The county court is where the majority of civil claims in England and Wales are heard. It's technically not a single monolithic entity with multiple district registries in the way the High Couty is, but a network of around 491 individual courts with their own staffs and judiciary sitting there.

The county court hears most civil claims for specified sums up to £25,000.00, unspecified sums likely to be up to that amount, personal injury claims up to £50,000.00 in value, the vast majority of claims for possession of property, and, depending on the court, certain family cases as well. Not being a family lawyer I cannot shed any light on when one issues a family claim in the County Court and when in the High Court, and also, the family courts are very much a mystery to most people not involved therein which certain folks describe as collective omertá but there you go. As a result, most civil Court action is in the county courts. Each court covers a certain district and there is a map showing where the dividing lines are between each Court's jurisdiction but this is not rigorously enforced for reasons that will be explained later.

The judiciary of the county court consists of a number (depending on the size and workload of the court in question) of District Judges, one or possibly two Circuit Judges, and various deputies, which are practicing solicitors or barristers that sometimes sit part time as District Judges. The type of judge you are in front of depends on what type of hearing it is and the Courts differ in how they list their cases. But generally, a trial, if it lasts more than one day, and some one-day trials, will be before a Circuit Judge (who wears a purple robe and wig and is marked up as "His/Her Honour Judge X" and is addressed in Court as "Your Honour"). Circuit Judges also hear appeals from decisions of District Judges in the same Court, and also certain types of application (notably committal for contempt of Court) are heard by them. District judges, addressed as "Sir" or "Madam," hear everything else.

Despite their name, the jurisdiction of a County Court is not limited by the county. Furthermore, it's not set in stone, although strictly speaking you issue in the Court that's most appropriate to the geographical locations of the parties, and if it is a claim which relates to a dispute over real property you should, and in some cases must, issue in the Court local to that property. There is a general discretion to move a case from one court to another in certain circumstances and also there are certain Courts marked up as "civil trial centres" where trials of multiple days are sent to lighten the load on local Courts so that one judge isn't blocked up for a week hearing something complicated. For instance, in the Greater London region, it's not uncommon for trials of three or more days to be sent to Central London County Court in Regent's Park.

Most Courts are in largeish towns. In cities such as Birmingham and Manchester and Bristol the County Court is a single, monolithic Court that hears all the local cases for that area and also doubles up as a district registry of the High Court. In London, however, there are about 25 or so county courts usually in various parts of the capital that hear cases from nearby London boroughs. Sometimes they are a bit misleading. Wandsworth County Court is in Putney, Willesden County Court is in Harlesden, and Bow County Court is in Stratford. Their efficiency is variable. For instance, Wandsworth County Court (which, despite me being in East London, I sometimes go to because we get referrals from places south of the river) is alarmingly efficient; I was quite amazed when the Judge had the pleadings before her that we faxed over at 5.25 pm the previous evening (it was a short notice job), but also we were listed for 10.15 am and we got in at 10.15 am. Conversely, Clerkenwell & Shoreditch County Court, my local court, has a habit of losing things we send in, forgetting to send out hearing notices to the parties' solicitors, and once, we were listed for a half-day trial starting at 10.30 am, but got in at 12.30 pm, did opening submissions, then the Judge went to dinner, then we got back in at 1.45 pm, and had the Judge not knocked it on the head at 4.00 pm by making a finding of fact against us on our client's witness evidence, we would have been back for a second day. Even so, everyone involved in that case lost half a day even though everyone was ready to go at 10.30 am.

Unfortunately I fear that this may only get worse as several courts, including the very nice art deco Ilford County Court, will be closing soon due to austerity measures. This is not so much a case in London where almost every Court stays open but in rural areas is highly controversial as people will need to travel long distances, which they may not necessarily be able to afford, to go to hearings or make applications. Opponents also say that this will effectively double the load on an already stretched Courts Service. Needless to say, when Ilford goes, the already extremely busy Romford County Court will be taking over all the cases from the Essex borderlands.


(IRON NODER 2011, 20/30)

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