Q51 It is a joy to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Brady. I thought I would start with some questions to Professor Susskind about the online procedure for civil and family courts and tribunals, which is dealt with in clauses 37 to 45. Then, after colleagues have put their questions, I will perhaps deal with cross-examination in family matters—clause 47—and criminal proceedings, which are dealt with in clauses 23 to 30 and 35 to 36.
Professor Susskind, I believe you have been the technology adviser to the Lord Chief Justice for many years and you are an advocate for the law adapting to modern technology. These proposals involve the use of digital processes, simpler rules and an online procedure rule committee to set them up. I wonder what your views are about whether the quality of this work will be as good as it is now—that it will not be not a second- class system—and what you think are the implications for the legal professions.
The motivation behind this is interesting. If one thinks of low-value claims—say civil claims—the current process is too costly, too time-consuming, largely too combative and largely unintelligible for the non-lawyer. Lord Dyson, the former Master of the Rolls, put it well when he said that any system that has a 2,000-page user manual has a problem, and that is the traditional civil justice system. I have long been an advocate of thinking of different ways of resolving disputes.
It seems to me that one argument that is often put is that we are going to allow people who can afford lawyers and legal advice access to the traditional court system, and those who use an online process will receive a second-class service, but our group—and, I believe, the Government—anticipates a system that is more accessible, more proportionate, quicker, easier to use and does not require people to take a day off work or pore through thousands of pages of rules, which seems to me to be a first-class service rather than a second-class service. It may be that, from a purist’s point of view, one can see advantages in the traditional system—I am a great believer in the traditions of the law—but for small, low-value claims, I think what is proposed here will be a great improvement rather than some pale substitute for the traditional system.
The implications for lawyers are very interesting. In so far as one of the great mischiefs sorted out here is that of litigants in person—that is to say people who represent themselves—then today lawyers are not involved in the process in any event. So for both litigants in person and for the great mass of people to whom we often refer as having unmet legal need—those who cannot afford or find too forbidding entry into the system in the first place—there is no impact on the legal profession at all, because the legal profession is not involved today.
As for the cases—they will probably be slightly higher value cases—that lawyers currently undertake, it is wrong to suggest that lawyers will be excluded from the process. There is a misunderstanding and ongoing debate about this. It has never been anyone’s intention that lawyers should not be allowed to participate; the intention is that this should be a system that people can use without the assistance of lawyers. My research is in medicine, law, tax, audit and architecture, and I think there is no denying that right across the professions we are seeing technology being used in ways that will reduce the number of some traditional jobs. On the other hand, new jobs will arise.
As I often say, the law is no more there to provide a living for lawyers than ill health is there to provide a living for doctors. It is not the purpose of the law to keep lawyers in a living. Lawyers, like all other industries, have to face the challenge of modernising and industrialising, and this is one of the consequences of offering far greater access to justice through technology.
Q Do any of the other witnesses want to comment on the online court for civil cases, family courts and tribunals and whether it improves access to justice—the point that Professor Susskind just made?
I think it has been readily accepted among many people who have discussed this issue that the system will work most effectively if there is good legal advice at appropriate points within the process. It may well be that the role of lawyers in this revised system is very different, but people who are looking to enter into any sort of dispute resolution system will want to know whether they have a good case, what evidence they need, whether any defence filed is valid and how to respond to it. There will be key stages within any case where good-quality legal advice will be essential if the system is to work effectively, but that is not to say there will not be a different role for lawyers within the system if it rolls out as is currently envisaged.
Q Lord Justice Briggs said that it might be a role where a particular piece of legal advice would be given and then fixed recoverable costs would be involved, as a way of ensuring it could be funded. Do you have any views on that?
That is entirely feasible. I take the point entirely that there will be places where it would be beneficial to have the participation of lawyers. It might well be that we can, in an online process, involve lawyers in a more modular, occasional way, rather than an all-or-nothing way. If I am absolutely honest, we are to a large extent on new ground here. We can look at what has happened in Canada and what is happening in Singapore and Holland. We are feeling our way.
The overwhelming evidence is that online dispute resolution provides a cheaper, quicker, less forbidding service, but no one in the world has yet delivered an integrated service of the sort that the Law Society is sensibly anticipating, where lawyers can be involved in a structured, systematic way in the new process. I would welcome that, but again, we cannot forget the swathes of cases just now where people are self-represented or do not go to law at all, and lawyers are not involved. With online dispute resolution, there is the possibility of lawyers becoming more involved in some of those cases that they do not reach at all now.
Q Perhaps I can ask one more question, before opening this up. Would you like to say a word about the benefits of virtual hearings and dispute resolution within this process?
