. If the case does not settle at mediation, it simply progresses to a hearing before the judge.
In the 12 months to the end of April 2010, the service settled 73 per cent of the 10,000 mediations it conducted. A survey of 7,500 users found 98 per cent were satisfied or very satisfied with the professionalism and helpfulness of the mediators, with 95 per cent saying that they would use the service again. Of the minority of parties who did not settle their cases, 87 per cent also said they would use the service again.
Plans were also outlined to modernise and streamline the County Court system. A single county court will be introduced, clearing the way for all claims to be handled electronically at modern centralised business centres, and to then be allocated across neighbouring courts according to demand. Some administrative form work will move from judges to administrators, leaving judges to concentrate on making good decisions rather than managing cases.
Restrictions will be lifted on High Court judges sitting in County Courts while waiting to take cases in the High Court.
Further proposals looked at enforcement action. For example where a court-ordered payment instalment plan is already in place, creditors will also be able to apply for an order to secure an unsecured debt. This would stop certain instances where a debtor might benefit from the sale of a property without paying off the debt. However for their protection, debtors will no longer be at risk of losing their home over consumer credit debts of less than £1,000.
The level below which non-personal injury claims cannot be heard in the High Court will be raised from £25,000 to £100,000. The outdated value of property above which equity cases need to be referred up to the High Court will be raised from £30,000 to £350,000, reflecting the rise in house prices since the level was last set in 1981.
The RTA portal is to be extended. The costs are pre-set in a way which encourages early settlement. Following evaluation of its current use in road accident cases worth compensation of up to £10,000, the scheme will be extended to road accident cases worth up to £25,000 and also to employer and public liability personal injury cases.