My Lords, the Government introduced the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill into the House of Lords on Wednesday
My Lords, it was nice to have such a quick response after tabling my Question but it really is a little mouse of a Bill. It has some useful provisions but why has it been stripped of almost all the court modernisation measures which were promised in the Queen’s Speech? How is it that halfway through a two-year parliamentary Session the Government have not found time for urgently needed and relatively uncontroversial provisions to enable the courts to modernise and speed up processes which cause delay and distress to court users, and which cost money that could be better spent improving access to justice?
My Lords, this is a mouse that roared. It may be a small Bill but it has extensive implications for the operation of our court system. Splitting the legislation originally set out in the Prison and Courts Bill will allow the Government to progress these vital reforms utilising the time available in both Houses.
My Lords, one matter that the Bill does not deal with is what was addressed in Clause 37 of the Prison and Courts Bill. It provided for rules for an online procedure in courts and tribunals in appropriate cases. The Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has recently stated the urgent need for such procedures. When will the Government act on this much-needed reform?
As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, we intend to bring forward all of the reforms anticipated in the original Bill, which fell at the time of the general election, and we will do so as and when parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, the Federation of Small Businesses is concerned that, with the online court system that has just been mentioned, there will be several disputes that small businesses will not be able to use the system to resolve. I would like to understand what the Government are doing for the offline dispute system to ensure that it is speedy, effective and cost effective in resolving some of these more difficult disputes.
My Lords, first, with regard to the online system, which is being piloted in a number of areas, over 16,000 people have already engaged with the pilots relating to online matters such as divorce and minor pleas in road traffic cases. In addition, we have the online system with regard to payment claims. We appreciate that there are those who will continue to have to engage with the offline systems and we are of course concerned to ensure that we make further progress with regard to court reform. But as I indicated earlier, that will be brought forward as and when parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, what we need is accessibility: a set of proposals, properly financed, for court staff, in person and over the phone, court documents and online resources all to be committed to helping court users, particularly litigants in person, to navigate their way through the litigation process. This will mean court officers changing their traditional position that they are not there to give advice. What proposals do the Government have along these lines?
My Lords, there is no reason why reallocated court staff will not be in a position to provide advice as they have in the past. We are at the commencement of an extensive reform of our court processes. Indeed, I quote the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals:
“While there is still much work to do, the introduction of this Bill is a positive first step in legislation to deliver reform”.
My Lords, the recommendations of my noble friend Lord Carlile’s inquiry into youth justice were, in particular, to use youth courts, not adult courts, for young people, and more problem-solving courts. Does the Minister agree that we need to be more effective in dealing with young people in the courts so that we stop the revolving door into custody?
My Lords, the Government’s concept of modernisation of the court system seems to include court closures up and down the country and a reduction in the availability of legal aid, which has led to a growth in the number of litigants in person, causing great delays in the courts. In the circumstances, is it not the Government’s duty to ensure that any modernisation of the system is reflected in securing access to justice as opposed to making some fairly minor financial savings?
My Lords, of course what is paramount in the context of this reform is access to justice. As the reform programme progresses, we expect that we will need fewer courts and we will continue to review our estate to make sure that it is able to maximise the benefits of the reformed courts and tribunal service.
My Lords, there is an associated problem: the high cost of litigation. With lawyers’ fees running at around £575 an hour and barristers’ fees at more than £1,000 an hour, people are priced out of justice. Is it not time that this cabal against the public is looked at and examined by the Competition Commission?
My Lords, I cannot accept the estimates of counsels’ fees that have been advanced at either the lower end or the higher end. Of course we are taking steps to contain the cost of access to justice, and it is important that we do so.