It is important to draw a fundamental distinction—I am doing it in my terms—between virtual hearings and online process. With virtual hearings, there is a hearing: that is to say, there are people communicating with one another at the same time, but they are not all physically in one place; there is a video connection and an audio connection. Technologists would call that synchronous. Everyone has to gather together, and it may not be in one physical space, but there is a hearing and they are all attending it virtually. Online process is quite different. It is asynchronous: that means a party can submit a piece of evidence and a judge can respond, but they do not all need to be online at the same time. I am not sure if the Bill or people around the table are completely comfortable with that distinction between virtual hearings and online process. They are very, very different beasts.
The virtual hearing, in a sense, is a natural evolution from the traditional hearing. If people are vulnerable, if they are many miles away, or if it does not seem proportionate for them all to attend in person, why not attend by video and audio? That is the idea of a virtual hearing. It is an extension of the current system. An online process is often entirely different.
I want to talk about virtual and online courts—I am with Professor Susskind in recognising that they are very different animals—in the criminal context. I will start Q with Penelope from Transform Justice. In your recent report you looked at an evaluation of the use of technology in the criminal courts back in 2010. The report said:
“The evaluation of the pilot was published in 2010, and concluded that virtual courts as piloted were more expensive, may lead to more guilty pleas and longer sentences, and impeded the communication between lawyer and client.”
As we embrace new technology, how can we seek to deal with those worries?
With huge difficulty. I would say that the virtual hearings as done now are slightly different from the ones piloted in 2010 in terms of the cost basis, but we still have a huge problem about the relationship between the lawyer and the client. Every piece of research that exists suggests that that communication is impeded.
The other huge problem that came up in that research, which was under-reported, was that actually it reduced the number of people who used a lawyer. In that research, I think only 52% or something of the defendants used a lawyer, despite the fact that all had access to legal aid. So there was something about the circumstances of doing it virtually that meant that they did not use a lawyer, and I would say that the criminal system, in some ways like the civil system, is pretty unsuited to anybody not having a lawyer. It is very complicated and complex, the procedure is difficult and the law is difficult, so there are huge concerns about having people virtually, nearly half of them without a lawyer, with huge decisions being made about remand and sentence, and even the proposition of trial in the Bill by conference call or virtually where you can see people.
Q This is a follow-up, first for Richard and then for Professor Susskind. Should youth defendants be excluded from the Bill’s provisions on virtual courts?
There would be strong argument for that, yes. We see a clear difference between initial hearings in criminal cases where, for example, bail is being decided and subsequent administrative hearings. For subsequent administrative hearings—for example, where the client has been remanded in custody and is already in prison—having the video link from prison makes a lot of sense. Our members report to us that those sort of virtual hearings work perfectly okay.
The real concern is around the initial hearings, where a whole range of interactions lead to decisions on, for example, whether bail should be granted. The lawyer has to talk to their client and to the prosecution, and they might have to talk to the defendant’s family. There may be ongoing discussions while the case is being heard, with the magistrates coming up with ideas for bail conditions that the lawyer needs to take instructions on. All of those interactions are very difficult to have when you are holding a virtual hearing and the lawyer and the client are not in the same place. That is based on feedback from our members who are involved in the existing pilot projects: they find those interactions very difficult. There are real risks, and particularly when the client is vulnerable it is very difficult indeed to build up that necessary relationship of trust between the defendant and the lawyer to ensure that the right outcome is reached.
It is worth remembering that if in the hearing there is a situation where bail might have been granted but because the necessary instructions cannot be taken or necessary discussions cannot take place the client is remanded in custody, that has a significant impact not only on the client but on the public purse. That is particularly noteworthy, given that the Bill has as its first part—the prisons part—a clear aim to reduce the use of prison where appropriate and to make prison more rehabilitative. If we end up sending more people to prison who should not have been there in the first place, that really is running counter to what we are trying to do with the Bill.
I want to answer the question in a slightly different way. Incidentally, I think it is very dangerous to make assumptions about the future based on a report about technology that was written in 2010. We are seven years on from 2010 and I presume the technology was from at least a few months, if not a couple of years, before then. The transformation in video calls since then has been absolutely astounding. Think of the way in which we all use FaceTime and Skype. We are now entering an era of telepresence—I joke not. Recently, I offered someone a cup of tea when I was in a telepresence conversation with them by video. These systems are never going to be any worse: they are getting better and better. Strategically—and this is where we have to have a collective vision—our role is not to think, “How was that technology X years ago when we looked at it?” but rather, “How will it be in two or three years’ time?” It is only going one direction.
Is it not interesting when you think of youth, because is that not such a common way for young people communicate now? Relationships are established through Facetime and other similar types of videolinking. The assumptions we make as “grown-ups”—as one might say—about how we establish trust and communicate comfortably with others cannot necessarily be carried forward to people who have grown up in the internet era, for whom the conduct of a meeting and interaction via video may be more comfortable and comforting and give rise to a greater experience of trust than it would for our generation. We have to think of the next generation too.
