The Poor Relation: Our Civil Courts Have Been Neglected Compared to the Criminal Justice System, Writes Georgina Squire

Article excerpt

It is becoming increasingly apparent that, in the push for continual reform of the criminal justice system, the government is neglecting the civil justice system. There is no argument with the importance of reforming the criminal justice system, but this should not be at the expense of maintaining an efficient civil justice system able to cope with the vast array of civil cases, from claims for damaged goods or personal injury to property and commercial disputes.

The civil courts have both a public and a private role--providing a public service and frequently offering redress for private individuals. Since the early 1990s, it has been government policy that the civil courts should be funded almost entirely from the court fees people pay. This is surely wrong. It is an additional tax on those who wish or need to use the civil justice system, and it has led to substantial underfunding of the civil courts.

The Law Society sends regular questionnaires to a network of solicitors on how the Civil Procedure Rules, which came into force in 1999, are working. Solicitors state consistently that the system is prevented from working efficiently by delays and inefficiencies of court administration due to under-resourcing. Those who work in the courts do a fantastic job. However, it is impossible for them to provide a service of decent quality when they are understaffed, have to operate with antiquated systems in old, dilapidated premises, and are overburdened with work.

The Court Service recently announced that [pounds sterling]75m has been made available for modernising the civil courts over the next three years. It is very good news, so far as it goes. It may sound a large amount but, considering the size of the civil justice system, it is only a fraction of what is needed. It has no prospect of delivering a modern civil court system. It is believed that the cash boost may help satisfy some basic IT requirements, but the courts will still be years behind in the level of technology available. In short, the civil courts are suffering badly from a long period of underinvestment and this now appears to be approaching crisis levels.

The crisis is felt throughout the civil justice system. There is a large network of local county courts and district registries attempting to service the needs of those around the country. Significant numbers of these local courts have been closed in an attempt to reduce overheads and consolidate staff. Those wishing to use a court may now have to travel 25 miles or more to the nearest one. When they arrive, they find it understaffed and suffer long delays in the production of documentation, hearings and so on. …