Another area of concern relates to some of the processes involved under the single court that now exists. We have county court buildings and we have a single county court. In principle, there is nothing wrong with that but, as I pointed out in Committee, the Government have not really followed the recommendations of Lord Justice Jackson, whose report, as we have noted on previous occasions, has been cherry picked in a variety of instances. In this case, the concern arises out of the problems of litigants and their legal representatives issuing proceedings. Lord Justice Jackson proposed that there should be regional court centres but, as he said clearly, it would,"be wrong to compel everyone to issue proceedings at regional centres. Litigants who wish to issue claims in person at their local county court and to pay fees at the counter should be free to do so".
That does not happen, which has serious consequences.
I referred in Committee to the problems at the Salford Centre in particular, which is where money claims are issued. The Minister replied, no doubt on the basis of advice tended to him, that things had started slowly but were getting better. Yet the Law Society Gazette on 25 October reported:
"Almost two-thirds of users of the Salford civil claims centre rate the service as poor",
and a third considered that it got worse rather than better over the past few months. One contributor in a comment to the Law Society Gazette said:
"Salford is a good example of the Government trying to deal with things in a very proficient and one stop shop way. In reality its a total disaster which needs overhauling urgently and made to be more accountable and efficient. Starting with the right staffing levels would help, as well as more dedicated phone staff and someone who even answers in a reasonable time".
Solicitors frequently complain about having to wait for two, three, weeks or perhaps more for their claims to be processed. That cannot be satisfactory.
We have a situation in which in its various component parts the system is under great pressure. That is exacerbated by some of the changes that the Government, for their own no doubt worthy reasons, have sought to bring into effect. I cannot agree with the answer given by the Minister on the last occasion that there was a system of reporting that in its component parts meets the requirements of a thoroughgoing review. That is particularly in relation to what is happening to access to justice for litigants of all types and the efficient processing of their claims, and in relation to the Court of Protection for the long-term arrangements for effective supervision of its substantial case load of vulnerable people.
LORD McNALLYEqually, we believe that a single county court will provide a more efficient civil justice system that is fit for the 21st century and where litigants can achieve a more efficient, proportionate and speedy resolution to their disputes. By removing the district boundaries that surround each individual court, the single county court will address restrictions that limit the way customers engage with the courts. Access to justice will be increased as it enables the Courts and Tribunals Service to introduce more modern means for citizens to engage with courts in the most cost-effective way.
How will citizens engage with the County Court if their local court has been abolished? If there is to be a National County Court - there should be at least a minimum number of hearing centres in each circuit/region/county or even town/city? The bill would allow HMG to reduce the county court to no hearing centres at all - just online and telephone - that sounds ridiculous - but is it out of the question?????
Lord Pannick and Lady Butler-Sloss were in the House, but did not intervene on this subject.
Given that the House of Commons is unlikely to get excited about this issue - that's probably it for the county court as we know it.