Frankly, the research is not in the justice system. It is like the research we do at Oxford Internet Institute—considering how young people are using and adapting to technology. All the signs are that these technologies are becoming more and more powerful and people are more comfortable using them.
Q I will just move to the online criminal convictions—this is clauses 35 and 36 of the Bill. This is a general question to the panel. Do you think there are sufficient safeguards in the Bill for defendants who use the automatic online conviction process? For example, how could you make an offender aware of the consequences to their employment status of having a criminal conviction? What are the safeguards to enable them to fully understand the consequences of that guilty plea?
That is a challenge. The Bar Council has suggested that only non-recordable offences should go on to the online conviction system, and I agree with that. To an extent, that would resolve some of the criminal record issues, because non-recordable offences are not added to the police national computer. They can attract a rehabilitation period, but they do not come up in Disclosure and Barring Service checks. That is one of the issues.
If we move on to recordable offences that do attract a criminal record, it is absolutely crucial that people are given full information. A criminal record is not just a barrier to employment: it is a barrier to education, travel and housing. Also, something might be minor and recordable, and you think, “Oh well, that is okay,” but if you have two minor offences, they come up on a DBS check. So if you apply for lots of jobs, they will come up. It is a complex area, and it is crucial that the online conviction system does do that.
It is also important that the system gives people an idea of what a viable defence is. There is an idea that people know whether they are guilty or not. It is true that they might have done the deed, but if they have a legally viable defence, they have a good possibility of being acquitted. This is a complex legal area, and it is crucial that the online criminal conviction court should go through what a viable legal defence is, and refer people to legal agencies that could help with that.
Q Penelope, you mentioned the 2010 pilot, which was between a police station and the magistrates court and which did reveal some interesting lessons, such as how to schedule cases—that needed to be done better—the elements of a case that are best dealt with by videolink, and the importance of technical quality and reliability. I am sure you would agree that, since then, videolinks have been used successfully in the Crown court, magistrates court hearings and in many other ways, and that the lessons have been learned. Now videolinks are better scheduled, they are used in a more targeted way, and the technology has improved.
There are a lot of benefits to a videolink: for vulnerable witnesses it is often used as a special measure, it stops people having to travel long distances, it stops the wasting of police time, and the professionals find it increasingly helpful to be able speak to their clients at distance. Then there is the security side of it, which means you do not have a lot of people having to use prison transport. Do you accept that things have moved on since 2010?
They have moved on in a tiny way. I went to observe a court the other day and the videolink worked but the camera angle on the defendant was towards the top of his head and he was quite distant from the camera. People had real difficulties understanding what he said. That was just a month ago.
I would like to talk more about that case—
Q Before you go on, on that point, in the Rolf Harris trial that recently concluded, the video evidence was given from Australia. That meant the victims did not have to travel thousands of miles. Surely that is a benefit?
Can I distinguish between the use of videolink for expert witnesses and other witnesses and defendants? There are different issues with witnesses, who will often benefit from a videolink, and defendants.
It was his choice to do so, but in the 2010 research, the evidence was that those who were on videolink got longer sentences.
On the police station videolink, it is worth going backwards and saying, “Why are so many defendants being detained by the police on quite minor charges?” When I twice observed videolinks the other day, those people had been detained by the police, they are produced in the videolink room and most of them were released immediately after that videolink appearance. One of the police stations that it was linked to was 15 minutes’ walk from the magistrates court and the cost of the journey—in the 2010 report; I do not know if it is the same now—was only £35. For a defendant to be participating in their own process, it is worth £35 to get them into the court, because all the evidence says it is a less good process. Also, crucially in the 2010 report, people on videolink got longer sentences.
Q Do you not accept you are going back to the very early history of this and that since a whole range of videolinks have been set up in prisons and in other places right across the country, as well as in police stations? The whole thing has moved on in leaps and bounds over the last seven years.
I do not think the basics of what was looked at in the 2010 report have actually changed. Of the lawyers I am in contact with, I have not met one lawyer now who thinks they can have the same relationship and the same communication with somebody who is on videolink as if they are in the court with them.
Q It has been made clear that there will be safeguards for the online procedure. Although I accept they have to be done well, it is a procedure that should be tried, given how simple it is for everybody concerned. Are you against even trying it?
Q Jenny, one of the critical things in the virtual court environment is that people and defendants understand what is going on within that environment despite being on videolink. This is why I raised a concern earlier about young defendants. How do you feel the cuts to legal aid and the proliferation of litigants in person will affect the way people are able to understand what is going on when there is no lawyer present either?
It is a massive risk. The critical point is that those who are the most marginalised are the most affected. People who have difficulty understanding, people who have learning needs and people who have language difficulties are the most likely to be those facing the most difficulty. I can see a split in access to justice as a consequence. In the absence of really targeted lawyer intervention at very strategic points, including the introduction of early advice across the board for people, which would be a huge step in the right direction, from a qualified lawyer via legal aid, you can get into a situation where people will be pushed to the margins and miscarriages of justice will result.
