The civil justice system is in crisis, according to one of Britain's top county court judges.
Judge Collins blames mistakes on the lack of resources
Judge Paul Collins, London's most senior county court judge, has told Radio 4's Law in Action programme that serious errors are commonplace.
He said low pay and staff shortages meant "we run the risk of bringing about a real collapse in the service".
The Courts Service denied the system was in such a state but admitted staff turnover was high in London.
There are 218 county courts in England and Wales, dealing with claims for matters such as personal injury, house repossessions and breaches of contract.
All but the most complicated non-criminal cases are dealt with by the county courts.
According to Judge Collins, the lack of resources is causing mistakes.
A common problem is when someone who is being sued files a defence, but the papers are not passed on to the judge by court staff.
The judge will automatically award damages to the person who brought the claim, assuming that the person being sued does not want to defend it.
Judge Collins said: "This happens on a regular basis, and although these errors can be put right it takes work to put them right."
He blames mistakes on cuts in staff numbers and low pay.
"Staff in the court service are among the poorest paid of all government departments," he said.
In Judge Collins' court in central London, the number of people employed has been cut from 125 in 1992 to just 80 today.
"We are operating on the margins of effectiveness, and with further cuts looming we run the risk of bringing about a real collapse in the service," he stressed.
Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the judge's complaints merited close attention from the lord chancellor.
He said: "When people go to court they want a decision that is fair and if....the person administering the case says 'sorry, there are systemic failures which mean we are not able to deliver justice', you wonder why the system is there in the first place."
Nick McCarthy, from the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: "There's constantly staff cuts taking place, there's 3.6% staff cuts per year. And the pay deal which is on offer this year gives experienced staff in the county courts a 0% pay increase.
"Our members have been working to rule in opposing this pay deal since 18 December. And undoubtedly both the resource cuts and our members work to rule are hitting the performance in the courts."
But in a statement the Courts Service said: "We do not agree that the civil justice system is near collapse. Despite an increase of 6% in claims issued over the last 12 months, we continue to meet national performance targets.
"In London, we are exceeding our targets with over 82% of small claims being dealt with within 15 weeks."
County courts are no longer subsidised by the taxpayer. Instead, they are expected to generate all their income from fees charged to court users.
However, the courts' budgets are fixed by the government and although the courts more than covered their costs last year, the surplus raised from fees was spent on other services.
Problems in the administration of the courts have, in Judge Collins's experience, been further exacerbated by cuts in the availability of legal aid.
"There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this has led to an increase in the number of people representing themselves without the help of a qualified lawyer. These cases inevitably take up more time."
You can hear Judge Collins's interview in full on Law in Action, BBC Radio 4 at 1600 GMT on Tuesday 13 February 2007.
If you have sued or been sued in the county court, or have worked in the system, we would like to know what your experiences were.
Please send us an email using the form below.
I am a practising solicitor in the field of family law and a large part of the county court jurisdiction relates to family as well. The Carter review changes to legal aid are going to make the situation described by HHJ Collins in terms of litigants in person even worse and I would respectfully suggest that you should consider his comments in this wider context as these reforms are coming in from April 2007. Carter will affect access to justice and it will cause more delay and costs to increase even though it is intended to be a cost cutting exercise for the government.
Pauline Troy, Croydon
Judge Collins should spare a thought for the victims of court mistakes. I entered a defence that was overlooked by the court and judgment was entered against me in error. The first reaction was to try to blame me rather than admit their own mistake. The defence was submitted using money claims online so it was difficult for court staff to argue with prints from their own website which I had to fax to them.
I then received avalanches of flyers from loan shark companies wanting to "consolidate" my debts despite the fact that I have no debts and am in a comfortable financial situation. Senior members of court staff showed complete indifference to mistakes within their own organisation and appeared to have no interest in finding out why a mistake had been made. It took numerous telephone calls and emails to get any action.
Nickie Holding, Horsham
Having had recent personal experience of both a local employment tribunal and the family court system, I agree that our courts are in chaos. It is not, however, a lack of resources but a lack of accountability which is the cause.
P Andrews, Cambridge
I was a clerk of the county court over 30 years ago. Then I was paid £14 per week, but similar work with a firm of solicitors paid £28 per week. A warehouse assistant at Tesco's was paid £21 per week then. My judge was collected from home and taken to court in a Rolls Royce hired by the court.
Judge Collins is right. More people no longer have the means to afford solicitors and have to defend themselves - extremely stressful for the public and probably frustrating for the courts. The court staff generally work extremely hard and are as helpful as anyone would expect under some intolerable situations. It does seem the county court bears the brunt of society when things break down in business, personal and family life. From my experiences county courts do not enjoy the frills and extravagance other less critical public services do.
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