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27 JUL 2016

Lord Justice Briggs publishes final proposals for reform of Civil Justice

Lord Justice Briggs publishes final proposals for reform of Civil Justice

Lord Justice Briggs has today (27 July 2016) published his final report into the structure of the civil courts: The Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report.

It was commissioned by the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls in July 2015 to coincide with a programme for reform of the courts by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and looking at civil court structures and judicial processes more generally.

The final report follows an extensive series of meetings with judges, practitioners, stakeholders and users of the civil courts, and a series of detailed written and oral submissions following the publication of the review’s interim report in January 2016.

The review makes a series of recommendations intended to inform the current programme of wider court modernisation being undertaken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

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It also makes a number of recommendations on different aspects of the civil justice system, such as enforcement of court rulings, the structure of the courts and deployment of judges. These are summarised below:

  • The Online Court – a new court, designed to be used by people with minimum assistance from lawyers, with its own set of user-friendly rules. It is anticipated that it will eventually become the compulsory forum for resolving cases within its jurisdiction, and on inception should be dealing with straightforward money claims valued at up to £25,000. Recommendations are made on helping people who need assistance with online systems. Complex and important cases to be transferred upwards to higher courts. Open justice and transparency issues to be addressed.
  • Case Officers – senior body of court lawyers and other officials who can assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. To be trained and supervised by judges, and decisions subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party. To operate independently of government when exercising their functions.
  • Enforcement of Judgments and Orders - there should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the new Online Court). This should be the County Court, but there would need to be a permeable membrane allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the High Court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure. All enforcement procedures to be digitised, centralised and rationalised.
  • Mediation/ADR - re-establish a court-based out of hours private mediation service in County Court hearing centres prepared to participate, along the lines of the service which existed prior to the establishment and then termination of the National Mediation Helpline.
  • Deployment of Judges - the principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. The current acute shortage of Circuit judges specialising in civil work in the County Court needs an urgent remedy.
  • Number of Courts and Future of the Divisions - there should be no general unification of the civil courts. The time has come for a decision about the future of the High Court’s Divisions, but that is beyond the scope of the current review.
  • District Registries and Regional High Court Trial Centres - the concept of the District Registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings will eventually be replaced by a single Portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, and should then be abolished.
  • Routes of Appeal - there should in due course be a review of the question whether the recent reforms to the procedure of the Court of Appeal should be extended to cover appeals to the High Court and to Circuit Judges in the County Court, based upon better time and motion evidence than is currently available, and in the light of experience of the reforms in the Court of Appeal.
  • Boundaries between jurisdictions - the Family Court should be given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the County Court) for dealing with Inheritance Act and disputes about co-ownership of homes. There continues to be a case for convergence between the Employment Tribunal (and Employment Appeal Tribunal) and the civil courts, but the detail is a matter beyond the scope of this review.

In signing off his final report, Lord Justice Briggs comments:

'It is for others to decide which of the above recommendations should be implemented, and by what means. In my view, if they are all substantially implemented, then the essentially high quality of the civil justice service provided by the courts of England and Wales will be greatly extended to a silent community to whom it is currently largely inaccessible, and both restored and protected against the weaknesses and threats which currently affect it.'

In welcoming the report, the Lord Chief Justice, The Rt Hon The  Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said:

'Lord Justice Briggs has delivered a detailed and innovative final report, which the senior judiciary – working with the Government and HM Courts and Tribunal Service – will now consider with care.

While a number of the reforms being recommended are already an integral part of the HMCTS reform programme, such as the Online Court, the report has benefited from wide consultation which will help to improve the design and planning of those reforms.

Completion of a review of this magnitude within twelve months is a considerable achievement, and I congratulate Michael Briggs on its depth and clarity of thought.'

The Master of the Rolls, the Rt Hon Lord Dyson, who with Lord Thomas jointly commissioned the review, said:

'The civil justice system is facing a number of challenges and pressures, of which Lord Justice Briggs has provided a masterly analysis. He has given us ample food for thought on how the system can be modernised and made more efficient.

I commend the care with which he has sought views, and the insightful thinking which he has applied to his review. It will fall to my successor and others to consider his recommendations, but the system owes him a considerable debt.'

The Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report is available to download here.
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