Michael Jackson, director of high court services at Marston Holdings, unravels the different measures for court reforms
As readers may be aware, the structure and processes of the civil courts are the subject of a review being led by Lord Justice Briggs.
An interim report, published in January 2016, has raised important questions about the future of enforcement, a matter that will be of considerable interest to creditors.
The Briggs review is one aspect of the government’s court reform programme. The scope of the task is substantial, but there is strong commitment from government to act promptly.
The Briggs consultation will formally conclude in May 2016 to fit within wider Ministry of Justice (MoJ) time frames.
The interim report includes suggestions to modernise the courts through improved streamlined services and better use of technology, a key aspect of the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto commitment to modernise the courts system – I’m sure I don’t need to remind readers of the shortcomings and inefficiencies of the current civil court system.
Measures that could improve services for users, such as the introduction of a new online court for claims up to £25,000, are proposed.
These would build on the successes of the respective Money Claim Online and Possession Claims Online systems, designed to grant easier access to litigants.
Questions are also raised about the potential benefits of unifying the enforcement of civil judgments from the High Court and County Court, and the enforcement of judgments against goods and possessions.
Readers may recall the outcomes of a survey published by the High Court Enforcement Officers Association in October 2015, which demonstrated overwhelming consensus for removing existing restrictions on the services that high court enforcement officers (HCEOs) can perform.
This preference is echoed in the interim report, which recognises that the county court bailiff service is finding it difficult to meet the needs of users, many of whom experience problems including long delays, and lack of access to information.
Removing the restrictions would continue the path of reforms made under the Courts Act 2003, which introduced competition among HCEOs, driving improved services including 24/7 access to information for clients, and greater engagement with the advice sector to help support vulnerable customers.
Improved service for civil court users is an objective of the Briggs review, and given that civil court users subsidise the users of other courts (as noted recently by the Master of the Rolls in evidence he recently gave to the Justice Committee), this outcome would seem both fair and proper.
The MoJ has previously consulted on removing the restrictions, with a decision to be made following consideration of the new fee structures for enforcement. The regime, introduced in April 2014, has delivered a number of key improvements and protections for customers.
They now benefit from simpler rules and a statutory mechanism to apply fees that are proportionate, clearly defined in statute and only have a single charge per stage of enforcement.
Marston continues to work closely with stakeholders including MoJ and advice organisations, to drive further improvements across the enforcement industry.
Brigg’s interim report confirmed that HM Courts & Tribunals Service is currently reviewing the county court bailiff service.
With the interests of creditors and government being very much aligned on this particular issue, I am hopeful that a wider range of choices for enforcement services will soon be available.