County Court Judgments (CCJs) against debtors increased sharply in the first half of 2005, official figures show.
Nearly 400,000 CCJs were issued in England and Wales, 140,000 more than in the first six months of last year.
Malcolm Hurlston, chairman of the Registry Trust, which collates CCJ figures, said the rise was "clear proof of a deteriorating economy".
However, the increase can be partly explained by the DVLA taking out 108,000 CCJs for road tax violations.
The Swansea-based Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency only recently started taking out CCJs for non-payment of road tax.
Overall, Mr Hurlston, who also chairs the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, said that the rise in CCJs underlined that lenders were once again returning to the courts to collect on bad debt.
Throughout the 1990s, judgments declined as the economy improved and lenders turned away from the courts, he added.