As a general rule, the adoption of new technologies in our justice system is something to welcome. It should, if done carefully, lead to better, more agile courts that increase access to justice. Labour recognises the need for an online procedure rule committee, given the increased use of digital courts. Our aim now is to focus on amendments that improve the proposed committee and ensure that any rules strengthen, rather than weaken, our hard-won rights.
Although digitisation is necessary, it needs to be done with diligence and accuracy. Most importantly, it must not be done simply to achieve savings. Given that digitisation will have a substantial impact on our justice system, it is incredible that there still has not been any proper, publicly funded academic research into the impact of digital courts on access to justice. Instead, the Ministry of Justice seems happy to shell out huge consultant fees—over £60 million last year—and roll out untested and ad hoc changes.
In 2018, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee expressed concern about the scale and pace of the changes the Ministry of Justice was attempting. It expressed little confidence in the capacity of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to deliver this hugely ambitious programme, not least because it found that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had failed to indicate
“what the new system would look like.”
That is a vital point and one that this Bill fails to deal with.
Far too often in the last year, the changes pursued by the Ministry of Justice have had a vague direction, instead of a particular, definable endpoint; after all, we have had at least seven Secretaries of State for Justice in the last nine years. The only consistent characteristic of these reforms seems to me to be related more to ideology than judicial policy: the desire ceaselessly to cut the budget year on year. Again, in the last nine years, the Ministry of Justice has had the highest budgetary cuts in comparison with other Departments.
The Law Society has noted the backward illogic of the reform programme, criticising the decision to close courts
“before the technology that is intended to replace the need for physical hearings has been tested, evaluated and proven to work.”
With half of our courts estate already sold off since 2010, we now have little choice but to move towards online courts. Finance appears to have triumphed over sense in deciding what to do in relation to justice.
On the current Bill, it is notable that the Government have chosen to go well beyond the relatively modest recommendations of Lord Justice Briggs in 2016. Further, instead of piloting individual areas, the Government’s desire appears to be to digitise whole swathes of the courts system, with limited oversight. Amendments put forward in the other place tried to ensure that the piloting of new stages would be mandatory. That still seems a reasonable measure to ask for, bearing in mind how many internet breakdowns we have had in the court system in the last few months. It is really important to try out a pilot scheme to see how these things work. However, the Government do not appear to want to do this.
Another matter of importance in this debate is the question of whom the Bill authorises to make future decisions. Currently, it states that the relevant Minister may require amendments to be made, with little clarity about exactly what would justify such a requirement. The suggestion discussed in the other place was that the committee be allowed to decline the Minister’s request, and we think that was a very relevant and valuable suggestion. Although that did not pass, the amendments to clauses 9 and 10 provided some balance on the power of the relevant Minister, as they must seek the concurrence of the Lord Chief Justice.
While we welcome those important provisions, we believe that the Minister should not be the final arbiter in deciding whether the procedure rule committee makes a rule that he or she wants; that should ultimately be within the province and remit of the procedure rule committee. What is the point of having a committee to set out rules if the Minister is going to say, “No, I want you to change this”? If we have selected people to make the rules, they should be the ultimate arbiters of what the rules should be. That is very important because the Executive and Ministers cannot be allowed to get away with dictating what they want. While we accept that there needs to be a balance between a Minister and the committee, we urge the Government to reconsider and rethink this aspect.
At the moment, it is unclear how far Parliament will be able to scrutinise the rules put forward by the committee. Given that the online procedure rule committee will have the power significantly to alter the way many people engage with our justice system, it seems reasonable that an elected body should also have a say in this matter. As was highlighted by the Bar Council in relation to the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill in 2018, this Government frequently adopt a “drip-feed”—its word—approach to change in order to avoid a full debate and proper legislative scrutiny of their court plans. That cannot be allowed to happen through this Bill. My counterpart in the other place suggested adopting the affirmative resolution procedure for clauses 8 and 9. That seems patently sensible, as it would provide parliamentary oversight of potentially major changes to our justice system.
The make-up of the proposed online rule procedure committee also merits consideration. Our amendment in the other place was to enlarge the committee to ensure representation from each of the legal professions—the Bar, the Law Society and legal executives—but, again, that was denied. That is really strange, bearing in mind that the civil procedure rule committee has 16 members, the family procedure rule committee has 15 members and the tribunal procedure rule committee has nine members, while the number here is much lower.
I heard what the Minister said in his opening speech to my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous. I may have misheard him, but the Minister suggested that there is nothing in the proposed legislation to stop an increase in the composition of the committee. That, however, is not accurate. The committee says that currently it does set out how many members there should be or who they should be. Therefore, unless the number and composition of committee members are put into primary legislation, we cannot just change it.
In my discussion with the Minister yesterday on the telephone, I explained the importance of having a barrister, a solicitor and a legal executive on the online procedure rule committee. When I practised at the Bar, solicitors would send me instructions on all the procedural parts of the case, such as starting the petition, issuing the summonses or laying the charges. All those procedural matters were undertaken by legal executives and solicitors. Barristers would often just turn up at court to speak and do the advocacy part. Therefore, to exclude from the committee the very people involved in the procedural side does not make any sense. I am sorry, but I am not reassured by the Minister that the committee can somehow change itself. Again, I may have misheard. It is important for the legislation to spell out that there will be a member of the Bar, a solicitor from the Law Society and a legal executive. That is really important in ensuring the system works, because they are the people involved in all the procedural aspects.
The amendments we supported and argued for in the other place were also supported by Mind and the Law Society. I continue to feel that including non-lawyers with experience of disability and digital exclusion would significantly reduce fears that the Bill fails to properly ensure access to justice. We tried to promote gender balance on the committee, again without success. This would be an important measure. It is no secret that power in our court system resides with a group who are highly unrepresentative of our national population. We think provisions to require gender balance would rectify some of the imbalance and be an important step towards increasing diversity in our justice system. What assessment has the Minister made of the make-up of the committee in terms of both its composition and size? The Minister and I discussed this issue yesterday on the telephone.
We also raised concerns that the Bill could lead to digitisation by default. Whether proceedings are criminal, civil, tribunal, probate or family in nature, there are good reasons to feel that making digital the default option will, in many cases, restrict or entirely remove access to justice. We believe that both sides involved in a case should be able to decide on whether online or traditional measures are used throughout the case. Again, I had an encouraging conversation with the Minister on that point yesterday, but I would like to see proper guarantees in the Bill to ensure that both litigants are provided with the choice of using traditional methods and that this option is made very clear and easily available, so that most people do not feel that they should be going down the online route or that the in-person route is in any way exceptional as opposed to the norm.