I want to highlight something that is important in civil, family and tribunals, which is that the introduction of the online process is to be accompanied—this is crucial—by a highly simplified set of rules. That does not fully meet Jenny’s point, but I do not want people to think we are cutting and pasting the old rules online. The idea is that the system will be governed by a very simple set of explicit rules, a lot of which will be embedded within the system, so it will be intuitive and easy to use. There will always be the hard to reach, those who do not use technology comfortably, for example, and the Government have in mind some assistive technology services. I think we will need services for people who otherwise would find the process difficult, but for the lion’s share of people, who use Amazon daily or perhaps renew their tax online, the system should not be complex in the sense of its having a vast body of unintelligible rules.
Q I have just one brief follow-up question for Professor Susskind—I am grateful for your patience, Mr Brady. How do you think the whole online courts idea affects the principle of open justice?
Okay. Online, my view is that we can make a system that is far more transparent. What we have in mind when we talk about open justice is that members of the public—anyone—can scrutinise the process, understand the results and view justice as it is being administered. When I speak to the judges who are involved in thinking through what the online process will be like, they are entirely happy. For example, in tribunals, an ongoing dialogue between the parties and the judges can be available online and scrutinised. The decisions will be made available online.
I want to challenge the assumption that is often made that you need physically to congregate in a courtroom for a service to be transparent. That is only really available to the public who live nearby. What we have in mind is an internet-based service that could be subject to scrutiny and visibility by anyone who has internet access. It would be a different kind of transparency, but it is transparency none the less, giving far wider access to the process.
I will pick up on a couple of points that have been raised. Professor Susskind, you talked about technology improving. Just to give you an idea, I can remember using this technology myself in court as a practising barrister—I am now a non-practising barrister—both before 2010 and after. Since then, technology has been improving on a daily basis. I was particularly pleased to hear that the west of the country seems to be doing well in using technology.Q
My specific question is directed towards Richard Miller, and Penelope Gibbs as well. Richard, you were talking about concerns about defendants giving evidence virtually. Do you accept the benefits of, for example, vulnerable witnesses giving evidence virtually? For those who would be nervous or anxious about attending court, all those anxieties can be put to rest and they can give evidence from a safe distance.
We do not have any major problem with that, subject to the judge’s overall control to ensure that justice is being done in the individual case. On the concern about bail hearings in particular, it is not so much the defendant giving evidence as the whole series of interactions that have to happen during the hearing and whether it is practical to accommodate all that within a virtual hearing.
Q If it were possible to overcome that, for example by having proper briefings with lawyers in advance and debriefings after the hearings, that would allay some of your concerns. Would that be fair?
IQ used to write about technology and in 2010 I covered the launch of FaceTime. I wonder whether the panel collectively agree that commercial products such as that have fundamentally changed the way that almost the entire public engage with this kind of video communication? Sitting here trying to put my old journalistic hat on, we are talking about technology based on a report from 2010, but it seems fundamentally a different world. I suspect that Richard Susskind might agree, but I wonder whether Penelope Gibbs or Richard Miller could try to convince me that the technology of 2010 is even relevant in 2017?
I want to pose a challenge in response to that: how far has the technology actually available in the courts moved on from 2010 technology? The real issue is whether the courts actually have this up-to-date technology which, as you say, is leaps and bounds ahead of what was going on in 2010.
Q So it is not so much the principle as the technology? You were talking earlier, Penelope Gibbs, about the angle of the camera and how well people could be understood. Obviously, we would all want people to be understood and adequately photographed, but that is a very trivial thing in comparison to the principle of using digital technology, is it not?
I use Skype, FaceTime, everything, but still I think you will find in business, however much increase there is in the use of such things, that people will still get on planes and go halfway across the world to have a meeting with somebody. There is a consensus that seeing a person in reality, as we are in this room, makes a difference, in terms of the relationship, the body language and so on. So I would ask, is it truly necessary?
Here, I repeat that we are talking about very vulnerable people, who while they may be able to do FaceTime, certainly do not understand criminal law or the criminal justice system. They may be unrepresented, so while there may be extra barriers—they may have mental health problems, learning difficulties, et cetera—all these mean that even when they are in the court they struggle to understand what is going on and how to participate. If you put them at one remove, where they cannot talk to their lawyer—
They have to talk to their lawyer, but I urge the Committee to go incognito into a court with a video link and watch what goes on, and then look at a court where you have the normal interaction with the lawyer and the client; you will see that it is different. Every lawyer, at the moment, says that it is far more difficult. Obviously, you talk to them beforehand, you talk to them afterwards—you go into a separate room or you clear the court or whatever—but there are various barriers with this.
As I say, we are talking about people who do not understand the criminal justice system and the law already. So I would say it is not ideal to be virtual, even if that person uses FaceTime the whole time with their friends. It is a different situation. We are talking about people’s liberty here, or whether they get a criminal record for life or whatever. These are huge decisions and people meet person to person on purpose for things that are far more minor.
