Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:11 pm, 27th November 2018

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention.

Rather conveniently, the Government have left out measures that would provide a legislative framework for the increased use of online technology in the courts—their justification for closing so many courts and axing so many court staff. Indeed, we know that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is working at pace on the introduction of online justice services: the civil money claims service was made available to the public in April 2018 and the online divorce-application procedure was rolled out nationally in May this year.

Although we would, of course, not seek to refute the fact that modern technology has undoubted benefits, we do have to ensure that it is used carefully and without generating more confusion or distress around the process. It should be about investing to improve our services; it should not be a smokescreen for cuts and closures. As such, it is only right that the effects of digitisation should be researched intensely and costed to ensure the best possible outcome. The Government have not yet confirmed that that has happened and still seem intent on this path, without considering potential concerns.

We are by no means against modernisation. We all want justice to be done in the most cost-effective manner and we all believe that the court system must meet the demands of the 21st century, but there is real concern that the Government are trying to bypass necessary legislative scrutiny in this policy area. We must see a thoroughly researched digitisation programme included in primary legislation, to ensure that written and online processes are undertaken appropriately.

The Bill is a missed opportunity. It should have included clear principles to guide the future of online court procedures and a modernisation programme that could have been fully debated in the House today. Instead, we are told that more legislation will eventually follow to encompass all that. This fragmentary approach—or what has been described by one legal commentator as a “legislative drip-feed”—is deeply unsatisfactory. In May 2018, the National Audit Office published a report that concluded that delays in the introduction of primary legislation have created a significant degree of uncertainty, and that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service “faces a daunting challenge” in delivering the technological and cultural change needed to modernise our courts and tribunals.

Since 2010, the Government have closed literally hundreds of courts and cut thousands of vital staff. Our research suggests that 80% of the courts sold so far have on average raised little more than the average UK house price. That causes concerns about long-term damage to access to justice for civil litigants and, indeed, victims of crime. It will also have an obvious and long-lasting effect on the principle of local justice. The cuts have led to an increase in the number of people forced to represent themselves, a problem further compounded by cuts to legal aid. When unrepresented members of the public turn up to seek justice as litigants in person, it increases costs and delays for everyone. As we have said in the past, it is the most vulnerable who will bear the heaviest costs—young mothers who are unable to find childcare, the elderly who find long journeys difficult, or the disabled. The court closures will prohibitively reduce access.

Will the Government pause their programme of court closures while new technologies and online courts are being tested and wait to see the full findings of their pilots to assess the impact of the changes to our courts system? Will the Lord Chancellor commit today to restarting the programme of court reforms only once the House has finally had an opportunity to fully scrutinise the plans in primary legislation? We have concerns about the Bill as it stands and will not be supporting it today, but we will table amendments in Committee.

As we heard from the Minister, clause 3 delegates judicial functions to authorised staff. This provision must be understood through the lens of a wider austerity agenda that seeks to make significant cuts. These cuts are being made through a process of court closures and through savings on judicial salaries. Other proposals include the relocation of many case-management functions, which, as we know, currently take place in court buildings, with the benefit of on-site judicial supervision.

Our concern is that decisions would move to new off-site service centres. There is an implication that, given that off-site nature, those service centres would be supervised by authorised staff, not judges. That is deeply problematic for us, not least because we would have scenarios in which authorised staff who were not subject to the training, experience, ethos and oaths that a member of the judiciary is, would be performing direct judicial functions while being employed directly by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.

The issue raises obvious questions about accountability and independence. It is also worth noting concerns that the people involved may be subject to administrative pressures that require the meeting of targets. Given the ideological cuts agenda driving this reform, it is vital that the Bill makes provision for safeguards to protect the standard of decision making by authorised staff, to ensure that the quality of the judicial process and the experience of those who use the court are maintained.

Although we accept that there is some scope for freeing up judges by allowing the most straightforward decisions to be delegated to authorised staff, the intended future limits to any such delegation do not appear to be in the Bill. Instead, they are supposed to be decided by the procedure rule committee. That means that if the Bill passes in its current form, there may be limited external scrutiny of how widely judicial functions are being carried out by people who are not in fact judges, but who work for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service.

I wonder whether the Lord Chancellor is aware of the serious implications for the rule of law and the independence of our judicial decision making. In his opening speech, he touched on the fact that our judicial legal system is considered to be one of the best in the world and is used by many countries, many companies, and many litigants; it makes up about £28 billion-worth of trade. Will that be affected by this downgrading of our judiciary? We believe that such a shift would not meet the expectations held by members of the public about the level of experience and the independence of those making judicial decisions about their rights. Unless limits are placed on those who can be authorised and on what powers can be given to those authorised persons, the Bill could change the very nature of our justice system.