“(c) one of each of the following—
(i) a barrister in England and Wales, and
(ii) a solicitor of the Senior Courts of England and Wales, and
(iv) a magistrate of England and Wales appointed by the Lord Chief Justice; and”
This amendment would require that the Online procedure rule committee has representatives from different parts of the legal professions.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 5, in clause 5, page 4, line 37, at end insert “and;
(iii) one of whom must have experience representing the views of people who are digitally excluded.”
This amendment is consequential on the earlier amendment. The amendment would require a members of the Online procedure rule committee to have experience representing the views of people who are digitally excluded.
We believe that the procedure rule committee should be larger than currently proposed and that members should be a member of the Bar, a solicitor, a legal executive or magistrate. The reasons for that are twofold. First, it is surprising that the Government envisage the Online procedure rule committee as having a very small number of members, yet the Family procedure rule committee and the Civil procedure rule committee have somewhere in the range of 11 to 16 members. The Online procedure rule committee seems to have by my calculation about five members. We believe that is too small a number to be able to deal with a committee that is going to be pretty revolutionary in what it is designing. It would be wrong to exclude a legal executive, solicitor, barrister or magistrate from that, because the idea behind the committee is to deal with the smaller cases from the civil and criminal courts, and it is legal executives and solicitors who are often involved in the preparation of those cases.
Although some barristers are involved with the procedural side, they normally attend court and do the advocacy part of any case. They should obviously be present, because they bring their knowledge and experience of dealing with the issues that arise in the courts, but it is the solicitors who do the procedural work—some do advocacy as well—and they are best placed to advise on the various potential pitfalls that the Online procedure rule committee should be considering. They are involved in laying the summonses and in preparing the casework, as are the legal executives, who do a lot of the procedural work, such as starting cases. Not to have them in the committee does not make any sense. If we want a good system, we need the people who are involved in the day-to-day procedures. The people who are involved in the process are being excluded.
That also includes magistrates, as this will apply to the magistrates court as well. It is very important that a magistrate who has been sitting in court is involved. They can raise the potential pitfalls, problems and challenges that might arise. To exclude those groups of people from the committee flies in the face of common sense.
We have tabled the amendment to make the Online procedure rule committee even better, and to ensure that those who are on it have wide, diverse opinions. With no disrespect to the senior judges who would be sitting on the committee, they tend to be members of the Bar, although there are some who were solicitors, but most of them will not know what the court procedures are, especially in the lower courts. To expect them to be actively involved in setting up online procedures will weaken the ability of the committee to do that.
I do not doubt that our judiciary is brilliant, and I am sure that the judges appointed will be excellent, but most of them deal with cases when they reach the court, when what we need are the people who know about the procedures, how things start and all the pitfalls that can happen at the beginning of a case. That is why including the groups of people we have suggested is important. We hope the Government will consider the amendment. It is designed to make the committee better.
Amendment 5 would allow for the inclusion of somebody who has experience representing people who are digitally excluded, as we want to ensure that the committee is able to formulate rules that will help those people. I think everyone here would accept that some people are digitally excluded and that it is important to have someone who represents those views.
Our amendments would strengthen the Online procedure rule committee, and would not substantially affect the numbers. If the Government were to accept our amendments, there would still be less than 10 people in the committee, which is a lot less than in the other procedure committees. This is a really important committee. It should include the most diverse range of people, who are able to come up with rules that are user-friendly, easy to understand and easy to access.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. Two weeks ago, the Select Committee on Justice heard evidence from the Master of the Rolls, the Lord Chief Justice and the Senior President of Tribunals on the matter of online courts. They were very persuasive, although it would be a sad state of affairs if they were not—we would all be in a difficult position. Despite that, Committee members on all sides were left with some residual feeling that perhaps this eminent and learned Government may not have had much recent experience in, say, Hendon magistrates court or the Clerkenwell county court—I use those as examples because they are where my constituents have to travel since the wholesale court closures programme began—so they may not have experience of the difficulty of day-to-day business in the way that some members of this Committee will have as a result of dealing with their constituents’ legal problems.
How do we address that? The Minister’s earlier comments show that he is open to addressing the real concerns of people who are digitally excluded or who have practical difficulties even when dealing with relatively straightforward legal matters. One way to address that is to put matters in the Bill, as earlier amendments seek to do, but that appears to be a route that the Government do not wish to go down. The other way is to ensure that the committee has a range of experience and abilities, and includes those who have dealt with litigants’ practical problems on a daily basis, such as barristers, solicitors and legal executives. That is a sound and sensible way of dealing with this.
No one wishes to make committees too large, but it has been pointed out in briefings we have had from representatives of legal bodies that the Civil procedure rule committee has 16 members, including nine judges. This committee, despite a slight increase in size, is still much smaller than that, so the amendment does not seem unreasonable. We have had briefings about the Bill from the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Magistrates Association, who clearly know what they are talking about. It would be helpful if each of those bodies, or someone who represents those branches of the profession, were included. The same can be said of certain organisations, since we have had representations from Mind that people with disabilities are far more likely to be digitally excluded. Even among the general population, the estimate is around 18%. Those are not negligible figures.