Q Is not the other side of this, though, that for a lot of people the very process of travelling long distances to court, in many cases—I think of my own constituents—is what makes the system intimidating and unapproachable? It is part of the problem and to some extent, particularly for the vulnerable witness we talked about before, this can diminish those issues. I suppose what I am driving at is that you are making it sound like this is all bad, whereas actually you are even conceding yourself that some of it is good. Perhaps we should be a bit more nuanced.
Can I distinguish the views and evidence about witnesses versus defendants? They are totally different parties with different dynamics going on. Obviously, the defendant has much more to face if they are found guilty. Yes, it is difficult for witnesses: I am not opposed to witnesses appearing virtually, because they are doing a different thing and it is a different role. Even so, we have very, very little evidence in the way of research.
On the 2010 report, it would have been great if the Ministry of Justice had updated that subsequent to 2010 and so on. With witnesses, what we do not know, because we have not done the research, is what impact this has on juries and on the process of the court case. I absolutely agree that it is probably, in most cases, a better experience for witnesses, but I am also concerned that we need urgently to do some research to see whether it has a negative impact on juries. With regard to pre-trial cross-examination of witnesses, where it is not live during the trial and the jury does not hear the witness live, again, this might be a good thing for the witness, but we really need to know whether it is going to have such a negative effect on juries that cases will collapse.
When people say there is no evidence, I often say there is no evidence from the future: we have not actually introduced the kinds of system that many of us are anticipating. I suppose as policy makers, as politicians, what you are trying to do is make our country a better place and embrace technology where it is appropriate; I am not suggesting for a second that one introduces technology for the sake of it. All the signs, across so many corners of society, are that we can defeat problems of distance, overcome problems of excessive cost and make public services more accessible and more affordable by using a whole set of technologies.
I was not for a second suggesting that because you use FaceTime to chat, that means you should use FaceTime. I was simply making the point, and there is other research—this is not anecdotal; it is good empirical stuff—to suggest people would prefer to see their psychotherapists; people would prefer to see their doctors. People actually like some of the distance that the technology puts in place. A lot of assumptions are made that somehow the technology is putting people at one remove. In fact, people feel more relaxed.
I think there is sufficient evidence elsewhere to suggest that this is a proportionate way of resolving a great many of the disputes and problems that arise in a highly physical courts system—a system, incidentally, that is inaccessible for many millions of people who are disabled or who can attend only with great difficulty. It seems to me intuitive in the 21st century—I agree that we need to undertake research as we go along—that in a measured and controlled way, we introduce modern technologies as we are doing right across society. I cannot provide evidence from the future, but I can say that in so many other areas this seems to be a sensible direction of travel.
Could I make a very small observation from the coalface? I am also a practising lawyer. I use a lot of technology because I am a legal aid lawyer and, as a consequence of the advice deserts that have popped up all over the place because of cuts in funding, we often have to see people via FaceTime or take instructions over the telephone. It is absolutely a fact that the most vulnerable people find it less easy to access their justice via those mechanisms. I am not saying there is not a place for this, but it is a fact, in my experience, that that is the case.
What is very interesting about this discussion is that we seem to have become very polarised in favour and against. It strikes me that perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the other considerations that need to be brought in to make this effective and not a risk in terms of justice outcomes.Q
If I may, I will make this slight comparison. I used to be responsible for teaching through video non-traditional A-level subjects—through the medium of Welsh, as it happens—to widen their accessibility, to 15 secondary schools in Wales. Of course, we constantly had the check of the results and seeing how the students who were being taught by video performed in comparison with the conventional teaching method. There is great potential in technology, as is being discussed, but I think there are issues in relation to the vulnerable and there are age—generational—issues as well, without beginning to touch on the nature of technology in some of our rural areas.
What worries me, and what I would like your opinion on, is how we bring this in and have the checks and balances to assess the research—whether there are different outcomes to justice in terms of this—and that this is not a headlong rush into technology in which some participants will actually suffer or there will be unjust results because of it. This cannot be polarised; it has to be something that we discuss as we go along.
I accept that it cannot be polarised. You obviously invite people along who are likely to take a position, and my position is a position of change. I have been involved with this for 35 years, suggesting that technology should be used more in the court system. I cannot say for a second that anyone has ever been rushing in; it has been a very slow, arduous and sometimes painful process.
I travel the world, have spoken in more than 40 countries and visited courts. We are, in this country, falling behind other courts, so we cannot be accused of rushing in. I fully agree, however, that to jump ahead in a foolhardy way would be silly. I am simply pointing out, and will say again, that in the context of civil law the current system is inaccessible, unaffordable and unintelligible—full stop. It seems to me worth at least introducing some of these new procedures to offer access to people who would otherwise never have had it. I do not find that contentious; in fact, on civil, I do not think I have been hearing great opposition to it.
