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Mythbuster: court cases

'Bringing a civil case to court is always expensive'

The legal costs incurred for bringing a civil case to court may include the court fee, solicitors' fees or costs associated to witnesses. Court cases can be expensive - however there are a number of ways of reducing the cost:

  • You don't always have to be legally represented. For example, small claims are designed to be conducted without a solicitor.
  • You don't always have to pay a court fee for bringing a claim to the court, depending on your circumstances. 
  • You may also be eligible for legal aid, a scheme that helps people pay for legal advice.

If you aren't eligible for legal aid you can also consider:

  • Going to a law centre, which may give free legal advice.
  • Getting a conditional-fee (no-win, no-fee) agreement.
  • Using legal-expenses insurance to pay for the legal costs.
  • Getting help from your trade union.

Find out what you can do if you're in a dispute...

For further information about bringing a case to court, visit Directgov.

'Bringing a family case, like divorce, to court is always expensive'

The legal costs of a family case may include the court fee and/or solicitors' fees. Costs will vary depending on the nature and complexity of the case, but there are also ways of reducing the cost here:

  • You don't always have to pay a court fee to bring a family case to court, depending on your circumstances.
  • You may be eligible for legal aid, a scheme that helps people pay for legal advice.
  • In addition, you can usually get legal aid whatever your circumstances if for example you need help to deal with domestic abuse, or if your child is at risk of being taken into care.
  • You can use mediation in divorce cases. Using a mediator can save time and money, as it can help avoid going to court. Parties in a divorce must consider using mediation if they are applying for legal aid for court hearings about children or finances, or both.

'Delays to cases are due to judges and court administrators'

Graphic showing the likelihood of a trial going ahead. The magistrates' courts pie chart shows that 44% of trials are effective, 39% are cracked and 17% are ineffective. The Crown Court pie chart shows that 48% of trials are effective, 39% are cracked and 14% are ineffective.Judges and court administrators are just two of a wide range of different parties involved in the progress of a case through the criminal, civil and family courts.

In cases relating to the welfare of a child in family courts, local authorities, CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) and expert witnesses are also responsible for managing elements of the case - for instance preparing assessments, representing the needs of the child and providing objective opinions respectively.

In the criminal courts the police are responsible for investigating a crime and compiling evidence against a suspect whilst the Crown Prosecution Service brings these cases to court. The progress of cases also depends on factors such as witnesses and defendants being available to attend court and provide evidence, and the prosecution and defence legal teams preparing their respective cases.

Delays in the criminal courts can also be caused by cracked trials where a trial is listed but does not then go ahead. This is usually the result of a defendant pleading guilty on, or very shortly before, the day of their trial, or the prosecution offering no evidence against the defendant. A cracked trial requires no further trial time, but, as a consequence, the court time allocated is wasted.

'All criminal cases are dealt with at their first hearing'

All criminal cases start off in the court system with a hearing in a magistrates' court.

The majority of cases - about 60% - are dealt with at that first magistrates' court hearing, normally because the defendant pleads guilty at the outset and can be sentenced on the day, or because the offence is minor.

However other cases can't be dealt with at the first hearing so the hearing is adjourned and one or more further court hearings will be needed to resolve the cases. This happens when, for example:

  • Cases are serious - like murder or robbery. These cannot be dealt with in the magistrates' courts, and are referred at the first hearing to the Crown Court to be heard before a judge and jury.
  • For 'either way' offences, where either a defendant has pleaded guilty but the magistrates' court thinks the punishment the defendant deserves is more than the magistrates' court can give, or a defendant has pleaded not guilty and chosen to be tried in the Crown Court.
  • Important information is needed by either the prosecution or defence legal teams to progress their case

Find out what happens at court hearings...

'Case lengths reflect how a court is performing'

There are a number of reasons why case times can vary between locations:

  • Judges and court administrators are just two among a wide range of parties involved in the progress of a case. The work of the police, witnesses, or local authorities for example can also affect the time it takes to complete a case.
  • The volume, type and complexity of cases also affect case lengths in different locations. For example, in the criminal courts there is generally a much longer time between an offence being committed and the case being completed for sexual offences and offences of fraud and forgery than for other types of crime. This is likely to be because these crimes are often reported to the police some time after they took place.
  • If there has been a concerted effort to clear a backlog of older, unresolved cases it will have a negative impact on that location's average timeliness during that period.
  • Court hearings being adjourned mean that a case will require further time to be resolved.

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