I could weep as I read the latest direct evidence of how the Ministry of Injustice has smashed up our civil justice system. I fear we’re close to the end of that Road to ruin I wrote about 18 months ago.
Latest example comes in a case where we are acting for a creditor whose debt was to be paid, by agreement and consequent approval of the court, through a scheme of monthly instalments backed up with a series of adjournments.
It worked well for a couple of months but then fell victim to the state of affairs at our local court where it seems that the minimum period of time now to process routine paperwork, including formal orders, is 5 to 6 weeks. In the last few months the scheme of adjournments has fallen off the rails, with the most recent being more than two months. It’s no surprise the payments have dried up and we are now trying to get it back on course.
No answer to correspondence so one of my team telephones the court yesterday morning. She speaks to somebody who is new to her role and doesn’t yet have access to the email system – so she can’t even tell us if our communication has been received never mind dealt with.
Asked if there was somebody else that we could speak to who might be able to help us, the answer is that they are “incredibly short staffed” – so, no.
We could send another email marked “urgent” to bring this up through the backlog in correspondence but there is no guarantee because of course our call handler has no idea what’s on the system. Would we have more luck calling tomorrow when somebody with access might be available? Well, we are welcome to try but there is no guarantee…
The last telephone case management conference I dealt with in the same court, a few weeks ago, was a farce because British Telecom couldn’t get anybody to answer the phone for half an hour. I made small talk to the litigant in person on the other side whilst the judge sat at his desk doing box work and wondering why the telephone didn’t ring.
He did his best with only 15 minutes of a 45 minute case conference left. Hopefully next time (if the court is still there) we shall be given a direct dial number for the usher instead of waiting for somebody to man the switchboard that also handles all business for the criminal and family courts.
In two other recent instances final hearings have been postponed because there was no judge available.
This used to be such a reliable and effective court. We had very capable and helpful district judges - still do - supported by an administrative team who always had too much to do but got it done. We used to complain when they told us that they were three weeks behind but they would find some more resource and bring it up to date.
Things happened then.
I talked at the end of last year to one of the people responsible for that culture – somebody whom you could always depend on when it was necessary – a real “leave it to me” (and it will get sorted) type.
I listened then to how the 5-week-old pile of post would come out of the cupboard each day and, after all the more immediate and urgent stuff had been dealt with, go back in the cupboard at the end of the day – the only change being that the pile was a little higher.
I saw the look of desolation in the once-bright eyes and understood the anxiety to retire and escape at the first opportunity.
The good people have gone, or are going. To the extent (partial) of their being replaced then it’s with young recruits who lack experience, knowledge and training. Not their fault but they don’t have it.
In response to the last provisional assessment request we filed came a notice that the “detailed assessment hearing” had been listed on a date when we should attend and “2 minutes 30 minutes (sic) has been allowed for the hearing”.
We pointed out the error and in response received “notice that the provisional assessment hearing will take place…” and in this instance 1 hour and 15 minutes had been allowed. Another letter to the court drew the assurance that no attendance at the hearing was necessary. The next order enclosed the bill provisionally assessed by the district judge in the absence of the parties.
Since then and approximately a month later, we have had another ‘order’.
“IT IS ORDERED THAT this case is on the list today. However the bill has already been provisionally assessed…”
I am waiting for an “order” one day “that I will be on holiday four weeks from today so list that for when I get back – and I am just going out to get a sandwich now”.
This is “justice” at work nowadays. This is what people pay us to grapple with to obtain orders that are a civilised society’s alternative to self-help and anarchy.
Meanwhile we have people in Salford who can’t process anything in less than a fortnight hunting for minor arithmetical miscalculations or errors of procedure (that aren’t) and then having to refer files to district judges whilst we wait weeks for news of something happening.
In one case where “proper officer” and district judge were both doing different conflicting things on the file on the same day we ended up with a proper procedural mess which cost The Court Service more than £3,000 in wasted costs (and that was just our side).
I can’t wait for Lord Briggs’ wonderful online courts, monitored by people who don’t have access to the system and available to people who know nothing of law and procedure.
That should cure all..