Small claims cases are taking 40 weeks longer on average to go to trial in Bedford than in the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, figures show.
The Law Society of England and Wales warned delays across the civil justice system risk discouraging people from pursuing claims, potentially leaving little incentive for unscrupulous people to comply with the law.
Ministry of Justice figures show the average time taken for small claims to go to trial at Bedford County Court was 92 weeks between January and March.
This was an increase on the average of 52 weeks over the same period in 2020, and up from 79 weeks in the three months to December.
Small claims are often used by people seeking their money back if something has gone wrong on a deal or purchase. They make up the vast majority of all cases at civil courts.
These are currently being heard in regular and temporary courts and are largely used to claim less than £10,000 back for a faulty product or poor service.
The picture in Bedford reflected that across England and Wales, where the average time taken for small claims to go to trial rose to 51 weeks at the start of the year – almost three months longer than between January and March 2020.
The Law Society of England and Wales said underfunding of the civil justice system had fuelled delays even before the pandemic began.
Stephanie Boyce, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “There is a risk that people may be put off pursuing claims, which carries with it a longer-term risk to society.
"If the belief becomes widespread that there is little chance of people effectively enforcing their rights, there is little incentive for more unscrupulous people to comply with their legal obligations, which is highly damaging to the rule of law.”
She added that poor technology in the county courts has made it difficult for cases to go ahead during the pandemic, exacerbating existing delays.
“For understandable reasons, the Government’s current priority is the criminal justice system. The pre-pandemic project to digitise the civil justice system is continuing, which should help in the longer term," she said.
“We also believe that better access to early advice, including through legal aid, would help more people resolve their problems without needing to resort to the courts.
"We would like to see urgent government action on this front."
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said new measures to reduce the number of outstanding cases had been introduced, such as mediation and other forms of dispute resolution.
When mediations are successful, the case does not go to trial, meaning only more complex cases are heard.
Between January and March, 560 small claims were heard at Bedford County Court – 535 more than during the same period in 2020, but down from 564 in the three months to December.
A MoJ spokesman said: “We are working tirelessly to tackle the impact of the pandemic and investing over £100 million to reduce waiting times – opening new courtrooms, hiring more staff, and making more use of out-of-court dispute resolution to ensure cases are heard swiftly."