New justice reforms to free up vital court capacity

Tens of thousands of people will be able to access free mediation to resolve disputes away from court following major reforms to the civil justice system announced today (Tuesday 25 July)

  • free mediation to be part of the litigation journey for thousands of civil claims
  • proposals expected to spare thousands of families from court and free up nearly 5,000 sitting days per year
  • court capacity boosted to help reduce waiting times for the most complex cases

Following a consultation launched last year, the government has committed to fully integrate mediation as a key step in the court process for small civil claims valued up to £10,000, starting with specified money claims which make up 80% of small claims. This could include claims such as drivers being sued for not paying parking fines or businesses recovering debts from a customer.

Over 180,000 parties will be referred automatically to a free hour-long telephone session with a professional mediator provided by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) before their case can be progressed to a hearing.

It is estimated that greater use of mediation could positively impact up to 92,000 cases per year. This could free up to 5,000 sitting days a year, providing a substantial boost to court capacity and helping the government to reduce waiting time for the most complex cases.

Changes will also provide parties with the opportunity to resolve disputes out of court, reducing costs and removing some of the unnecessary stress court cases can bring.

Today’s news is the first step in the government’s journey towards simplifying processes for civil cases, a commitment that will see a reduction in lengthy, stressful, and often unnecessary, county court cases.

Justice Minister Lord Bellamy KC said:

"A vast number of cases that go through the civil courts each year could be settled far more swiftly and with less stress through mediation.

"By integrating mediation for small civil claims we will create valuable court capacity, freeing up time for judges and reducing pressures on the courts."

To support these changes coming into effect, HMCTS will be expanding the Small Claims Mediation Service (SCMS) by recruiting and training additional mediators and updating necessary technology. The SCMS has been providing voluntary mediation since 2007, settling over half of claims referred to it each year within weeks of starting the case.

By integrating mediation for civil claims up to £10,000, the government is going further than the Civil Justice Council’s recommendation for claims up to £500, supporting even more people to reach a resolution away from court.

James South, Chief Executive of CEDR, said:

"The success and satisfaction rates of the current small claims mediation service has shown how mediation can bring those benefits to parties involved in small claims.

"It is for this reason, CEDR has always been very supportive of automatic referral of civil disputes valued up to £10,000 to mediation, as this will provide more disputants with access to the benefits that we know mediation can bring them."

Today’s reforms are part of wider government action to make broader changes in the culture around dispute resolution in England and Wales.

In March of this year, the government announced plans to mandate mediation for separating families to protect children from witnessing disputes in the family courts, with an ambition to help 2,000 separating families. The scheme has now distributed almost 20,000 mediation vouchers – ten times the original goal. Analysis of the first 7,200 scheme users shows 69% reach a full or partial agreement without needing to go on to court.

Mia Forbes Pirie, a Director of the Civil Mediation Council (CMC), said:

"Mediation is key to resolving disputes of all sizes efficiently and cost-effectively. Mediation can be adapted to suit most types of claim and has high success rates both for small and large matters. It saves the parties and the courts time and money and we are delighted that the Ministry of Justice has decided automatically to refer claims of up to £10,000 to mediation."

Martin McTague, National Chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said:

"An accessible, fair and affordable dispute resolution system is vital to small firms. Introducing an automatic referral to free mediation for civil disputes up to £10,000 is a welcome step and will help speed up access to justice, and avoid expensive litigation for small civil claims. We would also like to see the small claims limit raised, so more parties can benefit from cheaper dispute resolution."

Ministry of Justice
HM Courts & Tribunals Service
Lord Bellamy KC