Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 3:21 pm, 16th July 2019

That certainly can be looked at as the Bill proceeds in Committee and, no doubt, when the online procedure rule committee is adopted. It is worth looking at the transcript of the evidence from the three most senior members of the judiciary—I think that was the first time that they have appeared jointly before any parliamentary Committee. There is, in fact, a far greater wealth of diversity of views and experience from our senior judiciary and the members of the judiciary who serve on these tribunals than some commentators give credit for. I think that there is a real understanding from the judiciary, but that does not mean that it is not possible to supplement that. I would not want to think that simply because there are three members of the judiciary, as well as other members, that is not in itself enough. They are very alert to the issues that people face, but I think we can think about broadening this.

I have sympathy with the shadow Minister’s point about perhaps making it easier to expand the committee to include practitioners from more than one jurisdiction. In the past, rules committees have often dealt with discrete areas—High Court rules, county court rules and criminal procedure rules. We are dealing with a multiplicity of jurisdictions, particularly in relation to the tribunals, and it is unlikely that we will find one or two practitioners who have the breadth of practical experience in all those different types of jurisdictions. The Law Society refers to the advisability or usefulness of including a member of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives. That is a sensible point, because a lot of the interlocutory work—the pre-hearing work—will be done by legal executives rather than necessarily by solicitors or barristers, so I hope that the Minister will keep an open mind on that as we go forward.

My other message to the Minister is: please learn the lessons of transforming rehabilitation, which had worthy objectives and could have succeeded in joining up probation and prison in a better way, but it was rushed. It was not piloted properly and was taken at too great a speed. There is an argument that considerations of finance and expediency were allowed to weigh more heavily in the outworking of the process than questions of access to justice and outcomes, and for that reason it did not achieve either of those desired objectives.

I think that the current ministerial team have learned those lessons—the Lord Chancellor has made that very clear—and we have the opportunity to do this in a different, better way. I am confident that the Minister and his colleagues will do it differently, but it is worth bearing in mind that back in 2016, Lord Briggs said that

“it would be entirely unsatisfactory…to make recourse to the [Online Court] compulsory until a proven structure of assistance for those who need it was designed, tested and put into full operation”.

That still holds good. Nothing in the Bill prevents that being done, but it is a question of the political will and the resource being put into it by the Government to achieve that.

Subject to that being done, it seemed to us from the evidence that we received that the House ought to support this modest measure in its current form. That does not mean that there are not broader issues that need to be looked at on the advice that people using our legal system get and the way they can access justice, not only in a nominal sense but practically, through informed decisions about how they use the system. A great deal of work is being done with the Ministry of Justice and the senior judiciary through the various judicial and practitioner working groups that have been set up, but it is really important that we stress the need to get this right, not rush and get absolutely everything nailed in place before we move on. Obviously, it is difficult to rectify injustice, which can include a potential litigant not bringing a meritorious claim, as well as people being led into bringing unmeritorious claims. It is important to get that right. Done properly, this could be a great advantage and in itself is worthwhile, but there is a good deal of devil in the detail that will come further down the track.