Last updated:2023-09-18
Justice system reform papers slammed
A joint statement was published by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals last month: Transforming our justice system (15 September 2016) outlines their shared vision for the future of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, but has been slammed by some commentators.
Roger Smith (pictured), the former director of Justice and also of LAG, was scathing about the document: ‘Seldom have I seen such a low-quality paper.’ He believes the government is determined to drive through changes to ‘small case litigation’. Smith, a respected commentator on access to justice and legal affairs, said he fears that ‘the government’s priority is saving costs rather than the delivery of services’.
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The paper outlines an ambition to make tribunals ‘digital by default’ by moving to online dispute resolution for Social Security and Child Support Tribunal hearings over the next 18 months. Michael Reed, the Free Representation Unit’s principal legal officer for employment and co-author of Employment Tribunal Claims: tactics and precedents (4th edn, LAG, 2014), said the main ‘problem is that too many people think these decisions are easy or unimportant; and therefore that the quality of the decisions doesn’t matter’.
A consultation paper (Cm 9321) was also published on the same day that the statement was released. It sets out the government’s plans for the justice system, which include more virtual hearings and using case officers to carry out routine tasks. In his foreword to the paper, Sir Oliver Heald QC (pictured above right), Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, says: ‘The world is moving on and our justice system must keep up to meet the changing needs and expectations of everyone who uses our courts and tribunals.’ He also says the government is committed to bringing forward legislation, where necessary, to implement the reforms it is planning.
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The consultation paper invites submissions on three elements:
assisted digital facilities;
online convictions and statutory fixed fines; and
panel composition in the tribunals.
According to the paper, an estimated 30 per cent of the UK population who use government digital services are ‘digital selfservers’, 52 per cent need some assistance with digital services but in time should ‘gain the confidence to become part of the “self-server” group’ and 18 per cent are excluded from using them. A mix of services including face-to-face assistance is suggested to ensure ‘services can be used by everyone’.
For tribunals, the document says the government wants to ‘move away from a blanket approach of using non-legal members regardless of whether their specialist expertise and knowledge is relevant or required’. It is proposed that most First-tier Tribunal panels should consist of only a single member.
A total budget of nearly £1bn has been earmarked for the project (over £700m in the civil courts and tribunals and over £270m in the criminal courts). The deadline for responses to the consultation is 27 October 2016.
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‘The biggest barrier to access to justice is poverty,’ said LAG director, Steve Hynes (pictured). ‘These ambitious reforms will do little for the many thousands of people unable to enforce their rights unless the government recognises that cutbacks in legal aid and advice services need to be reversed.’