About the court
County Courts deal with civil (non-criminal) matters.
Unlike criminal cases – in which the state prosecutes an individual - civil court cases arise where an individual or a business believes their rights have been infringed.
Types of civil case dealt with in the County Courts include:
- Businesses trying to recover money they are owed;
- Individuals seeking compensation for injuries;
- Landowners seeking orders that will prevent trespass.
Civil matters, for example, pub licensing, can also be dealt with by magistrates. More complex cases or those involving large amounts of money will appear at the High Court; the vast majority of civil cases take place in the County Courts.
All County Courts can deal with contract and tort (civil wrong) cases and recovery of land actions. Some County Courts can also deal with bankruptcy and insolvency matters, as well as cases relating to wills and trusts (equity and contested probate actions) where the value of the trust, fund or estate does not exceed £30,000, matters under the Race Relations Act 1976, and actions which all parties agree to have heard in a county court (e.g. defamation cases).
Most County Courts are assigned at least one circuit judge and one district judge. Circuit judges generally hear cases worth over £15,000 or involving greater importance or complexity. They also hear many of the cases worth over £5,000 but not over £15,000.
As well as hearing cases, district judges generally keep an overview of a case to make sure it is running smoothly. They also deal with repossessions and assess damages in uncontested cases.
Although County Court judgments usually call for the repayment or return of money or property, anyone who does not comply with the judgment can be arrested and prosecuted.
Family cases in the County Courts
County Courts also deal with some family cases, which will be heard by a specialist family circuit judge.
Family circuit judges deal mainly with two sorts of work. The first is private cases, which are disputes involving parents about their children. Examples are disputes about who the children should live with, where they should go to school or even if they can move to live abroad with one of their parents. The cases can involve grandparents and other relatives too.
The second type of case is public work - when local councils take action to remove children from their parents' care because they are being hurt in some way. These cases can lead to those children being adopted and the judge deals with that as well.
Who sits in a County Court
Circuit judges are appointed to one of seven regions of England and Wales, and sit in the Crown Court and County Court within their particular region.
District judges are full-time judges who deal with the majority of cases in the County Courts. They are assigned on appointment to a particular circuit and may sit at any of the County Courts or District Registries of the High Court on that circuit.
A judge hearing a civil case
Before trying a civil case the judge reads the relevant case papers and becomes familiar with their details.
The vast majority of civil cases tried in court do not have a jury (libel and slander trials are the main exceptions) and the judge hears them on his own, deciding them by finding facts, applying the relevant law to them - and there may be considerable argument about what that law actually is - and then giving a reasoned judgment.
Judges also play an active role in managing civil cases once they have started, helping to ensure they proceed as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- encouraging the parties to co-operate with each other in the conduct of the case;
- helping the parties to settle the case;
- encouraging the parties to use an alternative dispute resolution procedure if appropriate and;
- controlling the progress of the case.
Occasionally, the parties will have agreed the relevant facts and it will not be necessary for the judge to hear any live evidence. The issues may concern the law to be applied or the terms of the judgment to be given. But more often than not, written and live evidence will be given by the parties and their witnesses and the live witnesses may be cross-examined. The judge ensures that all parties involved are given the opportunity to have their case presented and considered as fully and fairly as possible. During the case the judge will ask questions on any point he or she feels needs clarification. The judge also decides on all matters of procedure which may arise during a hearing.
Once the judge has heard the evidence from all parties involved and any submissions (representations) they wish to put forward, he delivers his judgment. This may be immediately, or if the case is complicated, at a later date.
Civil judges do have the power to punish parties if, for example, they are in contempt of court but, generally, civil cases do not involve the imposition of any punishment.
If the judge decides that the claimant is entitled to damages, he or she will have to go on to decide the amount. Or the claimant may have asked for an injunction - for example, to forbid the defendant from making excessive noise by playing the drums in the flat upstairs in the early hours of the morning, or a declaration - an order specifying the precise boundary between two properties about which the parties had never been able to agree. The task of the judge to is to decide on what is the appropriate remedy, if any, and on the precise terms of it.
When the judgment in the case has been delivered, the judge must deal with the cost of the case. This may include the fees of any lawyers, court fees paid out by the parties, fees of expert witnesses, allowances that may be allowed to litigants who have acted in person (without lawyers), earnings lost and travelling and other expenses incurred by the parties and their witnesses. The general rule is that the unsuccessful party will have to pay the successful party's costs but the judge has a wide discretion to depart from this rule. The judge's decision on this part of the case will be very important to the parties. He or she may decide, for example, that the unsuccessful party should pay only a proportion of the successful party's costs or that each party should bear their own costs. The judge may hear representations about this at the end of the case.