Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:38 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:38 pm, 16th July 2019

Let me begin by drawing attention to my registered interest as a member of the Bar.

As the House heard from my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi, we support the establishment of an online procedure rules committee and the goal of modernising our courts and tribunals. However, we believe that new technologies must be used in our courts only when they have been proved to improve access to justice and engagement with the courts system, and we are concerned about a number of other issues raised by the Bill.

Concerns have been expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East, for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) and by the Chair of the Justice Committee, Robert Neill, who, in his usual fashion, has been very fair in his analysis of the Bill and highlighted and accepted that we in the Opposition will have natural and genuine concerns.

There has not been as much participation in the debate on the Bill today as we might have expected so my task in summing up the debate has been made slightly easier, but none the less I shall seek to go through our main concerns. I reiterate that we support an online procedure rule committee and the goal of modernising our courts and tribunals, but we do have concerns.

First, digital exclusion has been referred to by a number of Members, and we are concerned that the measures in this Bill could without proper protections exclude those with poor digital literacy from our justice system. Vulnerable people in particular and those with English as a second language are disproportionately represented among defendants, and the Law Society has stated that insufficient weight and prominence will be given to the need for legal advice and representation. Further stoking these fears is the catastrophic failure of the MOJ IT system earlier this year, which, in the words of the Criminal Bar Association put our courts “on their knees” by locking legal practitioners out of their secure email services, leaving them unable to access wi-fi and forcing the adjournment of trials. This is an illustration of technology taking a turn for the worse and how that can impact our justice system.

We are also clear that those using the courts must be able to opt out of a digital proceeding and instead choose a traditional court procedure to prevent them from being digitally excluded, particularly in the light of the fact that there is little research into the different justice outcomes of different procedures and the Government’s record of lacking research, piloting or consultation, which has meant that many of their existing digital reforms have led to delays, a worsening experience for court users and reduced access to justice.

The make-up of the OPRC must be representative; that point was also made by a number of speakers. Its make-up must be representative in particular of the legal profession, as it has the power to dramatically alter the processes in court. It should therefore include at least one representative from each of the solicitor, barrister, legal executive and magistrate professions. Only through this can the committee access the experience of the different legal professional users; only they can see the system as professionals and through the eyes of the client to deliver the best result when creating new rules. While the Government have ceded ground on this issue in the Lords by increasing the number of representatives, which we welcome, they must not seek to reverse this position in Committee, and they must go further to ensure better legal representation on the committee.

Finally, we are concerned about the way in which the Justice Secretary as Lord Chancellor sought to exercise his powers, as the Bill entered the Lords without any real safeguards on his powers in what are now clauses 9 and 10. The Lords Constitution Committee declared its own fears that the Bill conferred broad powers on the Lord Chancellor, and while the Government were defeated and these powers were curbed, we are clear that they must not seek to roll back this progress in Committee. It is right to involve the Lord Chief Justice or Senior President of Tribunals, as the Constitution Committee also states, to ensure fair and efficient administration of the justice system for which they are responsible.

Dramatically reducing the content of my speech in the light of the debate today, I say in conclusion that, while we support the creation of an online procedure rule committee and support the goal of modernising our courts and tribunals system to bring it into the 21st century, we still have some concerns about the Bill, as I have outlined. I hope that the Minister will address those points, so we will not seek a Division today. However, we will in Committee push for amendments to ensure that hard-won rights are protected, that the OPRC is representative of the legal profession and that, in the 70th year of Labour’s landmark introduction of legal aid that made access to justice an achievable goal for everyone, the ability to access justice is not further eroded by measures in the Bill.