Civil Court Structure Aimee Potter
The Civil Court structure has been around for many years, it has been developing for over 1000 years. It is made up of four courts, the County Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Each of the courts are responsible for handling different stages of cases. The amount that the case is worth will determine which court will deal with the case.
The Civil Court structure is a government institution that settles disputes between two or more parties. There are two Civil Courts of first instance consisting of the County Court and the High Court. However, an action (such as assault) will be tried in both a Civil Court and Criminal Court, Civil cases may involve any combination of private citizens, businesses, or any other party(s). The function of the Civil Court is to determine liability of one party for the injuries, which do not necessarily need to be of the physical nature, but that are suffered by the other party. The current Civil Court structure has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent years and therefore alternatives have emerged to try and ease the strain.
Civil cases are handled differently than criminal cases. They are heard in either the County Court or High Court in England and Wales, with few exceptions (such as liable cases) there is no jury to decide the facts of the case, instead the Judge listens to the evidence and to the arguments from both sides, and then plans what they think will be best. The Judge will in most instances encourage cooperation between the parties involved. The Civil Court procedure rules (1999) states that Judges must encourage parties to settle their dispute out of court. In the case Dunnett v Railtrack (2002) ‘This case concerned a dispute between the claimant, Ms Dunnett, who owned a field next to a railway line, where she kept horses, and Railtrack. Railtrack replaced an existing gate which automatically shut by itself leading from the field to the line, with a gate which did not automatically shut by itself. As a result, the gate was left open, and three horses strayed on to the line and were killed. The dispute about liability was taken right through to the Court of Appeal, and in fact the defendant, Railtrack, won at the appeal stage on technical legal grounds, and the appeal was dismissed. However, at the hearing at which permission to appeal was granted, the court stated that the parties should attempt mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) which seemed suitable to resolving this dispute. The defendant (Railtrack) refused outright to consider ADR, because they believed that they would win the case at appeal. In fact, although Railtrack did win the case at appeal, they were denied their costs. The judges’ reason for this was that Railtrack had flatly refused to consider ADR, contrary to the requirements of the Civil Procedure Rules. CPR 1.4 states that the court should encourage the parties to use ADR, and CPR 1.3 states that the parties are required to help the court in furthering this objective.’
The County Court usually deals with small claims anything that is under £5000, but it can also deal with fast track cases up to a maximum of £25,000 and also multi-track cases that are over £25,000. Cases that arise with regards to contract and tort claims for example arguments regarding negligence or fraud up to a maximum of £30,000. The High Courts are the ones who are more likely to listen to more serious criminal and civil cases and help the Lord Justice to hear any appeal made. The High Court tends to deal with contract cases and tort cases that are over £50,000. The High Court is split into three divisions each of which specialize in different areas, The Queen’s bench division, Chancery division, and the Family division. The Queen’s bench division will deal with cases worth £15,000 or over, the Chancery division will deal with things such as copyright, company law and enforcement of mortgages to name a few. The family division deals with anything to do with family law from nullity of marriage to the protection of children.
The Civil Courts like many others face many problems, having been crippled by high costs, delays and more complex trials, larger claims can take longer to be brought to trial thus has a knock-on impact to the whole court system which is why a judge will always encourage Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR). ‘The Audit Office report criticised the poor time management of court cases, noting that only 57% of trials proceeded on their scheduled date in 2016.’ (BBC, 2018) Another major criticism of the Civil Court structure is the cost of civil litigation, ‘In the UK’s County Courts alone, 1.4 million claims get issued each year (Of those, about 49% are small claims, 39% go on to the fast track and 12% are multi-track claims. The data suggests a settlement rate of 96% to 97%. Many more disputes are resolved without a claim even being issued.’ (Womblebonddickinson, 2016) What this demonstrates is that Mediation is an effective way of settling disputes out of court.
Other ways to settle the case could be one of the four Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods. Negotiation, Conciliation, Mediation or Arbitration. Not only are these ways cheaper, faster and more private but they can also be less stressful for all parties involved. Also settling any case out of the courts then reduces the amount the courts must deal with. Negotiation and Mediation are examples of a self-help approach to settling a dispute out of court. Negotiation is probably the most flexible of the four methods. Those involved can communicate with each other rather than attacking each other and are free to shape negotiations so that they will hopefully benefit all involved. This therefore can save time, money and unnecessary stress for those involved. Although like all forms of Alternate Dispute Resolutions (ADR) negotiating will not always guarantee that a party will be successful. Negotiation is a voluntary and confidential way of settling a dispute without any third-party involvement although a solicitor can be appointed to deal with the negotiations, but this would then involve costs.
Mediation like Negotiation is a voluntary process, except that with Mediation a third party, a neutral mediator that is chosen and agreed by all involved. All involved are given time to present their case. The mediator will then listen and try and help those involved find a solution that suits all parties involved but doesn’t offer any solutions. The mediator will often be expert in the area of the dispute(s) that has been raised. If the parties reach an agreement the agreement is not binding unless a mediated agreement is signed until this point any amendment along as agreed can be made. If an agreement is not reached, then all parties may have wasted their time.
However, in an audit undertaken by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR) in July 2018 it primarily focuses on how the use of Mediation has grown considerably since the last audit in 2016. This is a biennial audit and is compiled from survey responses of UK based mediators dealing with civil and commercial claims. Its key findings were; ‘In the last 12 months, 12,000 commercial mediations (excluding small claims mediations) were performed, being an increase of 20% on 2016. Scheme-related activity grew by 45% since 2016 and now accounts for 37.5% of all mediation activity.’ This demonstrates the overall popularity of Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) over civil litigation furthermore, ‘The overall success rate of mediation remains high with an aggregate settlement rate of 89%, 74% achieving settlement on the day of mediation and 15% shortly after mediation. (CEDR, July 2018). This suggests that mediation is a growing way of settling a dispute out of court.
However even though there has been an increase in Mediation been used as alternative it also comes with setbacks when compared with Negotiation. Mediation costs can start to increase significantly by costs of a mediator, finding a suitable venue, then there is preparation time and time that is needed to write an agreement up if one is reached all of which add to these. Mediation although flexible relies on a third party to be present unlike Negotiation which relies only on the parties involved to communicate with each other, this can be especially helpful with maintaining relationships therefore avoiding further conflict especially for example the case had been raised was within the corporate world and there was a dispute between employees.
When the Civil Court procedure rules (1999) were introduced stating that a judge must encourage parties to settle out of court and try Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) it shows that the overall popularity of Mediation and Negotiation over civil litigation is a growing way to settle a dispute. Not just because of the time and cost saving but when using one of the Alternate Dispute Resolutions (ADR) parties are free to communicate with one another and get the best outcome possible for all parties. The way the court structure has evolved and the scrutiny it faced in recent years with regards to the cost of civil litigation growing so rapidly and the time that it takes to get a case to court the introduction of ADR is a very welcome alternative and has eased the strain on the current system massively.