This month we are reviewing some of the recent changes to UK Courts that came into effect this year. We will start by considering changes to the Civil Courts and their procedure and finish our roundup with some changes to the Criminal Courts.
The Civil Procedure (Amendment) Rules 2014, together with the 69th update to the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR), came into force at the end of April 2014 and brought in several changes to Civil Litigation. Two of the main changes are the introduction of the single County Court and new civil judgment enforcement procedure.
Single County Court
Traditionally the County Court sat at various locations throughout England and Wales and when pleadings or judgments were issued they would refer to the specific local County Court. From April 2014, all references to particular County Courts will cease and be replaced by references to specific County Court hearing centres. This change may not seem significant but is a result of there being now only one single national County Court. This will mean that the hearing centres will have few administrative functions and therefore fewer staff. In line with this change, Judges will no longer be restricted to geographical boundaries.
In addition the Northampton County Court (which has issued most civil claims over recent years) has been renamed the ‘County Court Business Centre’. In the future the majority of civil claims will be issued by the Business Centre, and if a claim is settled or judgment in default is awarded, then it will never be dealt with at a local hearing centre.
Finally, changes to the High Court and County Court Jurisdiction mean that claims under £100,000 must now be made in the County Court. It should be noted that there are still some exceptions, such as when a claim is considered complex or deals with a matter of public interest.
Enforcement of Judgments
A second key change in civil procedure involves new rules designed to protect the public from overly aggressive High Court Enforcement Officers (formerly High Court Sheriffs). Four new parts have been added to the CPR, parts 83 to 86, which deal with the rules for taking control of goods; claims against controlled and executed goods; and competing claims to goods. Taking control of goods is the new term to express the concept of seizing goods. What were once described as writs of fi fa now become named writs of control, and warrants of execution become warrants of control. It remains the case that only judgments of £600 or more can be enforced by this method. There are still exceptions where goods are used in a debtor’s employment, trade or education up to the value of £1,350. Of more importance is the requirement for High Court Enforcement Officers to now provide debtors with at least seven days’ notice before they take control of goods. Cynical observers might consider that this seven-day notice period provides debtors with the perfect opportunity to remove, hide or sell goods before the Enforcement Officer’s visit. The rules on how and when an Enforcement Officer can enter premises and the fee structure have also changed.
Criminal Court Changes
In addition to the changes in the civil courts there have also been well-publicised changes to the powers magistrates have. Magistrates are to have unlimited fining powers under provisions made in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The unlimited power to fine will apply only to the most serious offences. Those convicted of less serious summary offences, such as speeding, driving without insurance, minor disorderly behaviour or the sale of alcohol to a child, will face increased financial penalties. Following are some examples of offences where fines have increased:
Level 2 fines will rise from £500 to £2,000 for driving a motorcycle without a helmet.
Level 3 fines will rise from £1,000 to £4,000 for being drunk and disorderly in a public place.
Level 4 fines will rise from £2,500 to £10,000 for speeding on the motorway.
There will still be custodial sentences for serious offenders, and fines are not intended to be an alternative to custodial sentences. There has been no increase in the magistrates’ power to sentence offenders to custody for a term of no more than six months’ imprisonment.
The changes to both the Civil and Criminal Courts are designed to cut the costs of running the Court Service. However, cost efficiency needs to be balanced with ensuring that the legal system remains just. Many Judges have already commented on how overstretched Court resources are, and these changes are unlikely to reduce these pressures.