Q Forgive me, but what would the checks be as we change from one very well established and familiar system to a new system? What will be the checks from day to day that they are operating properly?
Are we talking about the civil system or the criminal system? Because if we are talking about the civil system, I have to come back at you. You say that it is a very well established system, but my view is that it is a system that suffers from very serious difficulties.
The last research was shown to suggest that 1 million people every year have justiciable entitlements and do not, or cannot, pursue their rights in the civil justice system. We have vast numbers of litigants in person who really struggle to understand the system. If our system was great just now, I would be very hesitant about saying we should replace it with technology.
If this is taking a polar position, I am happy to take one—we have a civil justice system just now that is inaccessible for the overwhelming majority of citizens. I want to say to you that it is surely worth introducing, for some low-value claims, a new way of offering access to judges and then monitoring it very carefully—maybe that is the point you want a response on. I think it is vital that we do ongoing research. The point is well made that we need to understand the impact as we go along and we need be willing to change direction.
As for the evolution of technology in the private sector and the public sector, we are not architects. You cannot design the finished building and say, “Here is what it is going to look like.” It is a bit of a journey. If you are hesitant about starting the journey because we do not have the checks and balances in place—we need to have the checks in the place. I think you will find that most leaders, both in the public and private sector, have a sense of direction and say, “Let’s start this together, monitor carefully and ensure we are delivering the benefits.” It seems to me that the option of saying, “Let’s not change at all because we cannot be certain how it is going to unpack,” is not an attractive one. The discussion we should be having is how we ensure, with all these new technologies, that we are monitoring their impact, and that there is an appropriate hand on the tiller when it seems it is taking us in different directions.
Q Could you recommend what form that should take?
I am bound to say this, because in part I am an academic by background, but I think we need to move beyond anecdote. I can tell you what I heard in the court room that I visited—it was nothing like what was heard over here—but actually, what each of us says as individuals is less important than engaging serious researchers to undertake attitudinal surveys and surveys of people who have been through the process. That is the kind of work that we have seen someone like Hazel Genn at UCL doing over the decades—understanding why people go to the law, how they feel when they have been through the process and whether they have confidence in the system.
I have been strongly advocating, even for the civil system that I have recommended we introduce, that we should not rush in. We should think big, but start small. We should start small, monitor, evaluate, undertake serious academic empirical research, report back, invest where things seem promising and be prepared to accept if developments do not work out. We do not have the evidence yet so we have got to kick-start it somewhere. This, for me, is a call for an incremental—the technology would say an agile—modular step-by-step approach. If I was getting the sense that the Government were advocating a big bang—one single system, architect in advance—I would be very critical of that, but that is not the approach being taken.
Q I was hoping we might move on to clause 47—the cross-examination in family justice. I was hoping to ask Polly from Women’s Aid, who is sat very patiently, one or two questions about this. Polly, could you give us a sense of the harm caused by victims being cross-examined in person by alleged abusers in the family courts?
It is hard to overstate how harmful it is, actually; it is genuinely traumatising. In particular, it makes it very difficult for the family courts to play the role they should play, which is to put the child’s best interests first, when usually the mother of the child is not able to advocate adequately because she is being questioned by somebody who has put her through abuse—sometimes, years of abuse.
The other thing that is really important to understand about this—this is what is worrying about judges’ understanding, if I may say so—is that domestic abuse is not all about incidents of physical violence; it is all about control, and coercive control. The family courts are being used, if you like, as an arena for perpetrators to continue to exert the control over their partner or former partner, and in particular they are using child contact proceedings as a way of continuing to exert that control.
So it is not only that the person might be overtly abusive towards the survivor in the court, although that happens unfortunately. It is also that there are like trigger words and almost code words that a perpetrator can use when talking to the victim, which will mean something to her that is extremely traumatic but to anyone listening it would not necessarily appear to be abusive, on the face of it. That is why we say that the practice just has to be banned, because as an onlooker you cannot necessarily tell the meaning of what is being said between those two people, particularly—this often happens—after years of abuse and coercive control of all kinds, and psychological control in particular.
Q We have been very grateful to work with Women’s Aid on this issue and for the help that you have been giving in trying to help with the training of those in the family justice system. Do you think the provisions in the Bill will help, and do you have any more that you feel needs to be done in terms of guidance and the judiciary?
Absolutely, the provisions in the Bill will help. As you know, we very warmly welcome the move that has been made; I think it will make a big difference. We work on this issue with quite a number of women who have been through this experience and their reaction to the news that this is coming in the Bill has been quite amazing; there has been a very big kind of welcoming from women themselves. That is really important.
