Lord Justice Jackson has urged the government to press ahead with introducing fixed costs in non-personal injury fast-track cases, and for work to begin on fixed costs for matters at the lower end of the multi-track.
He has also expressed concern about regional court centres and county courts missing out on government funding to upgrade their IT infrastructure.
In a speech to the Costs Law And Practice conference organised this week by Class Legal, publisher of the Costs Law Reports, the author of the civil justice reforms welcomed yesterday’s introduction of fixed costs for medical reports in whiplash cases, and hoped the regime – with “any necessary adjustments” – would be extended to medical reports in other fast-track personal injury claims.
However, the failure to introduce non-personal injury fixed costs on the fast-track is “highly unsatisfactory”, he said, because “they are not subject to any effective control”.
He said the Ministry of Justice supports the principle but that other matters are taking priority.
“Of course, the manner in which hard-pressed government departments prioritise their work is a matter for them. Nevertheless I do stress the importance of completing the task of fixing all costs in fast-track cases.
“So long as some of those costs remain at large, there is a serious lacuna in the rules. Individuals of modest means and small businesses are the principal users of the fast-track. Their needs should not be overlooked or relegated to the back of the queue.”
Jackson LJ said the time had now come “to take stock and to develop a scheme for fixed costs in the lower reaches of the multi-track”.
He continued: “Such a scheme may be particularly welcome now, because it will dispense with the need for costs management and costs budgeting in cases valued at less than £250,000.” He called for the Civil Justice Council’s costs committee – or if necessary a separate working party chaired by a judge – to take it forward with a deadline for completion.
Jackson LJ also cited the president of the Association of HM District Judges as saying there was “overwhelming support” for both extensions of fixed costs.
On other issues, the judge said his “strong impression” was that as practitioners become familiar with costs management, opposition is receding and support gathering momentum.
He quoted the chair of Birmingham Law Society’s dispute resolution committee as saying that the heads of litigation at the city’s major firms “all think that costs budgeting and costs management are helpful”.
But while he welcomed the government’s £375m investment in the courts for five years from 2015, he said the prospect of the county court and regional court centres continuing to operate a paper-based system for some years to come – especially at a time when staff numbers have been reduced – will hamper the delivery of justice.
While emphasising that he was not entering the political arena, Lord Justice Jackson concluded: “There is always a tendency to criticise things that are going wrong and to ignore things that are going well. I do not fall into that trap. I applaud the achievements of the district judges and circuit judges who have worked tirelessly to make the 2013 civil justice reforms work effectively. Also I welcome all of the new investment being made in the court system, especially the Rolls Building jurisdictions.
“Nevertheless I have a real concern that – despite the best efforts of the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service – the county courts and the regional court centres are slipping through the net.
“I therefore invite consideration as to whether the resources of those courts should now be strengthened rather than further reduced. As part of the overall reform programme, it is essential that civil justice receives its fair share of the available funding.”