Judge describes how service at High Court has ‘broken down’
High Court’s Chancery Division keeps losing judges’ orders because of untrained staff
Reliance continues to be placed on a system, which – however effective it may have been in the past – is no longer fit for purpose
Lord Justice Briggs
High Court judges’ orders are being lost because of a lack of trained staff to tackle administrative work.
Lord Justice Briggs, who led a review of the High Court’s Chancery Division, found that the service had “broken down”.
He is threatening to strip court staff of the job of dealing with the orders, and instead hand the work to lawyers.
An unnoticed passage in his provisional report on the review, released last month, revealed that orders, which set out judges’ instructions to parties in cases, are “commonly” missing from court files in the Chancery Division. The division, based in the Rolls Building, handles high-profile cases, including business, property and insolvency disputes.
Briggs complained of the “commonly experienced failure to ensure that judges’ orders are even placed on the court file for the case in question.”
The division is reduced to just six staff who are ‘experienced’ at drafting orders, but they are forced to double up as ushers. As a result, they are passing the task to their untrained colleagues.
Briggs found this unacceptable, and recommended that orders “should in the future be drawn by the parties, approved by the judge, and sealed by the judges’ clerks”.
He pointed out that, unlike staff at HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), lawyers are present in court, are trained in the law, and could draw up the order correctly in front of the judge. Briggs said that HMCTS has been cutting back on administrative staff in the High Court “for several years”. Orders are routinely delayed by “up to six weeks”.
He continued: “The difficulties encountered in making contact with the particular associate responsible for drawing up the order are formidable.”
Briggs complained that inexperienced or junior members of staff are trusted to draw up and file these important documents despite their lack of experience. He also attacked the culture of the court in which judges had “no part” in how their orders are drafted.
He explained: “The cultural assumption that the drawing and sealing of orders remains no part of the judiciary’s responsibility, and by no means the primary responsibility of the parties’ lawyers, means that reliance continues to be placed on a system, which – however effective it may have been in the past – is no longer fit for purpose.”
He warned against relying on these court staff “to prepare and scrutinise orders”, adding that the judiciary “may continue to be dissuaded from the application of the requisite preparation and scrutiny of orders which, after all, they have themselves made.”
Briggs wrote: “I have reached the clear, provisional view that it is time for the Chancery Division also to transfer primary responsibility for the drawing of orders to the parties’ lawyers.”
The task had already been transferred to lawyers in other sections of the High Court, the Queen’s Bench Division, the Commercial Court, and the Technology and Construction Court.
Briggs said that the system of issuing orders in those sections was much faster.
He also criticised the court’s IT systems, improvement of which will be a “vital ingredient” in improving administration. Briggs said: “None of this is anything approaching rocket science, and it is unfortunate that it has not been put in place many years ago.”
The judge’s concerns could overshadow the government’s efforts to promote British courts as the gold standard for resolving international disputes, hoping to profit from their excellence.
Andy Slaughter, shadow justice minister, told Exaro: “This is another sign that the court system in England and Wales is failing, because of draconian cuts. This is not only grossly unfair, but it also puts at risk the system of justice in the UK of which we were once so proud.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: “We welcome the ongoing review of the Chancery Division and will work closely with the judiciary to agree the next steps once the consultation process is completed.
“We remain committed to building on, and improving, the service provided by the Chancery Division.”
The provisional findings in the review come after another judge clashed with Keir Starmer, director of public prosecutions, over sharply critical comments in open court about the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service.
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