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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:20 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 3:20 pm, 27th November 2018

I absolutely agree. Like many Members, I have had a number of constituents come to me to raise concerns about the timeliness of hearings, going to court and how long it takes to get to court. That is so important. I am pleased that it is one of the key things that will, I hope, be addressed by the Bill, which will speed up that process so that we see a much more efficient system of getting into court and getting through the court process.

Unfortunately, at the moment, much of the court system is clunky and bureaucratic. Many of the processes used are over-complex and labour intensive. Another word we might use is counterintuitive, as some of the processes are not entirely logical. We need to reform the process to make it more effective and more efficient, and to deliver more for my constituents, those of Mr Cunningham and constituents across the country. We need to ensure that we have a system that remains relevant.

Other things will particularly be improved through digitisation. The public can now apply for non-contested divorces, respond to a jury summons, track social security appeals and issue a response to civil money claims online. The move towards more of these services being offered online is really important, and it is positive to see encouraging and positive feedback from the public about the new services that have been introduced and the work that has been done to encourage more digitisation.

The Bill will continue to build on the reforms, making better use of the skills and experiences of the cohort of judges in our criminal and judicial system. It is important that judges’ time is used to the most advantage and the greatest effect and that we direct judges to the most serious cases, where their expertise can be used to best advantage. We should be ensuring that they are freed from some of the more mundane and routine tasks that can be done by lower-level staff who will be appropriately qualified and experienced to deal with such matters. Senior judges should not be dealing with such issues.

The provisions in the Bill will move forward the process of building efficiency and effectiveness and speed up the turnover of cases, which, as I have already said, is extremely welcome to constituents up and down the country, particularly my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South. On a number of occasions, I have had to write to the chief executive of the Courts and Tribunals Service and Ministers in the Department about speeding up some of these cases and trying to get some of them to court in a timely way. I know that Members across the House have issues with that.

The Bill is very much about how we can improve the judicial system not just for the people who use it but for the people working in it, making it a much more effective system for judges and all the other very qualified staff who work in it. I am particularly pleased to see that Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham have been announced as the first two new locations for the Courts and Tribunals Service centres. It is fantastic to see that my own area will benefit from greatly improved services, with faster services for our constituents and better guidance to help the public and professionals understand and use the court process much more effectively. That is very important; the court process needs to be accessible to all our constituents. It should not just be for those who are well informed on these matters.

I am pleased that Stoke-on-Trent will be one of the first two locations. The Courts and Tribunals Service centres have completed the process of organisational design and job design and are commencing the internal selection process for staff to take up roles in the two projects. I want to go into a bit more detail about what that will entail. It will reshape how the Courts and Tribunals Service works, ensuring that it is a much more effective organisation in providing services that our constituents need. Our courts and tribunals will be much more focused on supporting trials and hearings, and it is so important that they do that. The roles of clerks will change. They will be able to support judges and users of courts in more ways, such as by using technology to support their core role. The courts and tribunals will also have listing officers where they do now and staff to support judges, including with more delegated powers, where that is agreed by the judiciary.

This is about making our judicial system and the Courts and Tribunals Service much easier, more accessible and more transparent, and reducing many of the complexities that have unfortunately existed in the judicial system. It is also about cutting down on some bureaucratic and administrative processes, and moving to a much more efficient service, ensuring that we have a service that is providing a first port of call for members of the public who want information on their cases. It is so important for constituents to be able to access information about cases and services as easily as possible.

The first two Courts and Tribunals Service centres, which will begin by supporting our first reformed services—divorce, probate, the single justice service, and social security and child support—will open in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham in January 2019. I very much look forward to that and hope that this will move forward easily now. Reforms will involve moving the location of some services in the future. The report talks about the importance of buildings and about the Courts and Tribunals Service learning lessons where we are selling off property or where property is changing, so that we take on board the views of the communities involved. Many of these buildings are important assets to their communities. Many of them are historic buildings in the heart of their communities, and I want to make Members aware of what has been experienced in Stoke-on-Trent.

The magistrates court in Fenton in my constituency was one of 93 courts in England and Wales that were identified for closure and it subsequently did close, in 2012, as part of measures to save about £41 million. As Members can imagine, that provoked a significant outcry in the community. The magistrates court was based in the former town hall in that community, which is a fantastic Victorian building. I am pleased that campaigners have been able to save the building for community use. There are significant lessons to be learned on how we dispose of these buildings and how we can bring them into effective community use. That building, which was used for many, many years as the magistrates court, is now a real hub for the community, providing spaces for local businesses and community groups, a café and an art gallery. These fantastic facilities have been brought back into use for the community because things have been done in the right way. The Department has to be congratulated, following the significant pressure that was put on it by the community, on the fact that that site is now back with the community.

Justin, a descendant of William Meath Baker, the person who built Fenton town hall, bought the town hall and is gradually restoring that building and bringing it back into use for the community. Once fully completed and restored, that building, which was built in 1888, will be a fantastic part of the community, and I hope it will continue to be used for many decades to come by the community. As we move forward with these reforms—with the digitisation and the moving of courts to different locations—it is important to take account of the places we have had previously and the changes that were made. It would be great to see former courts up and down the land that are no longer needed, because of the efficiencies that have been made, being used for community value and in productive ways for our communities.

I wish to finish by giving a few statistics about what this process will mean for the Courts and Tribunals Service. More than £1 billion will be invested in transforming the system, which will include 21st-century technology, online services and digital working, while making sure that our justice system remains the most accessible justice system possible for constituents such as mine. There is a real opportunity to make the system much more accessible to our constituents. The measures in the Bill will enable direct financial benefits of around £6 million per annum and enable wider court reforms, which will save around £200 million per annum once fully implemented. Over 65,000 people have used the pilots of new courts and tribunal services and received straightforward digital access to courts for the first time. Those statistics demonstrate the benefits of the Bill. That is why I am very pleased to support it today.