Thursday, 11 April 2013

Off target

Yesterday's post contained a brief but striking reminder why cuts to budgets in Government departments like the Court Service are destined to hit the wrong targets.

We have just issued proceedings in the Northampton County Court – which is of course in Salford (To me, to you...) – against three defendants. For anybody who doesn’t know, when you do this you receive, all being well an acknowledgement in the form of Notice of Issue.

In this case, where we sued three defendants, we have three notices of issue even though there is only one set of proceedings. They all arrive in the same post but in three separate envelopes, franked with 58p postage. 

If we had to receive three sheets of paper then they could have been posted together. Take into account the stationery costs as well as the postage, there is a waste in this one instance of something like £1.30. No big deal, you might think, but how many times a day, how many days a year, does this happen?

This one court centre processes something like 7,500 claims a week. Not all of those will involve multiple defendants but many will. In many cases there will be fewer – in other cases more.

It wouldn’t surprise me to know that this one sloppy practice costs best part of a thousand pounds a week. The point is it’s just one small example. It’s indicative of a blindness to simple opportunities to save significant sums – money that could be spent on actually improving the service elsewhere.

The cuts will happen anyway but this sort of unnecessary wastage will continue, so the economies will be made in areas that really matter. A little initiative and the right attitude here could deliver real benefits. Why do we have paper acknowledgements in the post anyway? Why isn’t it done by email?

It would be if we used the on-line facility to issue proceedings but, frankly, like the RTA portal, it is such a mess that we don’t. We would happily email, or if we must fax, papers to the court but of course there is no way of paying other than by sending cheque in the post.

Meanwhile, down here in the West Country, things ain’t a lot better. Bristol is a major court centre doing a lot of business. One thing you expect is that they know what they are doing.

It has just taken us seven weeks to get a case transferred, post-judgment, to another court for enforcement purposes. It’s hard to believe that anybody could make something so simple appear so difficult.

We have a judgment that we want to enforce by attachment of earnings order. The debtor lives in Wiltshire, so we need to transfer to his local court. Practice Direction 70.3 within the Civil Procedure Rules is quite helpful here. It tells us two things very clearly, in case we didn’t know.

First (2.1) that if we want to enforce a judgment in a different county court we “must first make a request in writing to the court in which the case is proceeding...”

Secondly (2.2) that “on receipt of such a request, a court officer will transfer the proceedings to the other court unless a judge orders otherwise”.

So it is a simple request (i.e. a letter) and a court officer deals with the transfer. We have ticked all those boxes.

What happens? First we are told that there isn’t a court file. Why is that? Ultimately, with some help from Trowbridge County Court, we establish there is now a policy of destroying (without scanning) court files after a period of three years.

Fortunately we have essential papers including the claim form and the judgment. We assemble an electronic file and send it to Bristol, and ask them to deal with it again.

Lots of delay eventually results in the following response from Bristol Court. It is one page with no enclosures but it is very helpfully sent by post - not email (or fax).

It comes from somebody in the “pre-judgment section” (sic) who can’t, with the benefit of our correspondence in front of them, spell either the name of the firm or the first line of our address correctly. We are told that the file was referred to a deputy district judge who said:-

“It seems that the claimant’s solicitors are asking for the transfer of this resurrected file to Trwobridge (sic), presumably for enforcement purposes, but this is not clear from the file and they have made no application. Can you please ask them to confirm that they want the file transferred, for wat (sic) purpose and why a transfer for (sic) Trowbridge is appropriate?”

The rest of the story is a boring saga of chasing letters from us which eventually resulted in a call from a different person. He, having been told how simple it was and pointed again to the text of the CPR, assured me that he would “give it his full attention”.

In consequence it took only another fortnight to get the file transferred.

The result seems to be that increasingly we have people in our court offices who have very little clue what they are doing, presumably because they lack training.

Presumably also we can’t afford to train them properly because of the postage bills.

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