Civil courts and tribunals recovery plan published
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Marc Bloomfield
HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) stated this week that it is now ‘safely increasing capacity’ in the civil justice system to deal with the backlog of cases caused by measures introduced in response to COVID-19 (COVID-19: overview of HMCTS recovery for civil and family courts and tribunals, 9 November 2020, page 1).
Due to the reopening of more courtrooms, the increased use of remote hearings and the possible extension of opening hours, HMCTS anticipates that final hearings for tracked claims in the civil courts will return to pre-pandemic levels this autumn. In the four weeks to 20 September 2020, HMCTS says that small claims and fast track hearings were ‘up to around 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels’ (page 3).
With the lifting of the stay on possession hearings, housing lawyers are expecting an increase in court hearings in the coming weeks (see November 2020 Legal Action 38). HMCTS anticipates that housing possession claims will return ‘to at least pre-COVID levels by the spring’ and has ‘contingency arrangements prepared to adapt to increased levels of demand’ (para 3.7, page 7).
New rules governing possession cases were drafted by a working group established by Sir Terence Etherton MR and led by Knowles J. These were welcomed by Simon Davis, the outgoing president of The Law Society, as a ‘positive step’, but he warned that the government ‘needs to resolve the legal advice deserts’ that prevent tenants from obtaining the legal help they need when faced with losing their home.
According to HMCTS, June and July saw a record number of sitting days in the family courts (see page 2). It believes that the number of completed cases is returning to pre-COVID-19 levels. Compared with previous years, in private law family over 70 per cent of the cases it would normally expect to complete had been completed since March 2020, and in public law family the figure was 80 per cent. By continuing to ‘maximise sitting day levels and focus on improving completion rates’, HMCTS hopes to reduce the number of outstanding cases. Currently, it does not have plans to extend the opening hours of the family courts, but is keeping this under review (see para 2.1, page 6 and page 2).
There have been reductions in the backlog of cases in the previous year for the two largest First-tier Tribunal chambers, the Social Entitlement Chamber (particularly the Social Security and Child Support jurisdiction) and the Immigration and Asylum Chamber (para 5.1, page 11). HMCTS believes that this, combined with special measures such as the reduction of panel members, has enabled these tribunals to ‘avoid significant backlogs’ (paras 5.2–5.3, page 11).
HMCTS admits, however, that the employment tribunals (ETs) and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ‘face a more challenging position’ (para 5.6, page 12). Receipts of new cases in the ETs and EAT have been on the increase since mid-June and disposals rates have been ‘around 75 per cent of pre-COVID levels between March and 20 September 2020’. The backlog of single-issue claims before the ETs has also increased by 30 per cent since March this year. HMCTS warns that ‘the ending of the Job Retention Scheme and the impact of the wider economic recession’ is going to feed an increase in ET claims in the coming months (para 5.8, page 12). By increasing remote hearings and hearing room capacity, it hopes to meet its targets for hearing cases without having to increase operating hours (para 5.11, page 12). As with the family courts though, it is keeping this under review.

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