Since I blogged last month about how much work the government still has to do on getting its various civil justice reforms in place for next April, I have heard more and more rumours of a delay.
Unlike some rumours I hear, however, and I hear a lot about all sorts of things in this job, there is no great consistency. Some think just bits will be delayed, others that there will be a further review of the reforms and a few (perhaps out of hope) that parts of the package are going to be kicked into the long grass.
What we do not know yet is whether the new ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will seek to do anything differently – no sooner do they get their feet under the table than they are off to their party conference (the new civil justice minister, Helen Grant, is not yet giving interviews); the officials handling the reforms, of course, have not changed, although I hear that they fully recognise the uphill challenge they face in being ready for April.
Though there are still holes to be filled, the sense I get is that the Jackson reforms are largely on track to happen next April as planned – to judge by his reputation, one has to expect that new Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling will be keen to be seen cracking down on the compensation culture.
The update slipped out by the Ministry of Justice last week – which was an odd way to make some significant announcements for practitioners on the shape of the new regime – implied that progress is being made.
My understanding is that the part of the reforms most under threat is the extension of the RTA portal both vertically and horizontally; not because of any change of heart at the MoJ, but simply because the technology may not be ready in time. For the time being, the people behind the portal are staying schtum, but I have yet to hear anybody predict that it will be ready in time. At the same time, I believe that the initial timeframes RTA Portal Co provided on how long it would take to deliver the extensions (a year for vertical, two and a half years for horizontal) have been scaled back.
As for new fee levels for the RTA portal, there seems to be a widespread assumption that it is going to be £600 but no word has been heard. The consultation on this has not exactly been of the highest standard.
More broadly I remain sceptical that the portal is in a good enough shape, two and a half years after launch, to be rolled out. Half of all claims that start in the portal then fall out; within this we have seen the emergence of ‘The 400 Club’ – solicitors who submit claims that are (let’s be polite) of dubious merit, receive their £400 stage-one payment, and then drop them. This hardly looks like a scheme which, while good for those cases which pass all the way through it, is ready for expansion.
That was also the conclusion of Professor Paul Fenn, who said in July – in a report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, lest we forget – there are problems with the operation of the portal that require further study before it is extended.
As for the small claims limit, who knows? One stakeholder tells me that the consultation is constantly two weeks away; if the MoJ is to provide the full 12-week consultation period, I can’t see how it can then digest the responses, produce a consultation response, draft new rules of court (assuming the limit does change) and implement them by April.
We remain in limbo – let’s hope things become clearer over the next month. But in the meantime, don’t believe all the rumours.