Welcome change in District Court procedure

Litigation

From 1 July 2014 changes have been introduced to the District Court claims process. The changes reverse many reforms introduced in 2009 which have proven to be unsuccessful.

From 1 July 2014 changes have been introduced to the District Court claims process. The changes reverse many reforms introduced in 2009 which have proven to be unsuccessful. We have returned to a position where there is close alignment between the processes in the District and High Courts. This is a welcome development to the legal profession and other users of the District Court.

Out with the forms

Under the 2009 reforms any party making a claim in the District Court was to fill out plain English forms. These included the Form 2 Notice of claim, Form 3 Response by Defendant, and the Information Capsule. An objective in introducing the forms was to provide guidance to non-lawyers preparing their own court documents. Though the forms were supposed to be in plain English they were largely incomprehensible and making sense of them proved to be overwhelming even for some lawyers.

Public consultation regarding the 2009 Rules in practice revealed mixed feedback. Many felt Court claims were not being articulated clearly and succinctly. The 2009 Rules did not appear to achieve one of their aims to increase access to the Court by lay litigants. Lawyers, lenders and collection agents continued to file the majority of Court claims.

Back to traditional pleadings

The 2014 changes require most proceedings to be commenced by a statement of claim which is the document used in the High Court. Parties must clearly state the legal basis for their claim or risk it being struck out. As well as filing a statement of claim, parties must file other documents, including a list of documents that they rely upon. At the other party’s request, all documents within this list must be disclosed. In this way a person facing a claim can know at the outset exactly what is being alleged and relied upon by the person bringing the claim.

New time frames

The 2014 changes provide new time frames to exchange documents at the outset of a proceeding. Under the 2009 Rules it could take anywhere from 16 to 42 weeks from the date of filing and serving a claim to exchange the required forms before the matter might be pursued in Court. Now the prescribed time frames have been brought into line with the High Court, giving a defendant 25 working days to file a defence to a claim.

Furthermore, as in the High Court after a defence is filed, the Court steps in and plays a more active case management role to ensure that the matter is advanced promptly to trial or a settlement conference.

Better access to summary judgment

Summary judgment applications allow a person bringing a claim to seek immediate judgment where there is no arguable defence to the claim. This process was discouraged under the 2009 Rules but has now been given new life. The 2014 changes have lifted the restrictions that existed on making such applications allowing a person making a claim to seek summary judgment at the outset and up until 10 working days after being served with a defence. This is a useful method by which the Court can prevent a party wasting time and money raising unmeritorious defences.

Judicial settlement conferences and trials

The 2014 changes have retained some features of the 2009 Rules, including the judicial settlement conference, and the short and simplified trial procedures. These features continue to be unique to the District Court, to encourage settlement of disputes and alternative trial formats for disputes involving uncomplicated subject matters and/or with modest amounts at stake.

Future increase in District Court jurisdiction

Further changes to the District Court’s jurisdiction may also be ahead. The Judicature Modernisation Bill proposes (inter alia) to increase the District Court’s jurisdiction from $200,000 to $350,000. The bill has been recommended by the Justice and Electoral Select Committee subject to a number of amendments, but is not yet passed into law.

If you have any queries regarding the new District Court process, or how these changes may affect you, we invite you to contact us to discuss.

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