Small claims worst hit so far by Covid as trial delays lengthen

Acland-Hood: Leaving courts for education for good

Small claims have been disproportionally impacted by Covid-19 in terms of timeliness, official figures have shown.

In July to September 2020, it took an average of 48.8 weeks between a small claim being issued and the claim going to trial, 10.7 weeks longer than the same period in 2019.

The government’s latest civil justice statistics, for the third quarter of 2020, attributed this to several reasons.

“These claims have shorter timeframes to begin with, and so delays will be observed sooner in the timeliness figures, whereas delayed fast and multi-track claims may not yet have reached a hearing. Small claims may also be less suited to remote hearings as they tend to be in person claims rather than professional users.”

The Ministry of Justice said measures put in place to help with the backlog of small claims included re-referring cases back to mediation and early neutral evaluation.

“These measures, when successful, result in outcomes which are not used within the timeliness calculations. This means the final cases used in timeliness measures include a disproportionate number of more complex cases which take longer to dispose of.”

For multi- and fast-track claims, it took on average 62 weeks to reach a trial, 2.6 weeks longer than in July to September 2019 – continuing to exceed the upper limit of the range over the past decade of 52 to 61 weeks.

“Covid-19 and associated actions have led to an uptick in time taken for all claims to reach trial. However, it should be noted that this timeliness is calculated from a significantly reduced volume of cases and is not necessarily representative of a trend.

“Prior to this, a sustained period of increasing receipts has increased the time taken to hear civil cases and caused delays to case progress. Additional venues have been provided to add temporary capacity to hear cases and help the court and tribunal system to run effectively.”

Overall, the impact of Covid-19 continued to be seen across all civil justice. While the MoJ said “the start of recovery has been noticeable”, for example in the volume of claims and defences, “this increase has been gradual and volumes are still below previous years”.

For example, while 11,000 cases went to trial during the quarter – up from 4,300 in the second quarter, which covered lockdown – it was still well down on the third quarter of 2019, when 17,000 cases reached court.

“As society and the economy continue to recover from the impact of Covid-19, it is expected that claims volumes will eventually return to historic trend levels and may even temporarily exceed the pre-Covid-19 volumes as the backlog of claims is processed.”

In the most recent quarter, total claims were down 47% compared to the same period in 2019 (from 550,000 to 289,000). Of these, 260,000 were money claims, down 46%.

Unspecified claims were up 19% to 38,000, driven by a rise in personal injury claims (up 13% to 32,000) compared to the same quarter in 2019.

Personal Injury claims accounted for 86% of all unspecified money claims in the most recent quarter, compared to 91% last year.

The statistical report said: “It should be noted that the sharp drop in unspecified money claims last quarter, followed by a peak this quarter is not indicative of a trend in claims being made.

“Volumes of unspecified money claims received have been largely stable across Q2 and Q3 of 2020 (26,000 and 27,000 respectively). However, claim volumes issued have been impacted by social-distancing restrictions which notably reduced capacity in locations where unspecified claims are processed, leading to longer processing times.

“Over the last quarter, an increase in resource and added resilience in these locations, has increased the processing of this backlog and resulted in a spike in issued claims this quarter.”

Meanwhile, Susan Acland-Hood’s departure as chief executive of HM Courts & Tribunals Service has been made permanent after four years in post, during which time she led the court modernisation programme.

She took over as acting permanent secretary of the Department of Education in August in the wake of the exams fiasco and her full-time appointment was confirmed yesterday.

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