I am not a luddite; I welcome matters being dealt with online where possible, and I was at least partially persuaded by the evidence that the Justice Committee heard that there may be more opportunities to litigate—that must be a good thing—because of the ease with which those who can use online systems can put matters forward. I am told there will be an effort to make forms simpler, to deal with those issues. That is all well and good, but a significant part of the population will find it difficult. It is right that their interests are protected and heard in the committee on an ongoing basis as it makes decisions. These amendments are modest and reasonable to achieve that aim.
I want to make one brief point: the jobs of barristers, solicitors, legal executives and magistrates are all very different. We need input on the effect on practitioners to be reflected in a committee that makes decisions that affect them all. We need to recognise the different roles in the committee that sets things up.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East points out that her amendment is common sense. When someone tells me that, it normally means that I should subject it to triple scrutiny. My antennae start to twitch at that concept.
The hon. Lady also said that she wanted a diverse committee. That probably means having slightly more than 10 people on it, which could well be a challenge too. The point made by the hon. Members for Hammersmith and for Wrexham was totally fair, and I hope to explain how the widest possible range of people, with experience germane to the issues that the committee will consider, can play the role in the committee that they seek.
The Government support the need for a small, focused and agile committee to make new court rules that are easy to understand and tailored for ordinary users. The committee will initially have six members, including a representative from the legal profession and members from the judiciary, IT and the lay advice sector. I believe that that set-up will allow for the creation of simple, effective rules that support all users throughout their journey.
It is not just the Government who have decided that that is the appropriate number but the judiciary. However, it is not set in stone. We recognise that sometimes a variety of expertise may be needed, so we expect that over time the Lord Chancellor will wish to make use of clause 7 to change the composition of the membership. The committee will need to draw on expertise from across disciplines and jurisdictional boundaries, reflecting the type of proceedings that are being considered at any moment in time.
We believe that that approach will allow us to ensure that rules are always made by those most suited to the task, without hampering the committee’s efficiency. As the first online procedure that the committee will consider will be online civil claims below £25,000, it seems sensible to begin with a committee best suited to developing procedures relative to that particular type of case. Furthermore, it should be noted that clause 8(1) requires the committee to
“consult such persons as they consider appropriate”.
That is another route to ensure that the committee will have access to the relevant knowledge and expertise needed.
Adopting amendment 3 would create an imbalance in the number of members who could be appointed by the Lord Chancellor in comparison with the number that could be appointed by the Lord Chief Justice. That is something that Members of the other place, and the previous Lord Chief Justices in particular, specifically did not want to happen. I therefore urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.
Amendments 4 and 5 propose adding a member to the committee to represent the views of people who are digitally excluded. I have heard the many representations made, and I agree that we must ensure that proper consideration is given to the needs of those who require support to access digital services. As colleagues will be aware, we amended the Bill in the other place to ensure that all members of the committee always consider the needs of those who struggle to engage digitally.
I fully agree that digital support for those who want to access online services but struggle to do so for a variety of reasons is paramount if the system is to be effective. The committee already includes someone with IT expertise and someone from the lay advice sector with knowledge of user-specific experience. Considering that, alongside the fact that all members must now consider the needs of digitally excluded people, I do not consider that the amendments are required.
It is also important to recall once again that clause 7 provides a power to vary the membership of the committee, so if in the future it was felt appropriate to reflect a particular expertise permanently on the committee, that can be provided for. Under clause 8, the committee must also consult those it considers appropriate, so can readily avail itself of any expertise needed. I therefore urge the hon. Lady not to press amendments 4 and 5, nor amendment 3.
We want the amendments to be put to a vote because we want to make it clear to the Government that these issues are important, and not only to us; they are fundamental to a proper Online procedure rule committee. Although the Minister says that the committee may do this and that, that is all open, and up in the air. We want concrete specifics, and for that to be written into the text of the Bill that such people must be part of the committee. Otherwise, the committee could say, “Well, we don’t need so and so. We don’t need such and such.” Alternatively, they might say, “If the Government wanted us to consult other people, or call on other people to become members of the committee, they would have put it in the legislation.” Because it is not in the legislation, there is no reason why they should be looking at other people. We say that the experience that legal executives, magistrates, solicitors, barristers and digitally excluded persons have is crucial to the committee, in being able to come up with a good set of rules. That is why it important to us to put these amendments to a vote.
(iii) one of whom must have experience representing the views of people who are digitally excluded.” —(Yasmin Qureshi.)
This amendment is consequential on the earlier amendment. The amendment would require a members of the Online procedure rule committee to have experience representing the views of people who are digitally excluded.”