The only bit where I think we really need to take care is the level of judicial discretion in the other cases. So, we know that where an alleged perpetrator has already been convicted or charged, or where there is an injunction in place, automatically they will not be able to cross-examine the witness—the victim. However, there are other cases that will rely on judicial discretion and I guess my concern with that is, as I said, the understanding of judges. Their understanding of domestic abuse is what they will have to draw on in order to use that discretion. Very often their understanding is simply extremely inadequate, to be completely frank—particularly their understanding of coercive control, which is the key issue here.
Either the ban on cross-examination has to apply whenever domestic abuse is alleged, which would be our preference, or it is really vital that training for judges is absolutely ensured, and also that there is much better access to special measures in protection as well, so that the whole family court estate and system can be much safer for survivors of domestic abuse.
Yes, please. I echo all the points that Polly has made. I am also a family practitioner, so I go to court a lot and specialise in domestic abuse work. Last week, I had a client who did not give evidence in the case concerning her children, because she was terrified of being cross-examined. I know that the applicant in that case deliberately was unrepresented in order to be able to cross-examine her. That is a hands-on example of exactly what is happening, which is that perpetrators are using the court process to effect further abuse on their victims. We all know that; it is commonplace. It is not a special trick; it is very well known, so this is a hugely welcome move in the right direction.
Equally, I would like to see a widening of the last provision for the other cases to make sure that the representation covers the victim cross-examining in those cases as well, because that is not quite as clear as it is in the first two clauses. The reciprocity is quite clear in the first two clauses, but in the other cases there is a concern because, although legal aid is still available for victims of domestic abuse, there are still people who are not able to get it, because they have not got the right gateway evidence or because they are excluded on the basis of means or unable to make a contribution. It would be a perverse situation if you found that the perpetrator were able to be represented and the victim were not.
Q As you probably know, on the evidence requirements, we have made partial announcements and we are reviewing it with the aim of making a fuller announcement fairly soon.
We also very much support the proposals. One of the issues that has been of concern, but I think is understood, is that there is a lot of comparison with provisions in the criminal courts. However, in the criminal courts, the victim is a witness in the case who comes in and gives evidence and leaves, whereas in the family courts they are a party and there is interaction throughout the entire process. It means this is a different situation with more scope for harm to be caused to victims of domestic violence within the family courts. We would want to continue to have dialogue to ensure that as much protection as possible is given in those circumstances.
We have identified a couple of specific points that we want to think about a little further. For example, the first provision talks about instances where someone has been convicted or charged. We wonder whether that ought to cover instances where they have been cautioned for the offence as well. That is something that might be added in.
The other issue that has struck us is that this protection will apply not just to the victim but also potentially to other witnesses, such as a child of the family who has witnessed some of the alleged abuse. In that situation, the child could be called on behalf of either party and therefore the issue might not be strictly cross- examination. That may also need to be looked at to ensure that adequate protection is there for all the vulnerable witnesses we are trying to protect.
Q Clause 47 is very welcome. These protections have existed in the criminal courts for some time and to have them now in the family courts is absolutely right. Starting with Polly, what is your view on extending that principle to the civil courts more generally, even beyond simply the family court?
This is why in the other cases where there was judicial discretion, I said we should discuss any alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse, where there is an allegation. I cannot see the benefit in any situation of any perpetrator of abuse being able to use any court directly to question or cross-examine the victim or the children in the situation. Coercive control does not only exist between a couple, it is something that is deliberately exerted by one person on the other members of the family, which very often includes the children. I want to back up that point, which was very well made.
I can think of no reason other than cost for the idea that someone has to have his day in court. I think that notion needs to be done away with altogether. There is no circumstance where that could possibly be a good idea.
Yes. I would also add that it is in the interests of justice being done, of equality of arms and of ensuring that the system is fair. Any area where justice is not done because one person is unable to represent their case properly—it does not really matter which discipline it is—lacks fundamental natural justice. If we can do something to avoid that by putting measures in place to ensure that the evidence given is proper and robust, why would that not happen?
Exactly, although there are a couple of ways in which that happens; it is not just in the cross-examination of expert witnesses. Perpetrators also prolong cases and bring additional unnecessary litigation within family cases, but this is certainly a welcome move in the right direction.
I think this is an excellent initiative; it just brings a question mark for me. If the person is to have aid cross-examining throughout a family case, why should they not be legally aided in the first place? It seems to me that the Government will probably spend as much paying the lawyer for their interventions in helping cross-examine as they would if they legally aided the person.
Q Richard, can I come to you on the issue of funding? Clearly, there will be a court-appointed advocate who needs to be funded, but one curiosity is that the funding of the court-appointed advocate is left to regulation; it is not in the Bill. Do you think that it would be helpful if it were in the Bill, given how crucial funding is?
Potentially. This issue is very much in the criminal sphere at the moment, because there is a proposal substantially to reduce the payments for advocates who carry out this role in the criminal courts. One concern is basically that the market will speak—if the rates are set at too low a level, you might find that lawyers are just not willing and able to undertake these cases. It is vital that whatever rates are agreed for this work are sufficient to enable advocates of suitable quality to conduct it. At the moment, we think that it is an issue of potential concern that we will not be in that position in the criminal courts if the proposals go through as currently suggested.
