From 21 April 2009 Administrative Court cases have been administratively handled and heard in Cardiff, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. Local Administrative Courts provide real benefits for all parties and build on the tradition of the accountability of public servants.

The birth of regional courts

The idea of a regional Administrative Court arose out of the 2007 working group report “Justice Outside London”, chaired by Sir Anthony May (now President of the Queen’s Bench Division). That report recommended that fully operational offices of the Administrative Court should be established in Cardiff (although Wales is not strictly a “region” I use the term “regional” for ease of reference), Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and that its judges should regularly sit to hear Administrative Court cases in those centres.

Each of the four centres is up and running and cases can now be issued, administered and heard there. Each centre is staffed by a number of dedicated administrative staff and has a dedicated Administrative Court Office (“ACO”) lawyer. They form the support layer for all the High Court Judges that will regularly travel to the regions to sit, and for the locally based Deputy High Court Judges. The ACO staff have also trained in the Royal Courts of Justice to ensure they are ready and able to assist all parties with advice on procedure, practices, fees and forms.

To ensure that the standards are maintained and a uniformity of practice is, where appropriate, established two liaison judges have been appointed to oversee the running of the Administrative Court in the regions. Mr Justice Beatson has assumed responsibility for Wales and the Midland Circuit and Mr Justice Langstaff has assumed responsibility for the Northern and North-Eastern Circuits. Both will sit regularly in their respective regions and are enthusiastic in their advancement of local justice and the regional courts.

Access to justice

The regional courts will follow the example of the locally based county courts and High Court District Registries by allowing claimants to pursue local justice. The purpose of the Administrative Court is to ensure public bodies are held to account and care must be taken to ensure that those with a legitimate grievance have the assistance they require and a proper forum to bring their case. A number of claimants have limited resources and find themselves challenging well funded government departments and local councils. With this in mind the regional court will not only sit in the regional centres but every effort will be made to arrange hearings in the most convenient court building, eg Caernarfon instead of Cardiff, Liverpool instead of Manchester, and Newcastle instead of Leeds.

Access to justice will not always follow the claimant’s geographical location but will be based on the best interests of the case. To this end Practice Direction 54D details the competing interests that the parties and the court will consider when deciding upon the issue of venue. PD54D states that “the general expectation is that proceedings will be administered and determined in the region with which the claimant has the closest connection”, but there are also ten other factors (set out in the Practice Direction CPR Part 54.PD 5) to be considered. As transfer is a judicial act if the claimant issues the case in one region but the defendant or interested party wishes the case transferred then they may apply to the court by filing and serving Form N464 (request for transfer). Any responses from the other parties will also be considered by the filing and serving of Form N465. The matter of venue will then be determined.

Not only will the cases that would previously have been heard in London be heard locally but it is anticipated that demand will increase as the public learns that the geographical deterrent has been eliminated.

Reduction of costs

A further clear advantage of a regional court will be lower costs for both parties. The claimant will be saved the cost of travel to and accommodation in London. As the claimant’s solicitors are more often than not local to the claimant, so will the solicitor and local authorities (as defendants). They will also be able to hold conferences with local experts and counsel. In some cases hand delivery of documents should also assist. These savings will also be reflected in the amount that is claimed from the Legal Services Commission in publicly funded cases, thus saving the taxpayer costs as well.

Pressures on workloads

Those whose practice involves administrative law will be acutely aware of the pressures in workload that ACO in London faces. In 2000 it received 4,248 applications for judicial review (see p 47 of Judicial Review: A short guide to claims in the Administrative Court Research Paper 06/44, House of Commons’ Library). In 2007 this had risen to 6,690—an almost 37 per cent increase (see p 27 of Judicial and Court Statistics 2007, Ministry of Justice Report, Cm 7467).  These figures do not include statutory appeals and applications (such as case stated appeals and reconsiderations under s 103A of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act 2002) which  totalled 4,603 in 2007. In 2008 and 2009 the caseload continued to rise. The result has been to put unprecedented pressure on staff and judicial resources and caused an inevitable

delay in hearing cases. In “Justice Outside London”  it was indicated that 14 regularly sitting judges would be needed to eliminate the backlog, and that 10 or more judges would be needed to tread water. The report concluded that there was little prospect of obtaining such resources.

The ACO in London has taken action to reduce delays. One example has been to increase the number of Deputy High Court Judges with a “ticket” to hear Administrative Court cases. The backlog will now be assisted by the regional option. The number of cases issued in the regional courts already number into the hundreds and currently account for some 8 per cent of all new receipts (13 per cent if s 103A reconsiderations are excluded).

Expedition is key to judicial review because more often than not claimants are already suffering the effects of a decision made against them. Conversely defendants wish to proceed with their decision unfettered in a timely fashion. A common phenomenon that is occurring across the regions is the speed with which cases are being determined. Within the spirit of the Woolf reforms paper applications for permission to apply for judicial review are being considered as soon as an acknowledgment of service is received or the 21 day time period expires, renewed permission hearings are being listed within weeks (sometimes days) of renewal, and substantive hearings are being concluded “pleasingly and surprisingly quickly”, as one practitioner commented.

Strengthening local ties

A regional Administrative Court will bring opportunities for more local solicitors and counsel to be instructed in these claims and to appear in court to contest them. This will result in a broader base of administrative lawyers and an expansion in the regional public law practices. This extra depth and experience will hopefully add to and improve upon the long tradition of talented advocates and learned practitioners who form the bedrock of administrative law.

The future

It is still early days for the regional Administrative Courts but preliminary signs are good. With advances in access to justice, reductions in costs, improvements in delays and strengthening of local public law practices it is easy to see why such noble aims were not confined to the status of a pilot project. It is intended in the future that in appropriate cases a Divisional Court will sit in the regions and consideration is being given to opening a fifth centre in Bristol.

David Gardner is a barrister and the Administrative Court Office lawyer for Wales, based in Cardiff