The Lord Chief Justice declared today that “our system of justice has become unaffordable to most”, and called once more on the government to introduce fixed fees across the fast-track and ‘lower end’ of the multi-track.
In his annual report, Lord Thomas said that the lack of affordability – and the resulting “considerable increase of litigants in person for whom our current court system is not really designed” – was one of the key arguments made in favour of the investment in the courts system that was ultimately announced by Chancellor George Osborne in November’s Autumn Statement.
The report said that “control over the costs of civil litigation continued to be of the greatest importance” during 2015.
It said: “The Jackson review reforms have now bedded down. It appears that there is an improvement in costs management by judges and in costs behaviour by parties. There was sustained emphasis on the need for proportionality between the costs of a case in relation to the value of the claim.
“However, costs issues continued to be the subject of dispute between parties, and to generate litigation in their own right. The judiciary has constantly pressed for the widespread adoption of fixed recoverable costs. This was one of the core recommendations in the Jackson review’s final report, but its application has thus far been restricted to a small number of areas of litigation (such as road traffic accidents).
“The judiciary strongly supports the application of fixed recoverable costs across the range of fast-track cases, and in the lower reaches of the multi-track. This would help to ensure that litigation costs are reasonable, proportionate and that all parties can proceed with greater certainty.
“The judiciary hopes that the government will give this proposal favourable consideration.”
On court fees, Lord Thomas said that the judiciary, “whilst accepting the decisions by Parliament to increase fees, remains deeply concerned about the effect on access to justice”.
The report highlighted the work being done to ensure the right level of judge is allocated to civil matters. “In both the Chancery Division and Queen’s Bench Division there has been an increase in the amount of work which must be done by High Court judges (together with the increase in appeal work likely from the alternation of routes of appeal),” it said.
“Steps were taken to address this by listing cases before a High Court judge only where this was essential. The judiciary is pursuing a policy (highlighted in the Chancery Modernisation Review) that cases be heard by the right level of judge, that appropriate work be passed to the county court at Central London or for trial by circuit judges sitting as deputy judges of the High Court, that the jurisdiction of Chancery masters be widened so that they hear more cases and that the listing procedure and support staff of the Queen’s Bench masters are improved.”
The new Planning Court was making a difference, Lord Thomas noted. At the end of October 2015, the time from lodging to substantive hearing had reduced to 27.3 weeks, down from 46.9 weeks in February 2014.
He said that “judges, in common with many other people, feel that the burdens of work imposed on them have increased”, adding: “Although judges recognise that they are well-paid in comparison to most people, static pay (in real terms, reduced pay) and adverse alterations to pension arrangements (particularly for more recently appointed judges) have had a significant impact.
“In addition, there has, overall, been a widespread feeling of not being valued or appreciated for their work.”
Lord Thomas outlined how more was being done to support judges with leadership responsibilities, and that there was a 24-hour helpline for all salaried judges.
On appraisals, he wrote: “A pilot for Recorders was run in 2004 on the Northern Circuit but it was not taken forward as there were no available funds. The senior judiciary has for some time wanted to re-introduce an appraisal scheme.
“A new scheme was devised with a requirement for significantly less funding, and was piloted. It is now being implemented in London and elsewhere on the South East Circuit as funds allow.”