The Online procedure rule committee

Part of Courts and Tribunals (Online Procedure) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith 10:00 am, 23rd July 2019

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.