Chris Grayling, Lord Chancellor or King Chaos?
April 24, 2014
By Beth King, partner and head of personal injury
I've been a litigator for 30 years now. When I first started, Court clerks knew the rules rather better than me and woe betide me if I forgot to cross and "i" or dot a "t" on a Writ or an order. Over the last 3 decades, I have witnessed the steady deterioration of the Court Service to the point where it is almost invariably necessary to explain to Court staff what the rules actually say and what the correct fee is.
If I write to the Court to issue proceedings but want to serve the papers on the defendants myself, I have to use bold type and a coloured highlighter pen to make my wishes clear – even then, it's a toss-up whether I will get a notice of issue telling me the papers have been served for me as they simply don't seem to read beyond the first paragraph.
Don't get me wrong. I don't blame the Court staff – it's not their fault that they aren't properly trained any more, that the rules change on a monthly basis or that someone has decided it's a good idea to rotate jobs so that no one ever gets to be an expert – or even competent - at anything.
To be honest, we had learned to live with this slow decay of a service which had once been a valued part of the legal system. We worked round it. We chivvied and cajoled and eventually got what we needed for our clients.
But in the space of about 18 months, the first non-lawyer Lord Chancellor – the Right Honourable Chris Grayling – has managed to reduce what was left of the Court Service to complete and utter chaos.
Local County Courts are now clogged with litigants in person because legal aid cuts and increases in the small claims limit now mean that people with a genuine grievance, a debt of up to £10,000 they want paid or a claim for an injury worth less than £1000 (but with other losses of up to a total of £10,000) can no longer recover lawyer's fees. So they have to act on their own and they get things wrong or need advice on the procedure which the Court staff simply aren't equipped to give.
I recently waited 6 months for Central London county Court to fix a case management hearing on a claim worth around £65,000. My client is 75 so time is not on our side. In that time, no progress has been made in the claim because the defendants won't do any work until they've been ordered to by the Court, no doubt because their insurance clients simply won't pay for it until they absolutely have to.
And today, more evidence of the chaos and its impact on solicitors' cashflow. Last August, my firm settled a road traffic claim for £2800. The insurers fought every little point and made late allegations that the claimant couldn't possibly have been injured as it was a "low velocity impact" but hen settled anyway so our bill is a bit under £9000. For which the insurers think I should accept £4500. (I think not.)
In December, I wrote to Northampton County Court (which is actually in Salford – who knew?) as we have to issue all claims there, for reasons which escape most solicitors, to ask for my bill to be provisionally assessed by a costs judge. In mid January, Northampton (or Salford) sent me a notice that the claim had been transferred to my preferred court in Bromley.
Now I should explain that Bromley County Court – like many London County Courts – doesn’t deal with costs issues in its own claims (as it's too busy dealing with litigants in person) so my bill has to be forwarded to the Senior Court Costs Office.
You can't talk to Bromley Court staff on the phone because they just don't answer it. They don't have time. It's only 5 minutes walk from my office but there's no point going over there as they no longer see people without an appointment but you can't get an appointment because they don't answer the phone.
The upshot is that, after numerous attempts to get someone to answer the phone and several emails to their generic address, Bromley finally told me yesterday that they sent my papers to the SCCO on 16th April – almost 4 months to the day since I sent them to Salford. Or Northampton. Or wherever.
Today, my long suffering secretary spoke to someone at the SCCO (yes they do answer the phone) to be told that they can't even tell us if they have the papers yet because they are still dealing with post received in March. It is now 25th April. And their costs officers are so busy that they probably won't actually look at our bill and the papers for several months after the SCCO staff have reached them in their backlog. Getting the bill assessed will have taken longer than settling the original claim.
And to cap it all, on Tuesday (22nd April), Grayling had to gall to raise Court fees for this shoddy, hopeless service.
You couldn't make it up…
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