How Court Delays Affect You

 

Photo of Daniel Fitzsimmons, a Director at Donoghue Solicitors who discusses the impact of civil court delays on the public.

Civil court delays are a problem for all of us. Daniel Fitzsimmons explains how here.

By Daniel Fitzsimmons, Director at Donoghue Solicitors

Recently the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers published a report which revealed shocking civil court delays. So what? Well, it matters for those involved in litigation, working within the court system, or funding it. One way or another, that’s all of us. This is why you should take notice.

What APIL’s Report About Court Delays Said

APIL is a not-for-profit organisation formed by claimant lawyers (like me). It campaigns for victims’ rights and uses its platform to seek to improve their lot. I am a proud member.

APIL analysed the latest civil justice statistics for courts throughout England and Wales. The report covered the period up to the fourth quarter of 2023.

The authors crunched the numbers and found that:

  • the average time for all “fast-track” (relatively straightforward) and “multi-track” (complex) claims cases to reach trial increased by six months when compared to the fourth quarter of 2019
  • it took an average of 85.7 weeks (more than a year and a half) for claims to reach trial. That is a rise of 41% when compared to the same period in 2019, and up 84% when compared to the same period in 2016.
  • the delays also affected “small claims”. These include things like road traffic accident claims with personal injury valued at less than £5,000, provided they are valued at under £10,000 in total. (Most “whiplash” claims fall within this category.) It took an average of 55.8 weeks, more than a year, for small-track claims to reach trial. This reflects an increased delay of 51% when compared to the same period in 2019.

Quite rightly, APIL president Jonathan Scarsbrook condemned the court system delays, noting that:

“During a delay, justice is at a standstill.”

How Delays in the Court System Impact Civil Claims

The increasing delays described in APIL’s report are deeply concerning. But, if anything, the time periods quoted are conservative.

I work full-time as a Chartered Legal Executive dealing with complex “multi track” civil court cases. These require frequent interactions with the court service, including when I

  • issue formal court proceedings
  • process paperwork and applications
  • seek and attend interim court hearings
  • take cases all the way through to County and High Court trials.

In my experience, it is a constant struggle to progress cases once they have been “issued” at court.

This example of a “multi track” civil action against the police shows how.

What Caused a Civil Action Against the Police

My client “John” lives in Ipswich. He was on a night out in town with family and friends. His sister and her boyfriend got into an argument, so John left the bar with her boyfriend. The two men were heading home through an alley, minding their own business, and talking at normal volume. Suddenly, a police officer approached John from behind and brutally assaulted him without warning. I use the word “brutal” deliberately: in a move familiar to UFC fans, the officer grabbed John by the head, pushed it down, and simultaneously kneed him in the face.

The vicious police assault broke John’s nose. It also caused dental injuries and other damage. John was in excruciating pain. His nose was bleeding, he was in shock, and he struggled to breathe.

The injuries were so severe that even the police officer who attacked John felt compelled to call for an ambulance. But, to add literal insult to injury, the officer arrested John first. He told John, his sister’s boyfriend, and the other officers at the scene that John had taken a swing at him first!

Calm heads eventually prevailed and the officer de-arrested John while they waited for the ambulance. (Read what this means in this BBC report prepared with the help of my fellow Director, Kevin Donoghue)

How Donoghue Solicitors Helped

John was rightly furious with his treatment and determined to seek justice.

He contacted me after seeing that I have a successful track record in pursuing civil actions against the police involving police brutality and the unnecessary use of force, and that I help people throughout England and Wales.

We discussed his case, which I agreed to take on a “no win no fee” basis and handled from start to finish.

I advised John to lodge a police complaint, which produced an answer about why John was assaulted. We found out that an incident had occurred nearby. The police were looking for “two males”. That, apparently, was enough for the arresting officer to assault John, the nearest person fitting the vague description.

Despite this explanation, John’s complaint was rejected, as usual. But through it we also got hold of police body worn camera and council CCTV footage. Contrary to what the officer said about John taking a swing at him first, the video appeared to prove the police assault was unprovoked.

Bringing Civil Court Proceedings in an Action Against the Police

I pursued a civil claim on John’s behalf. And this is where a real-world comparison with APIL’s data is useful.

Despite the video evidence, the police denied liability in writing. (They usually do.) As a result, John had no alternative but to issue formal court proceedings.

I issued and served the papers on 20 March 2023. As expected, the police filed their defence, which again denied liability, within the required 28 days.

The court determined that a Costs and Case Management Conference (“CCMC”) was required to agree “directions” – a schedule of tasks with dates to get the case ready for trial. This is usually a formality and often agreed without a court hearing. But it was listed for 6 Aug 2024, nearly 17 months (72 weeks and 1 day) after I issued proceedings.

From then, I expect it would take a further 15 months for the case to get to trial.

This meant that, if John’s case did not settle, it would take about 2 ½ years (139 weeks) for his case to get to trial. APIL’s finding that the average for claims to reach trial of 1 year 7 months (85.7 weeks) looks incredibly quick by comparison.

Fortunately for all involved, despite filing a defence, the police saw sense and agreed to negotiate settlement terms.

I settled John’s claim last week for £29,500. He will receive his money shortly, and the case will no longer be stuck in the court system.

Why Civil Claims in England and Wales Can Take So Long

John’s case is not unusual, especially in the niche of actions against the police. Part of the problem is caused by geography.

I find that delays in London are even worse than other areas. And London courts carry an outsize impact because of their size and geographical proximity to large populations and organisations.

For example, the Metropolitan Police is the biggest force in the UK, in the most populated area, and deals with the most civil claims of any force.

Its claims are dealt with exclusively at Central London County Court. This means that the public who are forced to issue actions against the police proceedings in London are disproportionately impacted by delays there.

(In the past I have tried to avoid the Central London County Court bottleneck by getting court proceedings handled further out. But they simply get transferred to Central London. There does not appear to be a way around this system, which causes excessive backlogs and delays.)

Why Civil Court Claim Delays Affect Us All

The findings of APIL’s report, and my own experience, matter because court delays impact:

  • Claimants, who have suffered injury or loss through no fault of their own. The civil court system is designed to put people back to the position they were in before the injury/loss. While no one can turn back time, compensation can be awarded to help with things like:
    • damages for personal and psychiatric injuries
    • physical and psychiatric therapy
    • lost earnings and expenses
    • property damage
    • modifications to homes and cars.

Delays in getting these things have real world effects on innocent victims.

  • Defendants. Court delays can affect:
    • individuals, such as motorists involved in disputed accidents
    • small businesses, for example when someone claims compensation after a slip, trip, or fall on their premises
    • insurers, who must include the value of the potential claim in their accounts, which affects their company valuation. They also pass on those charges to consumers, who must pay higher insurance amounts to cover the potential loss
    • police forces and other public authorities, who settle claims, or fight them to trial, using taxpayer funds.
  • court staff and judges, who are increasingly burdened, working in antiquated buildings, and suffering the ill-effects of stress
  • the public in general, who bear the increased costs of a failing court system, higher insurance premiums and tax burdens, and a loss of confidence in the justice system.

In short, we are all affected.

As APIL’s President said:

“England and Wales once had a justice system which was held up as an example to all the others, but now we have a system which is fraught with delays, short-staffed, and with court buildings in a state of disrepair.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Daniel Fitzsimmons is a Director at Donoghue Solicitors. He specialises in civil actions against the police involving the use of excessive and unnecessary force. Read more about him here.