This is traditionally the time to look back, and wondering around the net you see no end of reviews of the year, forecasts for 2012, lists of the top 10 cases, or bloggers, or lawyers and so on. I have resisted doing a review myself on the grounds that
- I have only been writing Coventry View since June and that this isn’t long enough to count
- everybody has done it and I’ll just be repeating things
- if you do it properly it’s a lot of work.
However, there doesn’t seem to be much happening in the housing area which I’m trying to cover here, and so a review it has to be.
But I won’t just cover a year.
I came to Coventry as a solicitor in 1983, some 29 years ago. In those days County Courts could generally only handle claims for up to £5,000, and anything else went to the High Court. Small claims were less than £1,000. Most possession claims were dealt with by a Circuit Judge in open court, although if you had a big house you may have to go to a High Court Judge in Birmingham, because there was a rateable value limit (I forget how much) which meant using a barrister.
Trials were exciting because you didn’t know who the other side’s witnesses were, let alone what they might say. And although there was a lot less paperwork cases could take years to come to trial.
Against that you knew all your local lawyers.Virtually no litigation could be dealt with by post, and you often had to go off to some obscure court to do a 5 minute application. Solicitors handled their own cases either personally, or via the barrister that they used for everything. The District Judges (then called Registrars) were a powerful and idiosyncratic bunch, who you fell out with at your peril. The County Court Judges were people you regularly came across in trials, applications and so on. They knew the local advocates, and marked their cards if they were less than professional. And there was Legal Aid that would give you a decent living if you were reasonably efficient.
Things have changed beyond all recognition. I won’t bore you with the details, as most of you will know the changes. Some of the changes have been for the better – the “cards on the table” attitude and the speeding up of cases are the most obvious. But not everything is an improvement. What brought things home to me was the closure of Warwick County Court, and its Crown Court, earlier in the year. The Magistrates Court closed some years ago. This means that for the first time since Saxon times, Warwick has no local court of any kind. Justice is becoming distant.
Warwick, in all fairness, isn’t that big and it couldn’t really justify a court apart from the history. But it’s just a sign of the future.
In Coventry (which is 15 times bigger) all money claims for the local court are already sent off to a processing centre in Salford for issue. At the moment you post them to Coventry who send them on for you, but this is set to change in 2012. Possession claims are issued centrally (PCOL) though you can still send them to the courts for the time being. I understand that the plan is that before long the local court offices will close entirely and all cases will be handled in 2 or 3 national processing centres, with local Hearing Centres, staffed with ushers and Judiciary only. Everything else will be dealt with in the processing centres. No local orders, no staff with any knowledge of cases, just a place to have hearings. And in Warwickshire there are now only 3 hearing centres, against the 7-8 when I came.
Now as a solicitor this is something that I can cope with. I can pester people at the end of an email or over the phone quite effectively, and if something is important enough I am sure I will find a way to get it sorted out. But how will the thousands of litigants in person cope? With the virtual abolition of civil Legal Aid and the loss of litigation practices from many regional towns far more people have resorted to DIY lawyering. In the family law field it has resulted in serious delay and problems, and this will clearly spread. At least up to now they have been able to discuss things over a counter in their local court with staff who know procedure and even some of the law. This will be ending shortly. What will replace it?
Law is a practical service, allowing people to understand and enforce their rights. It isn’t just a pleasant way for lawyers to earn a living. People with problems need local advice and local determination when advice is not enough. First most of the advice has been taken away – the loss of Legal Aid and closure of advice centres. Secondly procedure has become so prescriptive, with pre-action protocols, early disclosure, early exchange of witness statements and so on that even quite ordinary claims become beyond the pocket of anyone other than large businesses, and the seriously rich. And now the hearings are going to be miles away, with no local connection.
This isn’t progress. How is this making things better for the public? Hasn’t somebody, somewhere, lost the plot?