I have a question for the representative of Women’s Aid, then two questions on employment tribunalsQ . Polly, are you in a position to comment on the effect of the nature of the MOJ estate on the elongation of abuse or coercive behaviour? It seems to me that there may be an issue with the layout of family court buildings and other things. Regardless of the welcome change set out in clause 47, which you also welcomed, is there anything that you would like to add about issues such as waiting rooms and so on?
Absolutely. That is the kind of thing that I was referring to when I talked about the need to look at special measures as a backdrop to this. The court reform process now provides an important opportunity to improve the family courts’ ability to provide special measures. We believe that that should be a priority. Separate waiting areas are an obvious example. In the surveys that we have done of women who have been through the family courts and who are survivors of domestic violence, abuse within the court estate is incredibly common. Again, because of the coercive controlling nature of domestic abuse, sometimes it is not visible.
I will give you an example. I spoke to a woman who was in the same waiting room as her ex-partner throughout the whole time the case was going on, and any time she moved anywhere in the building, he would leap up and hold the door open for her as she walked through. To her, that was incredibly intimidating. He was constantly there whenever she went anywhere in the building. Anybody watching would not necessarily have seen that as abusive behaviour, but in fact, given the history of the relationship, it was extremely intimidating behaviour. If there had been separate waiting areas, it could not have happened—so, absolutely, it is very important.
Q On employment tribunals, I would be interested to hear what Richard Miller from the Law Society has to say. Our position on employment tribunal fees is well known. We would abolish the fees that were brought in in 2013 because we believe, among other things, that they have a really negative affect on access to justice, with a 70% reduction in cases being brought. Richard, are you in a position to give your view on the effect of the introduction of employment tribunal fees on access to justice in the employment courts?
The Law Society is well aware of the research showing the 70% reduction, and what is more significant about the figure is that there has been no change in the proportion of successful cases. That means that legitimate cases have been deterred in the same proportion as frivolous ones. We think that the evidence makes it crystal clear that a lot of people who previously would have had access to tribunals to get justice in employment disputes are now not getting it.
Q That is very useful. My final question is to Richard Miller, and to Penelope in particular, if she has any thoughts on this. Clause 52 of the Bill talks about the composition of tribunals. As a former tribunal lawyer, I very much did not welcome—and Labour Members do not welcome—the reduction in the use of tribunals and the increase in instances of judges sitting alone. We do not make that point out of any partisan pro-employee or anti-employer position—we are, of course, not anti-employer. It is very useful to have an employer representative and an employee representative there to provide real-world experience to assist the judge. Clause 52 commits the senior president, or the president, of tribunals to extend even further the type of cases in which employment judges would be sitting alone, further undermining the tripartite nature of the tribunal. Do you think that the Committee should amend that?
I sat as a magistrate myself, so I am very much in favour of the use of lay judges in our justice system. It gives a different perspective from that of people who are part of the paid judiciary, of great quality though they are. I also have concerns about judgments made by people sitting alone. If you have two or three people discussing something, they can hear something, notice something, or bring a perspective that is very relevant to the decisions made, which is why we have benches of three magistrates. So I have huge concerns, and I also see it, I am afraid, as part of an ongoing diminution of lay justice, in that it is reducing or, potentially reducing, lay representation on tribunals while, at the same time, the number of lay magistrates has fallen by a third in the past eight years.
From the point of view of the Law Society, when the proposal was originally consulted on, it was certainly read as suggesting there should be a default position of a single person deciding these cases, rather than the panel of three, and the Law Society was extremely concerned about that. It was particularly in the context of mental health tribunals and social security tribunals that we got very strong evidence from our members as to the benefits of the additional participants in the panel. It is something that has significant benefits across the board. Having it as a discretion for the senior president of tribunals is a much improved position from the idea of a default that there should be only a single person, but it is worth further thought as to whether it is extending the use of a single person panel further than is appropriate.
Q Penelope, you mentioned that you sat as a lay magistrate. There is a provision in the Bill that abolishes local justice areas, which means a magistrate will not be allocated now to a particular area. Can you comment on the morale of lay magistrates at the moment and how you think it will be affected by the abolition of local justice areas?
The actual effect of this provision in terms of whether benches will be abolished is not quite clear. I would say if it becomes a situation where local benches of magistrates are abolished, that is a big problem. Already, there have been many amalgamations. Magistrates like to be part not only of their community geographically, but to be part of a community of magistrates. Therefore, even if we create a single justice area, I would say it is very important that benches remain, from the point of view of the morale of magistrates but also being able to communicate and have links to local agencies and people. Without benches, who is the local community supposed to go to when they want to interact with magistracy?