Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:28 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 3:28 pm, 16th July 2019

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point, and a useful comparison.

I have mentioned people who may not want to or cannot go online. The other side of the coin is that people should not have to opt out of online procedures if appropriate support would enable them to use those procedures and benefit from their advantages. The Lords introduced welcome additional measures relating to requirements for the provision of support. The Committee will be able to assess whether those measures have sufficient teeth to ensure that concerns that have been raised have been properly addressed. The availability of appropriate support is fundamental to the success of the Bill.

Barely a Bill is passed in this place without the Government’s helping themselves to broad Henry VIII-style powers and leaving too much to negative resolution procedures. That issue arises again in this Bill, and it will no doubt be tackled in Committee stage or on Report. The Law Society suggests that affirmative procedures should be required in relation to regulations under clauses 7(5) and 8(6), which would allow Parliament better scrutiny of new procedure rules as they are developed. I agree with the shadow Minister that we should look closely and positively at its suggestion.

That brings me to a final simple but important point. We must proceed cautiously, and on the basis of evidence. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was right to say that we should not rush. As we move forward, we must make sure that we understand the impact of moving things online and respond appropriately.

As the shadow Minister said, research and testing are vital. Let me give just one example. In 2013, the Bail Observation Project found that there were significant variations in the outcomes of immigration bail hearings: 50% of people who were heard via video links were refused bail, compared to 22% of those who were heard in person. Recent research conducted by Jo Hynes of the University of Exeter suggests that that massively differential impact still exists. We need to understand why it exists, and until we understand it, we should be cautious about replacing certain types of hearing in person with video-link alternatives.

Sadly, caution was not what the Public Accounts Committee found when reviewing the Government’s programme of court and tribunal reform last year. It concluded:

“The pressure to deliver quickly and make savings is limiting HMCTS’s ability to consult meaningfully with stakeholders and risks it driving forward changes before it fully understands the impact on users and the justice system more widely.”

We must not allow the development of online systems to outpace our understanding of their impact. We therefore need to look at the role that Parliament has in scrutinising the roll-out of online procedures and consider whether we need to put tougher provisions about post-legislative scrutiny in the Bill so that we can ensure that progress is made at the right pace.

We welcome these proposals, with a degree of caution, and will seek to be constructive critics of the details. They are not a panacea that will cure some of the real problems in accessing justice that have arisen—largely thanks to the terrible legal aid cuts in England and Wales over the past decade—but they can be part of a suite of measures that will allow legal proceedings to be simplified and made more accessible, and we want to support that goal.