Friday, 18 July 2014

Grim fairytales

My eye was caught this morning by a link to the recently published Annual Report and Accounts from HM Courts and Tribunal Service.

In his foreword the Chief Executive trumpets “another challenging but successful year in which our performance has been maintained or improved at the same time as we continue to reduce our costs.”

He is backed up by similar stuff from the Chairman noting that HMCTS “has continued the success (sic) of the previous two years by delivering improvements in its performance (sick) whilst lowering operating costs”.

All of this is covered on the first page by gushing delight and “sincere thanks” to each individual member of staff of the entire service from the Lord Chancellor and chums.

I really do not need to read any more of this tosh.  Who do they think they are kidding?

Earlier this week, a mercury switch on the “where’s my Uzi?” circuit board tipped violently with the arrival of post from some of our favourite courts.

This week’s top prize goes to Northampton and for those of our readers who may be confused by that reference I am talking about the Northampton that is in Northampton, not the Northampton that is in Salford (more of that below).

We are dealing with the County Court Business Centre at the moment in a case that our claimant client chose to begin by filing proceedings online.  A defence was filed in what on the face of it was a multi-track case and at that point we were called in.

Within a fairly short period of time we were able to achieve agreement with the solicitors for the defendant that more than 75% of the substantial debt was not actually in issue and that there should be judgment, by consent, for that much.  More than that, we quickly agreed a draft order which was sent to the court, with the appropriate cheque, on 23 May 2014.

We know that the cheque was not presented until 30 June.  Two days ago we had a short letter telling us that the application had been deferred saying it was not clear what the parties intended but above all posing the question “has the claim been served or not?”

Well let’s just analyse that shall we?  The claimant filed details online which means that the court office would have printed a claim form and sent it to the defendant.  Somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, the defendants sent a defence to the court as a result of which notice of allocation was issued.

We think all this points fairly strongly to a presumption that the proceedings had been served.

We waited EIGHT WEEKS for that.

In the same post came Salford’s latest bid for stardom.  Tame effort this time but still deserves a mention. Another case where we have agreed an order with the opposition (you can tell we really do our bit to relieve the pressure on resources).

We had agreed and submitted an order for stay on the terms set out in a separate schedule i.e. two pieces of paper.  We get back the now typical “Order that: 1. See attached” with a sealed copy of the schedule – but no order.

Finally, let’s not forget Staines County Court which is probably going to earn a place in its own private hall of fame.  Delegates at the APIL annual conference at the beginning of May who were still there on the afternoon of the second day may remember the horror story I told then about our current litigation in this Outer London flagship.

There is not time here to screen the full version which now comes with intermissions and ice cream.  Suffice to say that after we have filed two notices of acting, sent a number of letters including complaints and talked on the telephone to the court administrator in Kingston, this wretched office is still – without a shred of explanation – sending all communications direct to our client who has now become used to the idea of scanning and emailing them to us.

She is quite prompt to deal, unlike the court.  We are still waiting for formal notice of issue of a counterclaim that was sent, along with the defence, in mid-February.

There is a glimmer of hope where we have now had notice (via our client of course) that there will be a telephone CMC at the end of next month.  This follows notice (to our client) that all directions had been cancelled and trial date vacated but we don’t currently know the reason for that either.

It may be that our colleagues on the other side have written to say that they do not know when the counterclaim was issued, what was the date for service of the defence and cannot be clear about various consequences that flow from that.

Elsewhere in the office, it is now routine for members of our non-contentious team to explain to people who insist that they urgently need a lasting power of attorney executed and registered that it is very unlikely that they will get it done inside 14 weeks.

Why not?  The Office of the Public Guardian staff will tell you that they have a target time of 4 weeks for dealing with registration and that they are meeting it.

What the OPG will not tell you is that they put the post in a pile for 10 weeks and do not open it so that their 4 week target period does not actually begin. One of my consultants had a client who died 5 weeks after submission of the LPA, at which point she was still waiting for an acknowledgment from the OPG.

Elsewhere a routine claim for repayment of a few hundred pounds pension to a deceased’s estate seemed to us to be taking a long time.  When our staff managed to get through to the DWP on the telephone  they were told that they are currently working on post received two months earlier and where our application had only been received 4 or 5 weeks prior to the call, they could not possibly say when it would get dealt with.

So, Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice and the rest of you – don’t tell us that “services to the public are maintained to a high standard” and about the “continued drive to improve case management”.

I cannot recall at any time in recent history picking up a piece of post or other communication from a government office and thinking to myself “that was quick” or “that was easy”.  The only possible exception to that would be the speed with which some of the paperwork comes back from some of our local courts.

Ironically, that is probably because they have so much less to do nowadays whilst we wait two months for a straightforward consent order signed by two firms of solicitors to be shunted back to us with a nonsensical explanation for its rejection.

Meanwhile, the architects of this mess are entertaining the rest of the world with works of pure fiction.