It is a situation that no one wants to end up in, but unfortunately, court proceedings are sometimes simply unavoidable.
When this happens, we would all like to think that the court process will be swift and the claim will be heard at trial within a couple of months, so that justice can be served and the parties can put it all behind them.
However, a recent study of court processing times shows that sadly this could not be further from the truth. Analysis of 8,500 cases across the country has revealed not only that long waits are common everywhere, but also that there is a ‘postcode lottery’ as to how long you may have to wait to have your day in court.
The most striking takeaways from the survey were as follows:
- Between January and March 2022, county court claims were down 24% compared to the same period in 2019. On this basis, one might assume that this means court staff will have more time and there would not be so much of a delay, but unfortunately, this is not the case.
- The number of claims, which are being defended, is down 10%, and the number that proceed all the way to trial is down 14%. These figures could be seen as a positive, as they might be a result of the continuing push for parties to engage in ‘Negotiated Dispute Resolution’ (NDR) to try to resolve disputes. We will refer to NDR further below.
- The East of England is the worst performing region in the country, with parties having to wait an average of almost a year (350 days), between a claim form being served and the case going through its first costs and case management conference. This is only the first hearing, and still a long way before the case reaches trial.
- Between October and December 2021, it took an average of 51.4 weeks for a small claim (those with a value of usually less than £10,000) to progress from being issued to get to trial. This is 14.3 weeks longer than the figures before the pandemic.
- In the same period, it took an average of 74 weeks for all other cases (i.e. those not in the small claims track) to progress all the way to trial. This is 13 weeks longer than pre-pandemic.
Whilst it is clear that the courts are still struggling to deal with the backlog caused by the pandemic, it should not be assumed that all of these delays are pandemic-related. The courts had been under pressure for many years prior to Covid, and lengthy delays were not uncommon even then. That being said, the delays that parties are experiencing now are extreme with cases taking over a year to reach only the first required hearing.
This serves as a stark reminder to parties considering court proceedings that such litigation will not be a ‘quick fix’, and reiterates the court’s guidance that proceedings should only be brought as a last resort.
The most recent edition of the Commercial Court Guide reiterates that parties should engage in the newly-named Negotiated Dispute Resolution (NDR), which replaces the previously terminology of ’Alternative Dispute Resolution’ (ADR). The reason for the change is that the courts do not consider that such efforts to resolve disputes should be seen as an alternative process to court proceedings. The view is that NDR should be considered all the way through a dispute and should be used to encourage parties to negotiate at all times.
By engaging in NDR, parties will hopefully be able to reach an agreement prior to court proceedings being issued and therefore avoid the lengthy court delays. These processes are cheaper, quicker, allow much more flexibility as to the terms of the outcome, and can even allow the parties to preserve working relationships in some circumstances.
At Birketts LLP, we recognise that court proceedings should be a last resort (even if they are sometimes unavoidable), and will work with you to achieve the best commercial outcome as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at June 2022.