County Court users face growing delays and crumbling buildings

In response to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry on the work of the County Court, the Law Society of England and Wales has expressed concern about rising delays and a poorly maintained court estate.

The Law Society is also concerned about the:

  • number of litigants in person in the County Court
  • crisis in civil legal aid
  • physical state of the court estate

On average it is taking 353 days (almost a year)* for the county courts to hear a case. These delays can result in litigants dropping their claims, rather than put more time and money into them, meaning many are not accessing justice.

UK government statistics** show that in 55% of cases both the claimant and defendant have legal representation, in 16% of cases neither party is represented, in 25% only the claimant has representation and in 4% of cases only the defendant has representation.

Law Society president Nick Emmerson said: “We know there are litigants in person currently in the county courts, but their experiences are unknown.

“We urge the government to commission and publish new research surveying their experiences, why they are unrepresented, what their experience of the court process was, how it could be improved and whether they feel justice was done in their case.”

On civil legal aid, Nick Emmerson said: “The crisis in civil legal aid is forcing people to represent themselves in court, especially in housing or welfare cases.

“Law Society data*** shows that 49.8m people (84%) do not have access to a local welfare legal aid provider and 25.3m (42%) do not have access to a local legal aid provider for housing advice.

“The number of civil legal aid firms starting work dropped from 3,896 in 2012 to 2,170 in 2021, creating vast legal aid deserts across England and Wales.

“We ask government to invest £11.3m in civil legal aid for early advice to keep the system sustainable while reform takes place. Early advice also ensures only meritorious cases reach the courts.”

On the court estate, Nick Emmerson said: “Law Society research**** has found that 47% of court users experienced a case delay and adjournment in the preceding 12 months and 28% said the courts estate was not fit for purpose.

“Our members have also told us of leaking roofs and toilets, exposed wiring, chairs held together by gaffer tape and a lack of heating or air conditioning.

“In at least eight courts, including Blackpool County Court and Doncaster Justice Centre North, reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) has been found, meaning they have been forced to close.

“This disrupts the work of the courts, adds pressure to the surrounding courts who have to pick up the slack and creates extensive disruption to litigants, practitioners and court staff.

“The court estate needs significant investment to ensure it is fit for purpose. If government fails to do this, repair issues will continue to cause delays and impact the work of the County Court.”

Notes to editors

*Data from the Association of Consumer Support Organisations. In the South East, there is an average wait of 462 days and the North East has an average wait of 251 days.

**Figures from Civil Justice Statistics Quarterly: April to June 2023

***Statistics taken from the Law Society’s legal aid deserts

****Read our report on Solicitors’ view on the court infrastructure

Read the Justice Select Committee’s call for written evidence on County Court capacity and resource

Our response in full is available upon request.

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Press office contact: Naomi Jeffreys | 020 8049 3928

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