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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:05 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 3:05 pm, 27th November 2018

I am not sure I would like to follow the experience of the United States in this matter, but my hon. Friend makes an absolutely first-class point. There needs to be a consistent approach to the age at which we can use people or force them to retire.

There is a lot to be said for the system in the Bill that would enable people to undertake some activities undertaken by judges. As an aside, I said that I am a non-lawyer, but I am currently seeking to extend my ability to undertake arbitration—I hope that that does not cut across or invalidate what I am saying. Such an ability is an important element of the mix that needs to be taken into account when we are looking at the judicial system as a whole.

When I was involved in sitting with judges for the fellowship, I was very much aware of the difference between courts in digitalisation and technology. In the commercial court, the system was utterly brilliant. I sat with a judge who was listening to an English law case in Portuguese. The transcript of the English translation appeared almost instantaneously on his laptop on his desk in front of him. The use of technology to get information out was absolutely fantastic. As I said to the Lord Chancellor, however, employment tribunals might as well have still been using the quill pen, they were so antiquated—not the judgments being made, but how the courts were organised and delivered justice. If we want access to justice, it is absolutely essential that the process of digitalisation in courts is seen through to the end. It materially influences access to justice.

When I sat in the Court of Appeal, prisoners appealed their sentences via video link. It was clearly not a good idea to bring the prisoners into court, so video links were used all the time to great effect, enabling judgments to be made. There were some discrepancies. For example, it took some time to get the focus right for some prisoners. I understand that that was due to the camera equipment, rather than the features of the prisoners.

When I started my work as chairman of the all-party group on alternative dispute resolution, I had the opportunity to speak to Lord Briggs about his proposals for the justice system as a whole. The Bill moves us closer towards what Lord Briggs was after, but it does not take us all the way to it. For example, the digitisation of divorce is welcome, but his proposal for online courts is very valuable. I know that that is controversial among lawyers, but it is important to enabling both the delivery of justice and access to justice. I would like that process to be extended beyond the scope of the Bill, so that we can receive and transmit electronic evidence in the handling of individual court cases. Anything that can move the legal profession into the 21st century is to be welcomed.

If I may, I would like to give a plug to the Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship. Having been the first to go on it, I recommend that hon. Members absolutely do so. The experience of sitting alongside judges is absolutely first class. My first appearance in court—if I can put it that way—was in a commercial court. I went to the court with the judge. We were just about to go through the door and I said, “I shall just go and sit at the back of the court.” He said, “What do you mean? You’re sitting up next to me in the court.” It was a great shock to me—