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Administration Of Justice

Volume 77: debated on Monday 15 April 1985

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asked the Attorney-General if he is satisfied with the speed of the administration of justice in relation to civil cases; and if he will make a statement.

Although I am satisfied that cases are heard as quickly as possible given the resources at present available and the existing procedural rules, the Lord Chancellor, with the full co-operation of the judges, is always seeking ways in which to improve procedure and administration and has recently set up the major inquiry known as the civil justice review. The speed with which a case comes to trial depends to a very substantial extent on the efforts made by the parties.

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer and information. Is he aware that the legal procedures relating to the original collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 are still moving through the courts and have some way to run? Might the review that he has mentioned be of assistance in this matter, and does its ambit extend to the Official Referee, with whom I understand the case now stands?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling me what he would follow his original question with, as I have been able to do a careful inquiry to give the detailed reply which I think he should have. In this case, as in all civil proceedings, the responsibility for carrying the action forward rests with the parties. Although the writ was issued in 1970, the case was not ready for trial for many years and, as late as November 1978, the defendants obtained leave to amend their defence. The trial took place on 25 February 1980–10 years after the writ. The judgment was appealed against, unsuccessfully, on 9 July 1981. The question of quantum was referred to an official referee. A preliminary issue raised by the defendant was dealt with by the official referee, but, here again, the decision was appealed against. Bundles of documents for the appeal were not approved until March this year. It is plain that the complexity and importance of the issues and the amount of documentation have made preparation a lengthy task. One explanation might be that an affidavit lodged by the defendants refers to the disclosure of more than 100,000 documents.

All of those matters are within the control of the parties, but procedure generally will be part of the civil justice review, and I hope that such matters will be looked into. There is a remedy for the plaintiff. No plaintiff needed to let this take 10 years to get to trial. He has certain remedies which could force the case on much earlier.

Following the original question, might I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that there is a delay of about two years in settling a date for trial for commercial cases in the commercial court? Bearing in mind the significance to our international trade of the availability of British justice, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider devoting more resources to this area of activity so that the trial process can be speeded up?

In a sense, the problem is rather ironic as it is a testament to the court's popularity that many contracts, parties to which—[Interruption.]It will be seen that that is right. Many entirely overseas contracts, neither party to which has any connection with Britain, have written into them a provision that any dispute is to be settled in accordance with English law. That is a great tribute to our commercial court, but it has led to an enormous increase in the court's work. The Lord Chancellor is well aware of this, and he and the commercial court committee are considering the question of delay with a view to reducing it.