The absence of modern IT in the Chancery Division of the High Court is a “serious brake” on its efficiency and productivity, the interim report of the first review of the division in 30 years has concluded.
At the same time, user feedback shows that the quality of its judicial decisions is regarded as “outstanding” and, “for the most part”, its cases are decided within a reasonable time frame.
The review by Lord Justice Briggs – which makes more than 100 provisional recommendations – welcomed the fact that the Court Service is “actively” addressing the division’s IT problems, examples of which include the need to use physical files and obtain them from storage, and the inability to operate individual judges’ diaries.
He identified three other key areas of reform: increased docketing and case management by judges; convergence in practice and procedure with courts undertaking similar types of work; and the provision of better access to justice for litigants in person.
The review said there are “serious threats to the maintenance of current waiting times constituted by reducing resources, increased incoming workload and the intensification of judicial case management called for by the Jackson reforms”.
“Maintenance and where appropriate improvement of these waiting times is a vital priority,” the judge said.
Docketing and case management were one area where a real culture change is needed among judges, court staff and users, he said. The others were:
- The re-direction of case management towards dispute resolution of all kinds, rather than just trial;
- The strict focus of case management for trial upon the issues in the case, designed to reduce both the length and expense of litigation to proportionate levels;
- A move to fixed length trials, with the length being chosen by the court as proportionate to the weight and complexity of the case, and rationed to make best use of available resources;
- The transfer of prime responsibility for the drawing of orders from the court’s associates to the parties’ lawyers;
- The provision of fair, rather than just palliative, treatment for litigants in person; and
- National recognition that no chancery case is too large to be dealt with in a regional trial centre.
The emphasis on case management could see Fridays kept free from trials for judges to deal with it, as well as parties being required to submit a list of issues at the earliest possible stage in a case, which would allow for a better focus on the disclosure, witness statements and expert evidence required.
Lord Justice Briggs also suggests a new convention designed to reduce the length, but not the effectiveness, of cross-examination.
The Chancellor, Sir Terence Etherton, described the interim report as “an impressive achievement”, especially as it was completed in just six months.
“The object of the review is to try to ensure that the practices and processes of the Chancery Division throughout the country will be as efficient and effective as possible in the delivery of justice at a time of increasingly severe budgetary constraints.
“The achievement of that objective will answer the rightful expectations and needs of those with business and property disputes both nationally and internationally.
Lord Justice Briggs said: “The Chancery Division provides a high-quality, flexible and specialist service to its thousands of court users, but there is work to be done to ensure that it continues to do so for many years to come.”
But he stressed that the report is “provisional in every sense. Nothing is set in stone. There is now to be a three month period of consultation before a final report is written”.
The consultation closes at the end of October with a view to publishing the final report by the end of the year. Click here  for more, including the full report.