After a delay of almost four months, many in the industry are going to be far from happy about the Government’s response to the Solving Disputes in the County Courts consultation, even though in our heart of hearts it was what many of us had expected.
Whilst the Government’s response may have been lacklustre, I can’t help but feel it was the sensible route to take. The aim of the reforms is to get fair compensation for genuine claimants, but given the uncertainty and onerous investigations entailed in Employer and Public Liability cases, it was difficult see how fixed costs could have been implemented in a blanket way.
In my opinion, that aim is better served by a tightening of protocol across all claims and dispute handling in the County Courts and a phased implementation of changes to speed up the process.
These reforms are just one step forward in Jackson’s call for clarity and simplicity on legal costs and, whilst this received a blow earlier this month with the announcement that implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was to be delayed until to April 2013, the outcome of the Insurance Summit does offer some hope.
Promises made by David Cameron include tackling soaring legal costs by reducing the £1,200 fee that lawyers can earn from small value personal injury claims and a commitment to implementing the Jackson reforms that will see ‘no-win, no-fee’ reformed and referral fees banned.
An overview of the Government’s response to the County Courts consultation includes plans to:
Simplify the majority of cases
Increase the limit of ‘small claims’ from £5000 to £10,000 with a view to increasing it again to £15,000 subject to evaluation. All small claims will be automatically referred to the small claims mediation service, although mediation will not be mandatory. Cases proceeding to court will not need comprehensive legal preparation.
Modernise and streamline the county court system
A single county court will be introduced. This clears the way for all claims to be handled electronically at modern centralised business centres and to then be allocated across neighbouring courts according to demand. Some administrative work will move from judges to administrators, leaving judges to concentrate on making good decisions rather than managing cases. Restrictions will be lifted on High Court judges sitting in county courts while waiting to take cases in the High Court.
Improve the enforcement of court decisions so that more creditors receive what they are owed
For example where a court-ordered payment instalment plan is already in place, creditors will also be able to apply for an order to secure an unsecured debt. This would stop certain instances where a debtor might benefit from the sale of a property without paying off the debt. However, for their protection, debtors will no longer be at risk of losing their home over consumer credit debts of less than £1000.
Free up the High Court to deal only with necessarily complex cases
The level below which non-personal injury claims cannot be heard in the High Court will be raised from £25,000 to £100,000. The outdated value of property above which equity cases need to be referred up to the High Court will be raised from £30,000 to £350,000, reflecting the rise in house prices since the level was last set in 1981.
Extend a web-based scheme which controls legal costs for the majority of personal injury cases
The costs are pre-set in a way which encourages early settlement. Following evaluation of its current use in road accident cases worth compensation of up to £10,000, the scheme will be extended to road accident cases worth up to £25,000 and also to employer and public liability personal injury cases.