Sluggishness in the county courts — caused by a lack of investment, staff cuts and antiquated systems — is leading to serious delays. The system needs a rethink and it frequently aids defendants in spinning cases out to their advantage.
This is most frequent, although not exclusive, in landlord and tenant cases. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, it was difficult to pursue claims at anything other than a snail’s pace.
Most courts do not pick up the telephone and the bulk of inquiries are directed to a call centre dealing with issues for dozens of courts. It can take up to an hour or more for anyone to answer the phone and, when they do, they often cannot provide a helpful update and instead suggest email correspondence. And good luck getting a reply to an email.
The simple fact is that the situation has worsened as a result of the health crisis and lockdowns.
Before the pandemic, commercial landlords retained the ultimate weapon against nonpaying tenants — forfeiture — where a landlord could change the locks and exclude the tenant from the premises all without the need to involve the courts.
Understandably, the government was keen to protect tenants against such draconian measures during the pandemic, particularly where businesses were mandated to close and, as a result of the Coronavirus Act 2020, forfeiture was banned for rent arrears built up during the crisis.
This meant that landlords were mainly left only with the option of commencing debt claims. It did not take long for those advising tenants to create clever — and sometimes not so clever — legal arguments in an attempt to drag out claims and avoid judgments, even in circumstances where it was fairly obvious that the tenant could well afford to pay.
Unfortunately, the wheels of justice do not turn fast, particularly at county courts. Even the simplest debt claims could be dragged out by tenants for months or more simply by filing a defence, no matter how spurious it may be.
The same applies to claims for possession — some tenants have for years been playing the system, knowing that by defending a claim it can put off the inevitable for months and even years. When the case finally goes before a judge, the bench is aware of the administration problems but powerless to do anything.
The system is not fit for purpose. It encourages and assists delays in the progress of claims, even the most meritorious.
We cannot have a system in England that enables spurious claims from some tenants whose only objective is often to drag the case on for as long as possible and avoid paying rent that they are contractually liable to pay.
For more information please contact Steven Ross at Steven.firstname.lastname@example.org