The House of Lords Constitution Committee had its annual evidence session with the lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, on 9 June 2021
. The committee of 12 asked 29 questions in total on a broad range of themes, from tensions between his role as a departmental minister and his ‘wider constitutional role’, which he described as ‘riding two unruly horses’, to the funding of the justice system. It is worth reading the session, or watching it
, in full, to see what is in store for us over the next year, described by Buckland as ‘the three Rs’: in essence, ‘recovery, rebuilding and restoring’. Highlights of the session included:
Baroness Drake asked what Buckland’s key priorities were for this parliamentary session.
Buckland [M]y key priorities are the passage of the PCSC – Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts – Bill, which is a major piece of legislation that will enact many of the proposals I made in my white paper of last year, and to ensure that the reference in the gracious speech to constitutional measures will be carried out during the course of this session. On a non-legislative basis, my key priority is to carry on working hard to make sure that the system – the courts and, indeed, the prison system – recovers from the COVID pandemic … and to restore the role of the law and justice system to the heart not just of our government but of our society.
Lord Hope asked whether the government was still considering going further than the recommendations made by the Independent Review of Administrative Law.
Buckland I want to make sure that we look carefully at all the responses we have received. That may include some of the reforms on which I consulted, which I accept go further than the recommendations of the panel. I do not think it would be right for me to say today what the conclusions might be. I can assure the committee that any conclusions will then be the subject of the fullest legislative scrutiny, because legislation would be necessary.
Lord Sherbourne asked how worried the lord chancellor was about ‘the great backlog in the courts’ in which ‘thousands and thousands of people are currently being denied access to justice’, and how confident he was about being able to clear the backlog.
Buckland Technology helped keep the lights on and keep the system running. We also then had a plan, and the plans that we published for the criminal court recovery and civil, tribunal and family courts were published in the early autumn of last year. The plans were very simple, frankly. They boil down to Perspex and Nightingales … We have 60 additional Nightingale courtrooms in England and Wales, 34 of which are doing criminal trials … I am watching numbers coming down steadily and Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service [HMCTS] has publicly declared that it is its aim to see magistrates’ courts levels reduced to pre-COVID rates by the end of the year. I am confident that it can do that. The Crown Court is more complex … On tribunals, employment tribunals are a challenge but the work rate has returned to pre-COVID rates and technology, in particular in the mental health and special needs tribunals, has improved the service, in my view. In family cases we are running about 10 per cent above where we were at COVID.
Baroness Drake expressed concern that ‘insufficient and inadequate data is being collected on the impact of remote hearings on vulnerable users, the impact on case outcomes and then identifying barriers to accessing justice’ and asked Buckland to share more detail on improvements in data collection and analysis.
Buckland A lot of work has been done but we need to do more here, to put it in a nutshell … The HMCTS reform programme is helping to improve general data collection. The court service will publish plans to enhance the collection, analysis and publication of courts and tribunals data in the autumn of this year. That will include appropriate access to data relating to the vulnerability of court users.
Baroness Drake asked when he would be in a position to publish some of the analysis on remote hearings such that people can understand what it means for access to and quality of justice.
Buckland I think we will have a clearer idea of the timelines involved when HMCTS publishes the plan in the autumn.
Baroness Fookes asked if there would be sufficient funding to come for the justice system.
Buckland I have always said to my colleagues in government that I cannot do this on my own. I need the help of every department – education, health, housing, just to name a few – to solve what far too often become problems for which the criminal justice system is expected to pick up the bill. That will not do any more; it is not good enough. Every department needs to be a justice department if we are really going to crack this conundrum.
Lord Howarth asked Buckland if he impressed upon the Treasury, and if it understood, that access to justice is a fundamental principle of our constitution and that the wholesale reductions in funding for access to justice that have occurred over the past 10 years and more are really a violation of the constitution.
Buckland I think two things are important. One is the ability of the system to really help people where it matters … That is why early support and intervention is a priority of mine. Secondly, within that, where disputes need to be resolved we need to really ramp up the approach we take to dispute resolution … I want to make mediation, conciliation and arbitration mechanisms part of the warp and woof of the justice system so that people do not always associate justice with ‘having their day in court’.
Baroness Suttie raised the issue of upholding the rule of law and judicial independence. She asked the lord chancellor if the recent criticisms of judges and lawyers by some senior members of the government were of concern to him.
Buckland If I think that a line has been crossed or a particular tenet has been ignored, I will not hesitate to intervene. Where, in my judgment, the independence and quality of the judiciary are being challenged in an unacceptable way, I will act … It is simple, but it needs reiterating sometimes that judges must be free to make judicial decisions without interference by parliament or the executive, and personal attacks on judges are entirely unacceptable.