There needs to be investment in the county court to ensure that cases are allocated to the right level of judge and in turn free up time in the higher courts, the Chancellor of the High Court said this week, while also suggesting that the financial limits which determine where cases are heard will have to be adjusted.
In a speech on the challenges facing the judiciary in the next Parliament – delivered at the UCL Conference at the Institute for Government – Sir Terence Etherton said it was “wasteful, inefficient and costly” to deploy a higher level of judge than the case requires.
He explained: “So, for example, at the present time a significant proportion of the work of the Court of Appeal comprises permission to appeal applications, first on paper and then with an oral renewal. These include permission to appeal applications in family cases from circuit judges, and permission to appeal applications in part 7 multi-track county court cases. The High Court judges are also hearing some cases which do not warrant their level of expertise.
“The re-alignment of jurisdiction so that the level of judge is appropriate for the type of case (in terms of value, complexity, importance etc) is a complex task. Re-alignment can only take place if there are the capacity and administrative and judicial resources at the county court level to enable work to be devolved from the High Court so that the High Court can in turn take work from the CA. That will inevitably mean investment at the county court level.
“Apart from that critical practical consideration, there is also a tricky issue as to the appropriate increased financial limits for the county court in order to be able to take on work currently undertaken at the High Court level. There is no consensus as to the extent to which, if at all, the current £100,000 non-equity limit should be raised or the £30,000 limit for probate cases.”
The wide-ranging speech reviewed the work to improve IT in the courts, noting that the new IT system for the work in the Rolls Building is due to come into operation later this year. “It will enable all cases to be issued and filed on line anywhere in the world, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Consideration will be given as to whether it can be rolled about across the rest of the High Court in due course.”
Sir Terence also identified ensuring that business, property and high-value work is dealt with locally and not all sent to London as one of several other challenges facing the courts.