As Shadow Justice Minister, I recently led on the Courts and Tribunals Bill on behalf of the Opposition, an ill-conceived Bill that appears on the face of it, to be uncontroversial court reforms but must be understood in the context broader agenda of reforms and devastating cuts.
The Government has acknowledged the increased use of information and communication technology within the judicial sector, but has failed to include any legislative framework for this in in the bill, shoddily promising that “more legislation will follow”.
Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) is swiftly rolling out increased online justice services, and digitisation of further legal proceedings is not far off, but there absolutely must be a layer of scrutiny and accountability to these proposed changes. At present, the Government is using the digitisation of legal services as a justification for widespread Court closures but is failing do it its due diligence to ensure that these services are robust and fit for purpose. Furthermore, without the additional scrutiny and oversight to ensure effective modernisation, and with the increased Court closures, access to justice will reach a new low. I have maintained that these cuts hit the most vulnerable in our society the hardest – single mothers and those with mobility issues, who cannot get to Court and are left waiting for this Government to introduce new legislation at a nonspecific date.
Indeed, the cuts and closures are having a real, detrimental impact on local justice when combined with the cuts to Legal Aid. More civil litigants are representing themselves as they have no other mode of access to legal representation, and this is delaying the system substantially. I have called on the Minister to postpone the introduction of this reform programme until sufficient checks and the findings of pilots have been carried out and analysed.
Additionally, I objected to Clause 3 of the Bill, which refers to the delegation of judicial functions to ‘authorised staff’ and the relocation of many case-management functions to an off-site service facility. This is transparently a means of reducing costs at the expense of access to justice. The training, qualification, ethics and commitment to oaths will simply not be there for some of the ‘authorised staff’ to whom this Government seeks to delegate judicial function. Furthermore, their employment by HMCTS raises the question of independence of thought and impartiality in legal proceedings, as they may be subject to administrative quotas and targets. Moving functions off-site, under the supervision of ‘authorised staff’ detaches judges from the process and compounds the lack of accountability and scrutiny needed to ensure an independent judiciary. This runs the risk of making a mockery of the rule of law.
I have asked the Government to commit to providing the right to judicial reconsideration on cases determined by ‘authorised staff’, and that said staff have at least three years of experience post-qualification to adjudicate on such matters. It is vital that those who make these decisions are appropriately qualified.
A final point I have raised relates to domestic abuse cases, wherein at present, alleged abusers are at liberty to cross-examine their alleged victims. Research from Women’s Aid has highlighted how this is a mechanism of abuse and control and frequently prohibits access to justice for victims. I am deeply disappointed that no provision has been made in the Bill to account for this.
In sum, I have tabled a number of amendments that would increase scrutiny and uphold rights and the rule of law. However, this shabbily put together Bill neglects the reality of modernisation, prioritises cutting costs over access to justice and runs the real risk of damaging fundamental rights, jeopardising impartiality and neglecting the rule of law.