With Brexit having dominated the political agenda since the summer, the July publication of Lord Justice Briggs’s final report on his Civil Courts Structure Review came as a welcome development for many (and, weighing in at almost 300 pages, possibly less welcome holiday reading too). Public affairs director at Marston Holding, Pamela Mulcahy, discusses
As its title would suggest, the scope of the report was substantial, meaning that Briggs’ recommendations related to the structure of the civil court system, and highlighted other areas worthy of further review.
His remarks relating to the enforcement of judgments are of particular relevance to the credit industry.
The severe limitations of the public sector county court bailiff service, the only current route of enforcement available to recover debts regulated under the Consumer Credit Act, are well known.
Briggs described in his report a “serious blight” upon the quality of that service, observing that criticisms of it had gone entirely unchallenged.
He also recognised that most judgment creditors would like private sector enforcement to be available to them for all enforcement, either in addition to or instead of county court bailiffs, “so that judgment creditors have a choice”.
The option of private sector enforcement of Consumer Credit Act-regulated debts would allow much swifter and more effective recovery of debt, serving as a critical value driver which will in turn improve the credit cycle.
Not only would this provide greater access to justice for creditors, but the court system itself would also benefit from reduced demands on (or by) the county court bailiff system, as well as generating considerable income for the court system, which is reliant on civil court users for funding.
A single solution
Briggs observed that once a money judgment has been made, the only real difference in terms of enforcement relates to the sum of money involved; subsequently, he recommended a single court as the default court for enforcement of civil judgments.
This would remove the requirement to transfer cases up from the county court to the high court, further decreasing demands on both creditor and court resource.
It was noted by Briggs that those representing customers (such as advice organisations) had proposed that “a unified enforcement court should simply offer a version (improved if necessary) of the current county court bailiff service.”
He made clear however his view of the limitations of such a proposal, stating that it would be “wholly unsatisfactory to provide only for physical enforcement by state-employed bailiffs on the county court model, for as long as their service continues to be, as is unchallenged, gravely afflicted in its quality by delays and under-performance.”
He also warned that an increased investment in the county court bailiff system sufficient to eradicate delays “would not necessarily deal with all its alleged defects, by comparison with the more incentivised private service offered”.
In view of this, it is clear that further attention must be given to broadening the enforcement options available to civil court users.
While constrained by the limited scope of his own review, Briggs proposed that a detailed bespoke review of civil enforcement be undertaken. It is imperative that the Ministry of Justice undertakes this review as a matter of urgency.
While Brexit will no doubt continue to dominate the political agenda, there is every reason for the department to move forward with delivering reform that will be of immediate and tangible benefit to all parties concerned.
It is encouraging that the debate will now focus on how this is taken forward.